Ships and boats are two of the oldest types of transportation and were first built thousands of years ago. Not only have ships and boats been used for transportation but additionally they’ve been used for a number of reasons including to transport cargo, fishing, as a type of defense from armed forces, sports, leisure, and relaxation. Today, ships, boats, and yachts are built using advanced technology and materials, differing greatly from those that have been used.

First Ships

A 3 meter long boat called Pesse canoe was constructed around 4,000 BCE in Netherlands; but more elaborate craft existed even earlier. A rock carving in Azerbaijan dating from 10,000 BCE shows a reed boat manned by about 20 paddlers.

However, without any doubt the very first sea worthy boats were likely built long before that, about 900,00 years ago, not Homo Sapiens (us) but by his predecessor Homo Erectus, a smart naked ape whom are long dead. By and large, it can easily stated that the very first ships and boats existed when the human kind gained consciousness. Boats played an important role in the commerce between the Indus Valley Civilization and Mesopotamia. Evidence of varying models of boats has also been discovered at various Indus Valley archaeological sites. Uru craft originate in Beypore, a village in south Calicut, Kerala, in southwestern India. This type of mammoth wooden ship was constructed solely teak, with a transport capacity of 400 tonnes. The ancient Arabs and Greeks used such boats as trading vessels.

4,000 – 2,500 BC: Ancient Egyptians

Egyptians used reeds to build what are though to be the first sailing boats in the world. The reed boats had sails and a mast which were used mainly on the Nile River. Around 2,500 BC, the ancient Egyptians began to build wooden boats that were able to withstand sailing across oceans.

1,550 BC: Ancient Canaan Civilization

Around this time, until about 300 BC, the Phoenicians of the Ancient Canaan Civilization (the area that is now Syria and Lebanon), used something called a galley. The galley was a sailing vessel that was powered by man and was used to both fight and trader with neighbors.

1000 AD: The Vikings

The vikings started to build longboats. These were larger ships that had sails and up to sixty men whose job it was to row the ship. The boats were large but were narrow and long, allowed them to travel along rivers as well as the open sea. Around the same time, the Chinese began to use boats that they called junks. Junks were boats that featured a rudder for steering in addition to watertight compartments and battens located on the sails that served to make them much stronger. The Chinese junks were used as transport and fighting ships, and were in use long before western ships that included such features.

1,450 – 1,800 BC: Wooden Ships and Boats

Starting around 1450 and for several centuries, wooden ships with three or four masts were in use by several different countries. These masted sailing ships were used as trade vessels, by explorers, to transport cargo, and as battleships. Charles II of England chose to use a yacht to carry him to the Netherlands from England for his restoration. Previously, yachts had been used by the Dutch navy. After Charles II used a yacht, they became vessels that were known to transport important persons. Clipper ships were built in the 1800s and were fast sailing ships, that featured tall masts, and slim, long hulls. The Black Ball Line was a shipping company that began offering passenger service from the United States to England.

1800s: The Developing Era For Shipbuilding

The state of art in naval architecture in the 1860s was well described by John Scott Russell, one of the founders of the Institution of Naval Architects (INA, later to become The Royal Institution of Naval Architects – RINA), in his “A Modern System of Naval Architecture”, published in 1865. These massive tomes weighing 50 kg together and costing 42 British pounds then (about 3000 pounds with today’s money) consist of one volume of test and two plates, the latter illustrating such vessels as Great Eastern built by Russell himself. The 1860s were still a period of transition, from sail to stream and wood to iron. Although steam propulsion dated back half a century for small wooden paddle steamers, 45% of the 500 ships over 100 built a year from 1859 to 1861 in British Isles were wood (43% by tonnage, 250,000 including naval vessels). Sail was still a significant part of output, 60% by number, 45% by tonnage. Of the 180 steamers built each year over 100 tones, 55 were paddle (30% by number, 21% by tonnage). The 1860s also saw steam applied to auxiliary machinery. The massive Great Eastern was found soon after completion to need steam steering gear, progressively extended to the larger steamships, although hand operated gear continued to be used in smaller coastal vessels into the 20th century. Steam powered deck winches with derricks were introduced (and even a few steam deck cranes), with steam for anchor windlasses and bilge pumps. Salt water ballast had long been recognised as more efficient and cheaper than sand or shingle which had to be laboriously loaded and discharged from wooden sailing vessels. Early designs included canvas bags in the bottom of the holds. But water ballast tanks integral with the ship’s structure were the way ahead, which were developed from about 1854. Coupled with steam driven pumps and piping systems, ballast handling time was greatly reduced, and seaworthiness improved, although there was usually insufficient capacity in double bottoms and peak tanks to fully immerse the large diameter slow revving propeller.

Into The Twentieth Century

The most significant enabling technology at the start of the 20th century was the introduction of the steam turbine. Although Charles Parsons is regarded as the pioneer, there were also designs prepared in the USA, Germany and Sweden. The turbine offered almost unlimited power compared with the steam reciprocator, and in a smaller engine room and with less vibration, although initially fuel consumption and cost were much the same. 

The early steam turbines were coal fired, so boiler capacity and firing rate were limitations on sustained power. Many new designs of watertube boiler were developed offering greater steam raising capacity, but few survived more than a few years, Babcock & Wilcox being one the most successful. 

