The Great Debate: Which Steamship was First to Cross the Atlantic?

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Frank L. McGuire Maritime Library

Writers of maritime history sometimes mention the S.S. Savannah as the first ship to cross the Atlantic using steam power, but for some reason her achievement in 1819 under Captain Moses Rogers is not as well known as such famous American achievements as Robert Fulton's first commercially successful steamboat (1807), completion of the transcontinental railroad (1869), or Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight to Paris (1927.)

It has been argued that because Savannah used her engine for only a fraction of the 27-day crossing, she doesn’t deserve special recognition. But as maritime historian Frank O. Braynard points out in his book, "The fact that she did use her sails a great part of the time was quite natural. The first eighty steamships of the Cunard Line, founded two decades after the Savannah, all had and used sails."

To the British Sirius goes the title of first crossing under continuous steam power, in 1838, but there is no question that Savannah’s crossing, nineteen years before, was the first in which steam power was used. Her doughty little engine, linked to paddlewheels, was fired up at sea when needed and, far more visibly, during demonstrations Capt. Rogers conducted off Liverpool, Stockholm, and St. Petersburg witnessed by observers on the shore as well as the guests invited aboard to see the ship's engine and paddlewheels close up.

Tom Garrett, a former New Londoner now working as a journalist in Arizona, has long championed the cause of the Savannah among the other early steamships: 

"The only honest way to view the matter, I feel, is to give each ship credit for what it did. There is no doubt that the Savannah made the first ocean voyage using steam power in any way, shape, or manner. Doing it proved the viability of the steam engine for powering ships at sea.  It also clearly demonstrated to anyone who asked to see it (particularly the Swedes and the Russians) that steam could propel ships when the winds were "contrary," as Benjamin Franklin so often put it in his 1726 Journal of Occurrences."

Others credited with "first steam-powered crossing" are the Curacao, a Dutch vessel that sailed from Holland to Surinam in 1827; and the Royal William, a Canadian ship that crossed to England in 1833 almost entirely with steam power.

The Great Debate: Which Steamship was First to Cross the Atlantic?