How Does a Steamboat Work?

by Isaiah DavidUpdated July 11, 2023
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steamboat image by Larry Roberg from

Steamboat History

The steamboat represented an important phase in the development of shipping. Before the steamboat was invented, boats were powered by sail power. From the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, steamboats were the most important type of boats for transportation, trading and warfare. Nowadays, a few old paddle-driven riverboats survive as curiosities and tourist destinations to take passengers around scenic stretches of calm rivers.

Power Plant

The heart of the steamboat is the steam engine. Many different designs and variations of steam engines were developed and tried during the era of steam ships. The basic Watt engine was the most important design. To start the process, water is fed to a boiler that heats it up until it produces steam. The steam is then fed into a piston cylinder. It pushes the piston up to the top of its stroke. When it reaches the top, a valve is opened in the side of the cylinder to vent out the steam. The valve drops down again, and the whole cycle starts again.

Paddle Wheel

Steamboats could be driven by screws like most modern ships, and many of them were. The most classic image of a steamship, however, is the riverboat paddle-wheeler. These ships came in two varieties: the sternwheeler, which had a single wheel at the stern of the boat, and the sidewheeler, with one wheel at either side. The wheel was large and fitted with paddle blades along the outside. Power to the boat was produced by pushing these blades through the water. Sidewheelers could also use their paddles to turn by powering one wheel and stopping or reversing the other.

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