1900s, successful designs of burner had been developed. From about 1914 all the major vessels of the Royal Navy used oil fuel, not just the newly developed submarine with its internal combustion engines. Although more expensive than coal either on a weight or calorific value basis, the weight of fuel was less, it could be stowed in awkward compartments like double bottoms, it greatly reduced the number of stokers to be carried, and it did away with the slow and dirty business of coaling ship. Higher powers also required improvements such as the compact reliable Michell thrust block.

Higher standards of subdivision in passenger ships were introduced in 1930. Particularly in passenger carrying ships (there was as yet little challenge from air transport) innovations were introduced such as partial air conditioning (first class passengers only!), fin stabilisers, gyro compasses and echo sounders. Nozzle propellers were installed in tugs to increase thrust, while the first controllable pitch propellers appeared in a few smaller ships. Crew accommodation slowly improved. Seamen moved from forecastle to poop (more space, lesser motions, drier), separate eating and washing places (with hot water!) were introduced, and refrigerators allowed a wider range of food to be stored – no more coops for live chickens or sheep! As yet number of crew remained high at 40-60 on a typical deep sea cargo ship, only showing a reduction in ships where oil replaced coal.

The last half of the 20th century saw the fastest ever evolution in ship development, with size increasing tenfold, more new ship types and the container revolutionising general cargo transport. On the naval side, the nuclear propelled submarine changed warfare for ever, both strategically and tactically. Postwar recovery saw a booming world economy, with oil replacing coal as the primary energy source. Tankers increased dramatically from the ‘three twelves’ of prewar (12,000dwt at 12knots on 12tons oil per day) to the first 50,000dwt in 1956 to the 200,000dwt Idemitsu Maru in 1962 culminating in the 550,000dwt giants of 1976 like Shell’s Batillus with a draft of around 28m – although the latter class proved too large and inflexible in service, and none remained in service long. Nearly all such vessels were built in building docks, some spanned by gantry cranes of up to 1000tonnes lifting capacity, enabling very large blocks and complete superstructures to be lifted. Ports expanded continually to accept such large vessels, with a corresponding demand for dredgers, usually suction, capable of as much as 30m (100ft) depth.

A particular enabling technology was computer aided design (CAD), initially used to mechanise tedious naval architectural hand calculations from the late 1950s, but soon applied to structural analysis where finite element methods allowed ever larger tankers to be designed with greater confidence. In due course CAD was linked with computer aided production methods with full product models associated with numerically controlled machine tools.

Post WW2 deep sea passenger vessels continued to be built in significant numbers. Innovations such as stabilisers and later bow thrusters made for a more comfortable voyage and easier manoeuvring. Bulbous bows were often fitted, tuned to their relatively high Froude number and near constant draft – later bulb shapes were developed for a much wider range of hull forms and drafts. Aluminium superstructures were introduced in the mid 1950s, which allowed an extra deck to be fitted without jeopardising stability, as well as doing away with troublesome expansion joints. But long distance passenger sea transport had been overtaken by air transport by the late 1950s, so by the late 1960s all the large liners had been scrapped or converted to cruising or become museum ships, as Queen Mary at Long Beach in 1968. But as that door closed, another opened, the purpose built cruise ship (not ‘cruise liner’, as they do not operate on a fixed route). Pioneered by Scandinavian owners, ever larger and more luxurious floating leisure centres developed into today’s 150,000gt plus monsters carrying over 4000 passengers – the 200,000gt/6000-pax barrier was broken in 2009. Technical problems requiring solution included structural integrity and safety with large open spaces like atriums, hotel electrical loads comparable with propulsion loads leading to diesel- electric systems, multiple thrusters (including stern as well as bow) and podded propulsors, improved fire protection, lifesaving appliances and subdivision.

Gas turbines have been the prime mover of choice for most high speed warships from the late 1960s, derived from aircraft jet engines, although the first seagoing (industrial) gas turbine was fitted in a British torpedo boat in 1947. High power-weight ratio, compactness, repair by replacement, reduced manning and quick starting have for military vessels outweighed the disadvantages of high fuel cost, few frame sizes, lack of reversibility (usually achieved by controllable pitch propellers), large uptakes and downtakes, and possible salt spray ingestion. Electric propulsion technology with high power density motors has increased the number of ships with full electric propulsion, especially those with a wide range of power demands, whether naval, commercial or offshore. Azimuthing thrusters have become the propulsor of choice for tugs, two giving great manoeuvrability under one-man control, hence a smaller crew.

But perhaps the most pervasive recent technical influence has been the ever increasing regulatory demands and standards. Coordinated by the International Maritime Organisation, the intent is to achieve international agreement before implementation by individual flag states, e.g. ballast water treatment. Classification societies, concerned with the integrity of hull and machinery systems, have expanded in number. The International Association of Classification Societies (IACS) tries to coordinate technical requirements through such means as Common Structural Rules for tankers. But the marine industries have for historical reasons had more fragmented regulatory regimes than land based national industries, so adoption of readily applicable best practice takes time. So perhaps what the marine industries need in the next decades is to focus enabling technologies on getting the best out of well established concepts like bulk carriers and diesel engines by improving operational efficiency and mitigating potential hazardous and environmental impacts of ships, but without jeopardising the technical and economic gains of the last 150 years, i.e. optimising benefit-cost ratios, not purely in monetary terms. The professional institutions have a continuing role in discussing and disseminating the best ways forward, largely using the English language, now universally adopted in the maritime industries.


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