May 24: The First Steam-Powered Ship to Cross the Atlantic

 

On this day in 1819, yet another chapter in Connecticut innovation was launched when Moses and Stevens Rogers of New London set sail on what would become the first steam-powered ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

Steam-powered technology was still in its infancy in 1818, when sea captain and entrepreneur Moses Rogers convinced investors in Georgia to finance his idea for a hybrid steam-powered sailing ship, the S. S. Savannah.  The Savannah was originally designed to be a “packet ship” — a tall-masted sailing ship that would regularly transport mail, passengers, and light cargo across the Atlantic.  Thanks to the efforts of Moses Rogers and his brother-in-law Stevens Rogers, the Savannah was also outfitted with a steam engine and retractable side paddlewheels, enabling her to maneuver under wind or steam power.

An engraving of the SS Savannah.

As soon as the Savannah was complete, the Rogers brothers began planning their first transatlantic voyage.  Unsurprisingly, despite their best efforts, they were unable to find a single passenger willing to take a month-long journey on their experimental, steam-powered vessel.  Even experienced seamen balked at the invitation to help operate the ship; the Rogers’ had to return to their hometown of New London in order to find a crew willing to undertake the risky venture.  Once a crew was signed, the Savannah returned to its namesake port in Georgia, where it was graced with a brief visit from President James Madison before setting sail for England.

On May 24, 1819, the Rogers brothers and their crew — without a single passenger — set sail from Savannah, Georgia.  Enduring rough weather for the duration of their voyage, the Savannah’s crew was forced to rely on sail power for the majority of the 29-day trip, only logging 80 hours of steam-engine use.  The hybrid vessel arrived in Liverpool, England in mid-June to great fanfare, and visited several ports in Europe before sailing back to the United States.  Despite the Savannah’s success in becoming the first steamship to cross the Atlantic, passengers remained skittish about the viability and safety of steam-powered ocean vessels; it would be nearly 30 years before another American steamship would even attempt to make the voyage.

Further Reading

Steaming Across the Atlantic,” connecticuthistory.org