The Disadvantages of 1800s Steamboats

by John Willis

In the 18th and 19th centuries, America's eastern and central rivers were her greatest highways and steamboats her most effective transportation. While steamboats of the 1800s could maneuver in just a few feet of water, their designs had some drawbacks.


Steam propulsion is inherently dangerous, and the early steam engines could be a problem. To power a steam engine, you must produce heat to boil water and make steam. You must then pressurize the steam. It is the pressure, trapped in boilers, that creates the power to drive a piston and subsequently a wheel. In days when metallurgy was not as advanced, engineers had to estimate how much pressure boilers could withstand. They didn't always estimate correctly, as explosions were common.


A fundamental design trait of most 1800s steamboats was a shallow, flat hull to provide buoyancy in just a few feet of water. This type of hull increased the boat's drag in the water and slowed it down.


It was expensive to build and maintain 19th century steamboats. The vessels were made of iron and steel, which needed to be constantly maintained in a marine environment.

Competitive Disadvantage

By the 1830s, trains started to compete with steamboats and eventually took away a lot of business.

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