Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships

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During the nineteenth century, the roughest but most important ocean passage in the world lay between Britain and the United States. Bridging the Atlantic Ocean by steamship was a defining, remarkable feat of the era. Over time, Atlantic steamships became the largest, most complex machines yet devised. They created a new transatlantic world of commerce and travel, reconciling former Anglo-American enemies and bringing millions of emigrants who transformed the United States. In Transatlantic, the experience of ...
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Overview

During the nineteenth century, the roughest but most important ocean passage in the world lay between Britain and the United States. Bridging the Atlantic Ocean by steamship was a defining, remarkable feat of the era. Over time, Atlantic steamships became the largest, most complex machines yet devised. They created a new transatlantic world of commerce and travel, reconciling former Anglo-American enemies and bringing millions of emigrants who transformed the United States. In Transatlantic, the experience of crossing the Atlantic is re-created in stunning detail from the varied perspectives of first class, steerage, officers, and crew. The dynamic evolution of the Atlantic steamer is traced from Brunel's Great Western of 1838 to Cunard's Mauretania of 1907, the greatest steamship ever built.
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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Transatlantic, Stephen Fox's lively social history, reminds you that engineering was once the stuff of romance, verging on the swashbuckling, never mind the dark Satanic mills. — Sarah Ferrell
Publishers Weekly
Freelance historian Fox chronicles the changes in transatlantic travel from 1820, when sailing ships took three weeks to cross the treacherous North Atlantic, through 1910, when huge steam-driven ocean liners made the passage in less than a week. No aspect of the remarkable transformation from wind to steam power is left unattended. Fox is as adept at explaining the engineering obstacles facing designers of efficient, safe steamships as he is at describing the charismatic personalities who drove the commercial rivalries and made the under-the-table agreements that dominated the industry. And there is ample drama in the story as steamship builders from Glasgow and London compete for prominence, ships race for the transatlantic crossing record and shipwrecks are caused by human folly and ill luck. For readers whose interest in the nuances of steam engines or paddle-wheel placement is limited, Fox also examines the human dynamics of a transatlantic crossing. His descriptions of the relationships between crew and passengers, first-class passengers and those in steerage, provide insights into the social milieu. The descriptions of life in steerage will intrigue the many Americans whose ancestors arrived after enduring the harrowing conditions, which, according to Fox, deteriorated noticeably in the 1880s, when the demographics of steerage passengers changed from western Europeans to eastern European and Jewish immigrants. Many readers will skip detailed descriptions of the interior dimensions and designs, the crossing times, and the tonnage and horsepower of a seemingly endless number of steamships. Still, Fox has fashioned a comprehensive and informative book. 32 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (July 4) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Fox (America's Invisible Gulag; UnCivil Liberties) presents a sweeping history of the great age of steamships, interspersed throughout with key events in the history of the renowned Cunard Line and the innovative engineering of Isambard Brunel's Great Western Steam Ship Company, which continue to influence this fascinating business. The vibrant story begins with the packet sailing ships in the 1600s and continues with steam-driven paddle wheelers; the Industrial Revolution's rapid advances in engineering; the onset of screw-driven liners; the design of bigger, faster, and more luxurious liners; and the never-satiated interest in getting more people more quickly across the Atlantic with the utmost attention. The experience of both passengers and crew in crossing the Atlantic is vividly re-created. On April 25, 2004, the Cunard Line will make history, with both its flagship QE 2 and its new $80 million Queen Mary 2 departing New York together for Europe, an event that will further heighten interest in this company. Fox fills in the beginnings of this business, not covered in William H. Miller's Transatlantic Liners, 1945-1980, and provides a timely update to N.R.P. Bonsor's classic, four-volume North Atlantic Seaway. Thoroughly researched, this title is essential for all steamship and maritime history collections in academic and larger public libraries.-Dale Farris, Groves, TX Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A lively, well-researched history of the race, technological and commercial, to send steam-powered vessels across the pond. Canadian entrepreneur Samuel Cunard and British engineer Isambard Brunel independently recognized how difficult achieving such a goal would be, writes Fox (Big Leagues, 1994): the technology of steam-driven engines, introduced a generation before, was certainly perfectible and adaptable to the task, but the Atlantic Ocean posed its own challenges in the form of huge storms and swift currents; "the Atlantic to America," Cunard remarked, "is the worst navigation in the world. The westerly winds prevail very much, and you have ice and fog to contend with." Still, with the sweeping successes of the railroad and the fortunes it promised, both men labored endlessly, though with different approaches, to find the investors and equipment to make the passage possible. Brunel, who suffered from seasickness and never undertook an ocean voyage until the last year of his long life, introduced brute-force designs, with alloy hulls and screws to do Archimedes proud, that seem intended to cow the sea into submission, and his huge steam vessel, the Great Western, was the first to cross the waters in 1838; Cunard, more concerned with creature comforts and elegance, settled for second place in the race, but built a great fleet of ships that were the finest of their time. One fan of Cunard's fleet was Mark Twain, who luxuriated aboard ships such as the Batavia on his world tours, but who was quick to shift loyalties when a competitor, the Inman Line, launched the still more elegant City of Chester in 1873. Though synonymous with ocean crossing, the Cunard Line fell into neglect with thedeath of Samuel and transfer of ownership to his uninterested sons. The company would make a memorable comeback, however, in the early 1900s with two magnificent ships-the Mauretania and her ill-fated sister, Lusitania. Fine reading for an ocean cruise. Agent: Robin Strauss
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060195953
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 7/1/2003
  • Pages: 512
  • Product dimensions: 6.34 (w) x 9.34 (h) x 1.61 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Fox, a freelance historian, is the author of five previous books. He lives near Boston, Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt

Transatlantic

Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships
By Stephen Fox

Harper Collins Publishers

Copyright © 2003 Stephen Fox All right reserved. ISBN: 0060195959

Chapter One

The Sailing Packets

Before steamships started crossing the North Atlantic, the best way to travel between Europe and America was by the sailing ships called packets. Built and run mainly by Americans, the packet lines introduced new concepts and comfort levels for ocean voyages. They dominated the transatlantic traffic for decades, setting key precedents for the steamships that eventually replaced them. Along with their more famous contemporaries, the whaling and clipper ships, they comprised the golden age of American sail. Of these three types, the packets lasted the longest and made the most voyages and money for their owners and crews. Yet today whalers and clippers remain drenched in popular legend, while the packets are scarcely known beyond dedicated circles of ship buffs. No packet builder ever became as famous as Donald McKay with his clippers, and no novelist ever wrote a Moby Dick about the packets. They just did their jobs quietly and well, year after year, and then passed into the historical obscurity reserved for predictable competence.

A group of textile importers in New York started the first packet line. The main founder, Jeremiah Thompson, was anEnglish immigrant from Yorkshire who had come to New York at age seventeen in 1801 to join his uncle in representing the family's woolen manufacturing business. From that base they engaged in shipping and shipowning with three local associates. These five men all lived near the waterfront at the southern tip of Manhattan. Four of them were Quakers. (Jeremiah Thompson, an active Friend, was an officer in the New York Manumission Society, dedicated to freeing slaves; but he also made a fortune by exporting raw cotton, grown in the American South by slave labor.)

Thompson had a breakthrough idea for improving ocean travel. At the time, a shipowner might advertise a ship's day of departure, but the captain would then wait until enough cargo and passengers had been loaded, and wind and weather seemed favorable, before weighing anchor. A passenger hoping to embark might have to hang around the docks, spending money on food and lodging and wasting time, for a week or more. Thompson, dealing in volatile markets for finished imports and raw exports, wanted faster, more reliable service. He conceived the notion of a transatlantic ship "line": several vessels under coordinated private management, sailing on known dates between established ports, and locked into an unchanging departure schedule for the foreseeable future.

In the fall of 1817, the Thompsons and their three associates placed a notice in New York's newspapers. "In order to furnish frequent and regular conveyances for GOODS and PASSENGERS," they announced, "the subscribers have undertaken to establish a line of vessels between NEW-YORK and LIVERPOOL, to sail from each place on a certain day in every month throughout the year." They listed the line's first four ships: three-masted and square-rigged, and larger than average size for their time at around 110 feet long and 400 tons. The Pacific, launched in 1807 and the oldest of the four, was especially fast; earlier that year she had made a run to Liverpool in only seventeen days. "These ships have all been built in New-York, of the best materials," the owners asserted. "They are known to be remarkably fast sailers, and their accommodations for passengers are uncommonly extensive and commodious." Thompson and his partners were promising a daring trifecta of speed, comfort, and predictability - qualities previously unknown on the North Atlantic.

