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A paddle steamer is a ship or boat driven by a steam engine that uses one or more paddle wheels to develop thrust for propulsion. It is also a type of steamboat. Boats with paddle wheels on the sides are termed sidewheelers, while those with a single wheel on the stern are known as sternwheelers. Paddle steamers usually carry the prefix "PS". Although generally associated with steam power, paddleboats or paddlewheelers have also been driven by diesel engines, animal power, or human power.

The paddle wheel was the first form of mechanical propulsion for a boat, but has now been almost entirely superseded by the screw propeller and other, more modern, forms of marine propulsion.

Paddle wheels

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 or buckets). The bottom quarter or so of the wheel travels underwater. Rotation of the paddle wheel produces thrust, forward or backward as required. More advanced paddle wheel designs have featured feathering methods that keep each paddle blade oriented closer to vertical while it is in the water; this increases efficiency. The upper part of a paddle wheel is normally enclosed in a paddlebox to minimise splashing.

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 a paddle wheel on each side, known as a side-wheeler.

Stern-wheelers have generally been used as riverboat in the United States where they still operate for tourist use on the Mississippi River.

Side-wheelers are used as riverboats and as coastal craft. While wider than a stern-wheeler, due to the extra width of the paddle wheels and their enclosing pontoons, a side-wheeler has extra maneuverability. Due to this extra maneuverability side-wheelers were more popular on the narrower, windy rivers of the Murray-Darling system in Australia where a number are still in operation today.

Early developments

The use of a paddle wheel in navigation appears for the first time in the mechanical treatise of the Roman engineer Vitruvius (De architectura, X 9.5-7), where he describes multi-geared paddle wheels working as a ship odometer. The first mention of paddle wheels as a means of propulsion comes from the 4th–5th century military treatise De Rebus Bellicis (chapter XVII), where the anonymous Roman author describes an ox-driven paddle-wheel warship:

Robert Temple asserts that the first mention of a paddle-wheel ship from China is described in the History of the Southern Dynasties, compiled in the 7th century but describing the naval ships of the Liu Song Dynasty (420–479) used by admiral Wang Zhene in his campaign against the Qiang people in 418 AD. Temple also writes that the mathematician and astronomer Zu Chongzhi (429–500) had a paddle-wheel ship built on the Xinting River (south of Nanjingmarker) known as the "thousand league boat". When campaigning against Hou Jing in 552, the Liang Dynasty (502–557) admiral Xu Shipu employed paddle-wheel boats called "water-wheel boats". At the siege of Liyang in 573, the admiral Huang Faqiu employed foot-treadle powered paddle-wheel boats. A successful paddle-wheel warship design was made in China by Prince Li Gao in 784 AD, during an imperial examination of the provinces by the Tang Dynasty (618–907) emperor. The Chinese Song Dynasty (960–1279) issued the construction of many paddle-wheel ships for its standing navy, and according to historian Joseph Needham:

"...between 1132 and 1183 (AD) a great number of treadmill-operated paddle-wheel craft, large and small, were built, including stern-wheelers and ships with as many as 11 paddle-wheels a side,” .

Temple writes that the standard Chinese term "wheel ship" was used by the Song period, whereas a litany of colorful terms were used to describe it beforehand. In the 12th century, the Song government used paddle-wheel ships en masse to defeat opposing armies of pirates armed with their own paddle-wheel ships. At the Battle of Caishi in 1161, paddle-wheelers were also used with great success against the Jin Dynasty (1115–1234) navy. The Chinese used the paddle-wheel ship even during the First Opium War (1839–1842) and for transport around the Pearl Rivermarker during the early 20th century.

In 1543 the Spanish engineer Blasco de Garay in Barcelonamarker made an experimental vessel propelled by a paddle-wheel on each side, worked by forty men. In the same year he showed Carlos I of Spain (also known as Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor), a new idea - a ship propelled by a giant wheel powered by steam. Carlos was not interested in it.

In 1787 Patrick Miller of Dalswinton invented a double-hulled boat, which was propelled on the Firth of Forthmarker by men working a capstan whichdrove paddles on each side.

The first paddle steamer was the Pyroscaphe built by Marquis Claude de Jouffroy of Lyonmarker in Francemarker, in 1783. It had a horizontal double-acting steam engine driving two 13.1-ft (4 m) 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 interrupted further development.

The next successful attempt at a paddle-driven steam ship was by the Scottishmarker engineer William Symington who suggested steam power to Patrick Miller of Dalswinton. Experimental boats built in 1788 and 1789 worked successfully on Lochmabenmarker Loch. In 1802, Symington built a barge-hauler, Charlotte Dundas, for the Forth and Clyde Canal Companymarker. It successfully hauled two 70-ton barges almost 20 miles (30 km) in 6 hours against a strong headwind on test in 1802. 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 Clermont in New Yorkmarker, which went into commercial service in 1807 between New York City and Albanymarker. Many other paddle-equipped river boats followed all around the world.

Seagoing paddle steamers

The first seagoing trip of a paddle steamer was that in 1808 of the Albany', which steamed from the Hudson River along the coast to the Delaware River. This was purely for the purpose 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 SS Savannah, built in 1819 expressly for this service. Savannah set out for Liverpoolmarker 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. In 1822, Charles Napier's Aaron Manby, the world's first iron ship, made the first direct steam crossing from London to Paris and the first seagoing voyage by an iron ship anywhere.
In 1838, Sirius, a fairly small steam packet built for the Corkmarker to Londonmarker route, became the first vessel to cross the Atlanticmarker 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 so had sufficient coal for the passage; Sirius had to burn furniture and other items after running out of coal. The Great Western’s more successful crossing began the regular sailing of powered vessels across the Atlantic. Beaver was the first coastal steamship to operate in the Pacific Northwest of North America. Paddle steamers helped open Japan to the Western World in the mid-19th century.

