Anthony Young is a freelance writer based in Miami.
The Industrial Revolution, which brought about the age of steam, transformed ocean travel and shipping in the nineteenth century. It resulted in a paradigm shift in the size of ships and the speed with which they could cross the oceans. With this shift from sail to steam came a shift from wood to iron and steel. The skills, trades, and businesses needed to build these steamships grew dramatically as a result, providing employment for thousands of workers in Europe and North America in the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century. Ocean travel would only be eclipsed by the advent of flight.
The demand for travel and shipment of cargo spurred this technological shift, but there was another, often overlooked factor that drove the push to larger and faster ships: the mail. Everything from personal correspondence to important documents of all kinds could be delivered between Europe and the Americas only by oceangoing ships. Even in the mid-nineteenth century, the concept of “time-sensitive material” existed. Before the age of steam, the time to deliver mail between the European and North and South American continents literally depended on the wind. A typical crossing could take more than a month. A fixed timetable was impossible to establish.
In the late 1830s, the British Admiralty invited offers for monthly steamship service between Liverpool and North America for the delivery of mail. Samuel Cunard won the contract by assuring the Admiralty and investors that the mail and passengers would cross the Atlantic on better steamships than theretofore built, depart on time, and arrive precisely as scheduled, all with strict adherence to safety. The British and North American Royal Mail Steam-Packet Company was founded on the motto “Speed, Comfort and Safety.” The first ship of this line was the Britannia; it made its first voyage to Halifax and Boston in 1840. Charles Dickens immortalized the spartan Britannia when he made the crossing in January 1842. His caustic observations of the trip were recorded in his slim volume American Notes. It would be decades before “luxury liner” would enter the vernacular.
No doubt it was the start of Cunard’s company that influenced the establishment of the White Star Line in Liverpool by John Pilkington and Henry Threlfall Wilson in 1845. Initially, White Star focused on the trade and passenger route to and from Australia. Additional competition came from America in 1850 when Edward Collins received a mail subsidy from the U.S. Congress. Collins planned to build four new steamships. The first was the Atlantic, followed by Pacific and Arctic. The latter two ships were the victims of maritime disasters. The fourth ship was never built, and Congress stopped funding Collins’s line in 1860.
There was competition from other nations as well. Between 1856 and 1862, three new steamship lines were founded: Germany’s Hamburg-Amerika Line and North German Lloyd, and France’s Compagnie General Transatlantique. The White Star Line was weakened by trying to compete in the fierce Atlantic passenger route and by internal corporate machinations. It attempted to merge with other steamship companies, but failed. The company never recovered, and its floating assets were liquidated. What remained, including the name, was purchased by 31-year-old Thomas Henry Ismay. His goal was to succeed in the transatlantic route where the old line had failed, using new, better appointed, and faster liners.
Ismay received the capitalization he needed from Gustav Schwabe in Liverpool. Schwabe agreed to finance the brash young entrepreneur on the stipulation that the new line would order its ships from the Belfast, Ireland, shipyard of Harland & Wolff. The reason? Schwabe’s nephew was Gustav Wolff, a junior partner in Harland & Wolff.
This stipulation turned out to be a salvation for Harland & Wolff, which had been suffering from a decline in shipbuilding orders. With the creation of Ismay’s Oceanic Steam Navigation Company in 1869, plans were immediately set to build five 420-foot steamers. Those ships were the Oceanic, Atlantic, Baltic, Republic, and Adriatic, all delivered between 1871 and 1872. Thereafter, Ismay’s company kept the workers at the Harland & Wolff shipyards busy building cargo ships, passenger ships, livestock carriers, even several sailing ships—among the last built by the Belfast shipyard.
Aggressive competition among the British, German, and French shipbuilding and steamship companies had a tremendous ripple effect throughout the British Isles and Europe. Many companies were contracted to supply everything not built by the shipyards themselves, from the massive steam- driven engines to the marine chronometers placed on the ship’s bridge to ensure precise time-keeping during the voyage. By itself, Harland & Wolff employed nearly 7,000 workers, performing such varied tasks as riveting the ship’s hull plates to making intricate wood carving for the increasingly luxurious interiors.