The first two ships of the line sailed from New York and Liverpool in January 1818. For identification they showed a large black ball painted on their fore topsail, at the highest point of the first mast. The "Black Ball Line" at once earned a tight reputation for minding the calendar. Fighting winter gales, the Pacific made a slow return trip to New York of forty-eight days; she was then unloaded and reloaded in an impossibly short six days and left for Liverpool as scheduled on the fifth of April. Later that year, the Black Ball's Courier on leaving Liverpool met the Pacific coming in, and when approaching New York met the Black Baller Amity going out. The line added more ships, allowing two sailings a month each way. For any eastbound trip under twenty-two days or westbound run under thirty-five, Jeremiah Thompson gave the captain a new coat, with a dress for his wife. After two years, even Niles' Weekly Register, from the rival port of Baltimore, had to concede that the Black Ball ships were running with the speed and almost the regularity of a horse-drawn mail coach. "Such steadiness and despatch is truly astonishing," said the Register, "and, in a former age, would have been incredible."

Success brought competition. Atlantic packet lines started running from Philadelphia and Boston. Early in 1824, the Boston line's Emerald caught a rare easterly gale and rode it all the way home from Liverpool in an astonishing seventeen days, a westward record for years. In New York, the Red Star and Blue Swallowtail lines competed directly with Black Ball. Other new lines ran to London and to Le Havre on the northern coast of France. The sharp rivalry among all these lines added another new concept to transatlantic travel. Ship technologies in Europe and America had been essentially static for some two hundred years; conservative builders and owners resisted innovations and kept turning out the same old models. Packet competition kicked ship design into the progressive nineteenth century. Constructed mainly in shipyards along the East River in New York, ever bigger and fancier, the new packets became the largest and finest ships yet built in America, evolving more quickly than any other type of vessel.

Black Ball set the initial pace. The Canada, 132 feet and 545 tons, was launched in March 1823. "We have never examined a ship which was in all respects equal to her," said a local newspaper. Her dining cabin offered polished mahogany tables and pillars, sofas, and plush crimson draperies ...

(Continues...)


Excerpted from Transatlantic by Stephen Fox
Copyright © 2003 by Stephen Fox
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: The North Atlantic Ocean and the Britannia
Pt. 1 The Packet Ship Era, 1820-1840
1 The Sailing Packets 3
2 Steam on Water 17
Pt. 2 The Era of Cunard Domination, 1840-1870
3 Ships as Enterprise: Samuel Cunard of Halifax 39
4 Ships as Engineering: Isambard Kingdom Brunel 56
5 The Cunard Line 84
6 The Collins Line 112
7 Distinguished Failures 140
8 Emigration and the Inman Line 168
9 Life on a Steamer 196
Pt. 3 The Era of Steamship Competition, 1870-1910
10 The White Star Line 229
11 Competition and Invention 254
12 Ships as Buildings: Two Cycles to Cunard 278
13 Ships as Towns: Officers, Crew, Steerage 310
14 Anglo-Americans 336
15 Germans 361
16 The Two Finest Cunarders 386
Notes 415
Acknowledgments 469
Index 471
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First Chapter

Transatlantic
Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships

Chapter One

The Sailing Packets

Before steamships started crossing the North Atlantic, the best way to travel between Europe and America was by the sailing ships called packets. Built and run mainly by Americans, the packet lines introduced new concepts and comfort levels for ocean voyages. They dominated the transatlantic traffic for decades, setting key precedents for the steamships that eventually replaced them. Along with their more famous contemporaries, the whaling and clipper ships, they comprised the golden age of American sail. Of these three types, the packets lasted the longest and made the most voyages and money for their owners and crews. Yet today whalers and clippers remain drenched in popular legend, while the packets are scarcely known beyond dedicated circles of ship buffs. No packet builder ever became as famous as Donald McKay with his clippers, and no novelist ever wrote a Moby Dick about the packets. They just did their jobs quietly and well, year after year, and then passed into the historical obscurity reserved for predictable competence.

A group of textile importers in New York started the first packet line. The main founder, Jeremiah Thompson, was an English immigrant from Yorkshire who had come to New York at age seventeen in 1801 to join his uncle in representing the family's woolen manufacturing business. From that base they engaged in shipping and shipowning with three local associates. These five men all lived near the waterfront at the southern tip of Manhattan. Four of them were Quakers. (Jeremiah Thompson, an active Friend, was an officer in the New York Manumission Society, dedicated to freeing slaves; but he also made a fortune by exporting raw cotton, grown in the American South by slave labor.)