The largest paddle-steamer ever built was Brunel's Great Eastern, but it also had screw propulsion and sail rigging. It was 692 ft (211 m) long and weighed 32,000 tons, its paddle-wheels being 56 ft (17 m) in diameter.

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

Modern paddle steamers

Few original paddle steamers remain in existence, and those that do are mainly preserved for tourists or as museums. Some paddle steamers, such as the Delta Queenmarker, still operate on the Mississippi River and Willamette River, as do a few in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe.

The Washington Irving, built in 1912 by the New York Shipbuilding Companymarker, was the biggest passenger-carrying riverboat ever built with a capacity for 6,000 passengers. It was operated on the Hudson River from 1913 until it was sunk in an accident in 1926. One of the last paddle steamers built in the U.S. was the dredge William M.marker Blackmarker, built in 1934 and now a National Historic Landmark.

PS Waverley, built in 1947, is the last seagoing paddle steamer in the world. This ship sails a full season of cruises every year from ports around Britainmarker, and has sailed across the English Channelmarker to commemorate the sinking of her predecessor of 1899 at the Battle of Dunkirk.
PS Skibladner is the oldest steamship in regular operation. Built in 1856, she still operates on lake Mjøsamarker in Norwaymarker.

PS Adelaide is the oldest wooden-hulled paddle steamer in the world. Built in 1866, she operates from the Port of Echucamarker, on Australia's Murray River, which has the largest fleet of paddle steamers in the world. The paddle steamer Curlip is currently being reconstructed in Gippsland Australia.

The Elbe river Saxon Paddle Steamer Fleet in Dresdenmarker (known as "White Fleet"), Germany, is said to be the oldest and biggest in the world, with around 700.000 passengers per year. The 1913-built Goethe was the last paddle steamer on the River Rhinemarker.Previously the world's greatest sidewheeler with a 2-cylinder steam engine of , a length of 83 m and a height above water of 9.2 m, the Goethe was converted to Diesel-Hydraulic power during the winter of 2008/09.

Switzerlandmarker has a large paddle steamer fleet, most of the "Salon Steamer-type" built by Sulzer in Winterthurmarker or Escher-Wyss in Zürichmarker. There are five active and one inactive on Lake Lucernemarker, two on Lake Zürich, and one each on Lake Brienzmarker, Lake Thunmarker and Lake Constancemarker. Swiss company CGN operates a number of paddle steamers on Lake Genevamarker. Their fleet includes three converted to diesel electric power in the 1960s and five retaining steam. One, Montreux, was reconverted in 2000 from diesel to an all-new steam engine. It is the world's first electronically remote-controlled steam engine and has operating costs similar to state-of-the-art diesels, while producing up to 90 percent less air pollution .

In the USSRmarker, river paddle steamers of the type Iosif Stalin (project 373), later renamed Ryazan-class steamships, were built until 1951. Between 1952 and 1959, ships of this type were build for the Soviet Union by Obuda Hajogyar Budapest factory in Hungary. In total, 75 type Iosif Stalin/Ryazan side-wheelers were built. 'They are 70 m long and can carry up to 360 passengers. Few of them still remain in active service.

In Italy, a small paddle steamer fleet operates on Lake Comomarker and Lake Gardamarker, primarily for the benefit of tourists.

On the Isle of Wightmarker, PS Monarch (one of the smallest passenger-carrying vessels of her type) takes trips on the River Medina. Monarch is a side wheeler built at Chatham Historic Dockyard in Kentmarker.

The restored paddle steamer Waimarie is based in Wanganuimarker, New Zealandmarker. The Waimarie was built in kitset form in Poplar, Londonmarker in 1899, and originally operated on the Whanganui River under the name Aotea. Later renamed, she remained in service until 1949. She sank at her moorings in 1952, and remained in the mud until raised by volunteers and restored to begin operations again in 2000.

Paddle tugs

The Britishmarker Admiralty used diesel-electric paddle tugs in recent times. Each paddle wheel was driven by an individual electric motor, giving outstanding maneuverability.

See also


Bayou Navigation in Dixie, 1863
  1. Temple, 192.
  2. Needham, Volume 4, Part 3, 31.
  3. Temple, 193.
  4. Needham, 476
  5. Temple, 194.
  6. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 165–166.
  7. Kurlansky, Mark. 1999. The Basque History of the World. Walker & Company, New York. ISBN 0-8027-1349-1, p. 56
  8. Men of Iron : Brunel, Stephenson and the Inventions That Shaped the Modern World by Sally Dugan ISBN 978-1405034265
  9. Str. Portland
  10. Oregon Maritime Museum
  11. (the biggest and oldest)
  14. Russian river ships (in English)
  15. Russian passenger river fleet (in Russian)
  16. Whanganui River Boat Centre


  • Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Part 3, Civil Engineering and Nautics. Taipei: Caves Books, Ltd.
  • Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Part 7, Military Technology; The Gunpowder Epic. Taipei: Caves Books, Ltd.
  • Temple, Robert. (1986). The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention. With a forward by Joseph Needham. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc. ISBN 0671620282.
  • University of Wisconsin–La Crosse Historic Steamboat Photographs

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