Today in 1819, the Age of Steam knocked on the door of the Age of Sail. Moses and Stevens Rogers of New London began the first steam-powered voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in their hybrid steam-and-sail-powered ship S.S. Savannah. It was a voyage considered so risky, not a single paying passenger could be found to accompany the crew.
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 Savannah — named after its home port — 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 paddle wheels. This enabled her to maneuver under wind or steam power, which the Rogers believed would significantly shorten the duration of the trans-Atlantic crossing.
As soon as the Savannah was complete, the Rogers brothers began planning their first ocean-crossing voyage. Despite their best efforts, they could find no one willing to pay to take a month-long journey on their experimental vessel. Even experienced seamen balked at the invitation to help make nautical history. The Rogers had to take the ship to their hometown of New London just to find a crew willing to undertake the risky venture. Once a crew was signed, they returned the Savannah to its namesake port in Georgia, where it was graced with a brief visit from President James Monroe before steaming off for England.
Even then, it seemed ill fated. After they announced a scheduled departure of May 20th, the Rogers delayed sailing for two days when a drunken crew member fell off the gang plank while boarding the vessel and drowned. It’s departure two days later – considered by many the official departure date – was really just a short trip to Tybee Island off the Savannah coast, where the ship anchored to better organize for the voyage. Finally, at 5 a.m. on May 24th, the Rogers brothers and their crew –but not one passenger — began crossing the Atlantic. Enduring rough weather for the entire 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 as the first steamship to cross the Atlantic, passengers remained skittish about the safety of steam-powered ocean vessels. It would be nearly 30 years before another American steamship would attempt a trans-Atlantic voyage.
“Steaming Across the Atlantic,” connecticuthistory.org