A New Century Brings Larger Ships
By the turn of the century Germany had the fastest steamships plying the Atlantic. Hamburg-Amerika’s Deutschland won the coveted Blue Ribbon in 1900 for its record speed between Europe and America. This award was then seized by North German Lloyd. The British could not catch the Germans, and this was a liability neither the White Star Line nor Cunard could easily surmount at first. The French merely sniffed. But it was Cunard that figuratively fired the shot across the bow of its competitors when it launched the Mauritania and Lusitania in 1907. These two ships truly were superliners with regard to their size, speed, and appointments.
The Mauritania and Lusitania were over 780 feet long and weighed in at over 31,000 tons. They each carried 560 first-class passengers, 475 second-class passengers, and 1,300 third-class, or steerage, passengers. But the marvel of these ships lay deep within. Powering these two liners were steam turbines, not steam reciprocating engines. The Mauritania set a new transatlantic record of 23.69 knots, recapturing the coveted Blue Ribbon. Cunard now had two powerful weapons in the battle to gain supremacy of the North Atlantic.
Cunard embraced steam turbine technology out of necessity, but it was a fearsome gamble. This new technology was pioneered by Charles Parsons, who founded the Steam Turbine Company in 1894. While the steam turbine was nothing new, in a marine application it was uncharted territory. Within three years Parsons had developed the world’s first steam turbine in a small cutter named Turbinia. Sea trials were completed in 1897. In a brash display of showmanship before a flotilla of ships celebrating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the speedy cutter left all witnesses agog. Also witnessing the display of speed were Thomas Ismay and his son Bruce. Parsons drew up to the Ismay’s ship and invited the two men on board to go for a spin. The Ismays were astounded at the top speed of 40 miles per hour. Later, they discussed the possibility of building steam turbines for future passenger liners with Parsons, but it was Cunard that took the plunge in using the new engines in the Mauritania and Lusitania. It was a gamble that paid off for Cunard.
With these two ships, the gauntlet had been thrown down before the White Star Line. J. Bruce Ismay had taken over direction of the Oceanic Steamship Navigation Company and the White Star Line on the death of his father. However, the company was no longer independent. In 1902, Ismay’s company had been purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan and added to his formidable International Mercantile Marine Company. Many in British financial circles worried over the ownership of the prestigious White Star Line by an American company and what it might do. In fact, it turned out that the infusion of capital by Morgan’s company would permit the White Star Line to take on the Mauritania and Lusitania.
Not long after the launch of Cunard’s two new superliners, Ismay was invited to the palatial home of Lord Pirrie in London. Pirrie had risen through the ranks at Harland & Wolff to become managing director. He wielded tremendous power and was admired and respected on both sides of the Atlantic. He saw Cunard’s two new ships as a threat to the White Star Line. With a virtual lock on all ships built for the Ismay’s company, Pirrie invited Ismay to dinner to discuss a proposal for two luxury liners to surpass Cunard’s ships. Ismay stated Cunard’s new ships would affect the White Star Line’s bottom line unless something dramatic was done. Pirrie outlined the size, capacity, and gross tonnage of the liners he believed the White Star Line should have, and Ismay was in complete agreement. Ismay assured Pirrie he could secure financing from J.E. Morgan. They agreed to proceed immediately with plans for two new super ships. While Pirrie went back to discuss the possibility of building the ships with his key “splendid men,” as he called them, Ismay sailed for New York to put the proposal before Morgan.
It came as no surprise to Ismay that Morgan backed the idea. Morgan wanted the White Star Line to eclipse Cunard, and the two ships certainly sounded as though they could do it. Ismay related the details to Pirrie. Out of those and subsequent meetings evolved the design of the Olympic and Titanic. The ships would be 882 feet long, have a 92-foot beam, and weigh more than 45,000 gross tons. They would each carry 410 first-class passengers, 300 second-class, passengers, 1,000 third-class passengers, and a crew of nearly 900.