Thompson had a breakthrough idea for improving ocean travel. At the time, a shipowner might advertise a ship's day of departure, but the captain would then wait until enough cargo and passengers had been loaded, and wind and weather seemed favorable, before weighing anchor. A passenger hoping to embark might have to hang around the docks, spending money on food and lodging and wasting time, for a week or more. Thompson, dealing in volatile markets for finished imports and raw exports, wanted faster, more reliable service. He conceived the notion of a transatlantic ship "line": several vessels under coordinated private management, sailing on known dates between established ports, and locked into an unchanging departure schedule for the foreseeable future.

In the fall of 1817, the Thompsons and their three associates placed a notice in New York's newspapers. "In order to furnish frequent and regular conveyances for GOODS and PASSENGERS," they announced, "the subscribers have undertaken to establish a line of vessels between NEW-YORK and LIVERPOOL, to sail from each place on a certain day in every month throughout the year." They listed the line's first four ships: three-masted and square-rigged, and larger than average size for their time at around 110 feet long and 400 tons. The Pacific, launched in 1807 and the oldest of the four, was especially fast; earlier that year she had made a run to Liverpool in only seventeen days. "These ships have all been built in New-York, of the best materials," the owners asserted. "They are known to be remarkably fast sailers, and their accommodations for passengers are uncommonly extensive and commodious." Thompson and his partners were promising a daring trifecta of speed, comfort, and predictability -- qualities previously unknown on the North Atlantic.

The first two ships of the line sailed from New York and Liverpool in January 1818. For identification they showed a large black ball painted on their fore topsail, at the highest point of the first mast. The "Black Ball Line" at once earned a tight reputation for minding the calendar. Fighting winter gales, the Pacific made a slow return trip to New York of forty-eight days; she was then unloaded and reloaded in an impossibly short six days and left for Liverpool as scheduled on the fifth of April. Later that year, the Black Ball's Courier on leaving Liverpool met the Pacific coming in, and when approaching New York met the Black Baller Amity going out. The line added more ships, allowing two sailings a month each way. For any eastbound trip under twenty-two days or westbound run under thirty-five, Jeremiah Thompson gave the captain a new coat, with a dress for his wife. After two years, even Niles' Weekly Register, from the rival port of Baltimore, had to concede that the Black Ball ships were running with the speed and almost the regularity of a horse-drawn mail coach. "Such steadiness and despatch is truly astonishing," said the Register, "and, in a former age, would have been incredible."

Success brought competition. Atlantic packet lines started running from Philadelphia and Boston. Early in 1824, the Boston line's Emerald caught a rare easterly gale and rode it all the way home from Liverpool in an astonishing seventeen days, a westward record for years. In New York, the Red Star and Blue Swallowtail lines competed directly with Black Ball. Other new lines ran to London and to Le Havre on the northern coast of France. The sharp rivalry among all these lines added another new concept to transatlantic travel. Ship technologies in Europe and America had been essentially static for some two hundred years; conservative builders and owners resisted innovations and kept turning out the same old models. Packet competition kicked ship design into the progressive nineteenth century. Constructed mainly in shipyards along the East River in New York, ever bigger and fancier, the new packets became the largest and finest ships yet built in America, evolving more quickly than any other type of vessel.

Black Ball set the initial pace. The Canada, 132 feet and 545 tons, was launched in March 1823. "We have never examined a ship which was in all respects equal to her," said a local newspaper. Her dining cabin offered polished mahogany tables and pillars, sofas, and plush crimson draperies ...

Transatlantic
Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships
. Copyright © by Stephen Fox. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 23, 2003

    Three Cheers for Transatlantic!

    Fox does a wonderful job of bringing to life the dynamic history of transatlantic steamship travel in the 19th Century. Although the title suggests a focus on two individuals (Samuel Cunard and Isambard Kingdom Brunel), in fact Fox offers an in depth portrait of life in the world of translatlantic steamers, from first class passengers, lowly stokers and ship captains to maritime engineers, ship builders and shipping line directors. A must read for anyone interested in learning more about how steam power transformed transatlantic travel from a unpredictable and dangerous passage into a dependable, even luxurious experience.

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