A paddle steamer is a ship driven by one or more paddle wheels driven by a steam engine. The paddle steamer is obsolete technology and few if any have been built since the 1940s.

The paddle wheel is a large wheel, generally built of a steel framework, upon the outer edge of which are fitted numerous paddle blades (called floats). The wheel is placed in the water so that the bottom quarter or so is underwater. Rotation of the paddle wheel produces thrust, forwards or backwards as required. More advanced paddle wheel designs have featured feathering methods that keep the paddle blade pointing closer to vertically downwards during the period it's in the water; this increases efficiency.

Early Developments

The first paddle steamer was the Pyroscaphe built by Marquis Claude de Jouffroy of Lyons in France, built in 1783. It had a horizontal double-acting steam engine driving two 13.1 ft paddle wheels on the sides of the craft. On July 15, 1783 it steamed successfully up the Saône for fifteen minutes before the engine failed. Political events disturbed further development.

The next attempt at a paddle-driven steam ship was by the Scottish engineer William Symington. Experimental boats built in 1788 and 1789 worked successfully; in 1802, Symington built a barge-hauler, Charlotte Dundas, for the Forth and Clyde Canal Company. It successfully hauled two 70-ton barges almost 20 miles in 6 hours against a strong headwind on test. There was much enthusiasm, but some directors of the company were concerned about the banks of the canal being damaged by the wash from a powered vessel, and no more were ordered.

While Charlotte Dundas was the first commercial paddle-steamer and steamboat, the first commercial success was possibly Robert Fulton's North River Steam Boat in New York, which went into commercial service in 1807 between New York and Albany. Many other paddle-equipped river boats followed all round the world.

Seagoing Paddle Steamers

The first sea-going trip of a paddle steamer was the Albany, which was sailed from the Hudson River around the coast to the Delaware River in 1808. This was purely for the purposes of moving a river-boat to a new market, but the use of paddle-steamers for short coastal trips began soon after that.

The first paddle-steamer to make a long ocean voyage was the Savannah, built in 1819 expressly for this service. Savannah set sail for Liverpool on May 22, 1819, sighting Ireland after 23 days at sea. This was the first powered crossing of the Atlantic, although Savannah also carried a full rig of sail to assist the engines when winds were favorable.

The Sirius in 1838, a fairly small steam packet built for the Cork to London route, became the first vessel to cross the Atlantic under sustained steam power, beating Isambard Kingdom Brunel's much larger Great Western by a day. Great Western, however, was actually built for the transatlantic trade, and its crossing began the regular sailing of powered vessels across the Atlantic.

In oceangoing service, the paddle steamer became obsolete rather quickly with the invention of the screw propeller, but they remained in use in coastal service, thanks to their shallow draught and good maneuverability.

Types of Paddle Steamer

There are two basic ways to mount paddle wheels on a ship; a single wheel on the rear, known as a stern-wheeler, and two paddle wheels on the sides, known as a side-wheeler.

Stern-wheelers have generally been used as riverboats, especially in the United States, where they still operate for tourist use primarily on the Mississippi River. On a river, the narrowness of a stern-wheeler is preferable.

Side-wheelers, meanwhile, have also been used as riverboats, but also commonly as coastal craft. While wider than a stern-wheeler thanks to the extra width of the paddle wheels and their enclosing pontoons, the side-wheeler has extra maneuverability thanks to the common ability to direct the drive to only one wheel at a time.

Paddle steamers today

Being a long obsolete technology, the few paddle steamers still operating are deliberate anachronisms, preserved for tourists or as museums. Some paddle steamers still operate on the Mississippi River, as do a couple in the United Kingdom; the coastal paddle steamer PS Waverley, built for service in the Firth of Clyde, is the last seagoing paddle steamer in operation anywhere in the world. It belonged to a commercial ferry company until 1973, at which point it was purchased by a preservation society as an operating museum piece. It sails occasionally in the summer from various British ports. In Norway, the oldest paddle steamer in scheduled service, Skibladner, operates on the large lake of Mjøsa.

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