The three large construction slips at Harland & Wolff’s shipyards were torn down and in their place rose two massive slips to begin work first on the Olympic and later the Titanic. The keel of the Olympic was laid on December 16, 1908, that of the Titanic on March 3, 1909. The Olympic completed her fitting out and ocean trials by the spring of 1911 and took her maiden voyage in June. The Royal Mail Steamship Olympic was the largest ship in the world and was everything the White Star Line had promised. Cunard now had a new nemesis, and another was on the way. The following year, the Titanic was launched, with its maiden voyage set for April 1912.
Work began on a third liner, called the Gigantic. The name was later changed to Britannic, a decision that may have been influenced by the sinking of the Titanic after it struck an iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912. The tragic event, with a loss of over 1,500 passengers and crew members, has proved to be a never-ending story. Captain Edward J. Smith and Thomas Andrews of Harland & Wolff were among the casualties. However, J. Bruce Ismay survived. He stepped down as chairman of the White Star Line the following year. The decision to step into a lifeboat would haunt him for the rest of his life.
The Olympic returned to Harland & Wolff for extensive modifications to its hull, additional lifeboats, and other changes, which were incorporated into the new Britannic. Cunard and the German and French lines reviewed and modified their ships in light of the disaster. Besides the loss of the Titanic, the human toll, and the damage to its reputation, the White Star Line faced new competition from Germany, which was building its own superliners. The first was the Imperitor, launched in 1912, which could carry 5,100 passengers and crew members. The Vaterland entered service in 1914. The third and largest ship, the Bismarck, was due to go into service later that year. These new ships of Holland-Amerika were a threat to Cunard and the White Star Line, with interiors and accommodations that rivaled the British lines.
The peaceful battle for the Atlantic ended with the outbreak of World War I in August 1914. In 1915 the British Admiralty requisitioned the liners of Cunard and the White Star Line and other commercial ships for use as hospital and troop transport vessels. Prowling German U-boats immediately halted passenger crossings. In May 1915 the Lusitania was struck by a German torpedo and sank in only 20 minutes. In November 1916, the Britannic struck a mine and sank in 55 minutes, despite its double hull.
The ships of Germany fell to a different fate. The Vaterland was seized by the United States while at port in New York. She was convened to a hospital ship, christened Leviathan and entered service in 1917. Imperitor was also seized by the United States but saw no wartime service. After the war, the United States kept the Leviathan and Cunard received the Imperitor. The Treaty of Versailles stipulated that the Bismarck would be finished and handed over to the British as part of the war reparations. The White Star Line acquired the ship in 1922, and renamed it the Majestic.
The French line got through the war unscathed. Its original ship, the France, had its maiden voyage in 1912. It was joined after the war by the Paris, later by the Ile de France, and in 1932 by the sumptuous Normandie. What was left of the two German lines merged and eventually launched the Columbus, Bremen, and Europa. A new Italian line emerged during the ‘30s with the Rex and Conte de Savoia. No new British liners entered service until the Queen Mary in 1935 following the merger of Cunard and the White Star Line. The Queen Elizabeth, at 80,000 tons, launched in 1940. The Depression had a significant impact on transatlantic travel but the numbers began to climb again in the late ‘30s.
World War II brought transatlantic ocean travel to a virtual halt once again, and these mighty liners reprised their roles as hospital ships and troop transports. Together, the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth moved over one million troops. After the war only the British and the French lines continued to cross the Atlantic with passengers.
The Jet Age
Transatlantic flights became a realistic possibility in the late 1940s. TWA was the first airline to fly the sleek Lockheed Constellation from Washington to Paris at 300 miles per hour in February 1946, making the trip in 12 hours. In 1948 the airline started luxury all-sleeper service, and later instituted “Sky Tourist” class for low-cost travel between the United States and Europe. However, many travelers relished the leisure, quiet, and luxury the ships provided. In fact, 1957 marked a postwar peak with more than one million passengers opting for the opulent liners. When the first American commercial jet flew to Paris in only seven hours on October 26, 1958, the intercontinental jet age was born. By 1960, 70 percent of the travelers between America and Europe were flying in jets.
The superliners had entered a twilight era. The only liners operating by the ‘70s were the QE2 and the new France. The United States had entered service in 1952 and was retired in 1969. Today, only the QE2 travels the Atlantic. Those who take her do so because for them, it is the only way to cross.