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Steam-Powered KnowledgeWilliam Chambers and the Business of Publishing, 1820-1860$

Aileen Fyfe

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780226276519

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: March 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226276540.001.0001

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Transatlantic Opportunities

Transatlantic Opportunities

(p.177) 14 Transatlantic Opportunities
Steam-Powered Knowledge
University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter considers the transatlantic steam services. The voyages of the Sirius and the Great Western were the first ocean crossings, made far beyond the reach of repairs or refueling. Within a few years, regular transatlantic steam services would be available, transforming the delivery of the mails and offering new options for business with North America. The Sirius and the Great Western launched a new era of ocean steam navigation, in which steamers traveled further from land and became key elements of global, not just regional, transport and communications. The company of Samuel Cunard was always fixated on the absolute reliability needed by its mail contract. Chambers hoped that learning how other countries handled education, justice, religion, and politics might enable him to affect improvements for the humbler classes in Britain.

Keywords:   transatlantic steam services, Sirius, Great Western, North America, ocean steam navigation, Samuel Cunard

Monday, April 23, 1838, was widely hailed as the advent of a new era in steam navigation and transatlantic communication. That morning, the steamship Sirius arrived in New York, eighteen days after leaving Cork. She had been lying outside the harbor since the previous evening, and huge crowds had gathered to greet her. Visitors crowded onboard, and the day became “quite a gala” for the New Yorkers. The British Consul sent a congratulatory letter to the captain of the Sirius, drawing attention to the convenient coincidence that it was on St. George's day that a British steamship had become the first to cross the Atlantic. On the next day, the mayor and corporation of New York planned to attend a celebratory dinner aboard the Sirius. But in the late morning, as the newspapers put it, the excitement “was increased ten-fold by the appearance, over Governor's Island, of a dense black cloud of smoke, spreading itself upward.” The smoke signaled the imminent approach of another steamship, the Great Western, which had left Bristol four days after the Sirius.1

Back in Britain, meanwhile, people waited anxiously for news of both steamers. On April 11, the Times had reported that another ship had passed the Sirius on April 5, “bravely encountering a heavy westerly gale” one day into her voyage. On April 16, it reported that the Sirius had been seen still voyaging on April 7.2 In the days before wireless telegraphy (radio), chance encounters between outbound and inbound ships were the only way that news from a ship in transit could travel back to her home port. No further news of the Sirius was reported for a month. Then, on May 17, the sailing packet Westminster returned to Plymouth from New York, bringing news that she had passed the Sirius just (p.178) outside New York on April 22. Her captain also reported seeing the Great Western twelve hours later.3 This welcome news confirmed that both ships had survived and suggested that the race between them had been tight.

The full details of the close finish did not arrive in Britain until two days later, when the Sirius herself returned to Falmouth after another eighteen-day voyage. Even then, it took several days before most British newspaper readers learned the news. The Sirius's arrival on Saturday evening made only the late editions of the Times on Monday, was fully reported on Tuesday, and reached the Manchester newspapers only on Wednesday, a full month after the steamers had arrived in New York.4 As well as reporting her own reception in New York and the safe arrival of the Great Western, the Sirius brought the latest newspapers and magazines from New York and (unexpectedly) the Royal Mail from Nova Scotia. Sirius had encountered the sailing packet Tyrian three days out from Falmouth, and the captains had decided to transfer Tyrian's Canadian mails to Sirius as the fastest way to get them to shore.5

In 1838, steamships were already familiar features of British and North American rivers, lakes, and coasts. But the voyages of the Sirius and the Great Western were the first ocean crossings, made far beyond the reach of repairs or refueling. Within a few years, regular transatlantic steam services would be available, transforming the delivery of the mails and offering new options for business with North America.

Ocean-Going Steamships

Guests at the celebratory dinner marking the Sirius's arrival in New York toasted the queen, the president, and Anglo-American business relations. Then the British Consul offered a toast to “that great man, Robert Fulton.”6 This was a diplomatic acknowledgment that, amidst all the British jubilations, the Americans had their own claims to be steamship pioneers. Inventors on both sides of the Atlantic had made earlier attempts, but Robert Fulton was the man who built the first successful steamboat, the Clermont, which steamed up the Hudson River in 1807.7 This was just three years after Richard Trevithick demonstrated his steam railway locomotive at a Welsh ironworks. The Americans could also lay claim to the first Atlantic crossing by a steamboat in 1819, but since the Savannah had made much of her journey under sail, the Sirius and the Great Western could still claim to be both the first to do the journey westward and the first to do it wholly under steam.

Steamboats required less infrastructure than railway locomotives, and by the 1820s, paddle steamers, usually with side-mounted paddle wheels, were (p.179) being used on rivers, lakes, and coastal routes on both sides of the Atlantic (see fig. 14). In 1838, as the Sirius and Great Western crossed the Atlantic, there was already a wide range of steamship services available from London.8 The General Steam Navigation Company ran steamers along the east coast of Britain, serving Newcastle, Sunderland, Berwick, and Leith. Their Leith service, so widely used by W. & R. Chambers and other Edinburgh publishers, departed from London every Wednesday and Saturday. Other companies offered five daily services down the Thames to Ramsgate, and weekly cross-channel steamers to Antwerp, Le Havre, Boulogne, and Rotterdam. The Peninsular Packet Company (later the Peninsular & Oriental, P&O) operated a service all the way to Alexandria, via Lisbon, Cadiz, Gibraltar, and Malta.

The steamboats' great advantage was their independence from weather and tidal conditions, which made journey times more predictable. However, the need for coal limited their range unless refueling stops were available, and their paddle wheels did not cope well with rough waters. Although the Peninsular steamers traveled impressive distances from London, their route followed the coast for shelter and refueling. And even on coastal routes such as Leith to London, it was common for steamer services to be suspended in winter due to stormy weather. Yet when they were in operation, steamboats offered greater reliability and punctuality than sailing ships and quickly became the preferred form of inland and coastal water transport. If, however, there was an alternative overland route, the decision was more complicated, as steamers were not necessarily faster than land transport, even in the days before the railways. In the United States, river steamers had an important role reaching settlements poorly served by roads, but on well-maintained coach roads, such as those between Edinburgh to London, stagecoaches were much faster. In the 1830s, for instance, the Leith to London steamer took around three days, whereas the mail coach took just forty-three hours. However, the mail coach could not carry cargo: thus, when Edinburgh publishers dispatched bales of publications to London or ordered new machinery, these bulky consignments routinely went by water and, preferably, weather permitting, by steam.

As Chambers's Journal would later point out, the Sirius and the Great Western launched a new era of ocean steam navigation, in which steamers traveled further from land and became key elements of global, not just regional, transport and communications. By 1854, the Journal could optimistically identify two further advances in the last two years: the first steamer to Australia and the first steamer to circumnavigate the world. Sixty-four days for a voyage to Australia, round the Cape of Good Hope, seemed amazing, but the Journal enthusiastically prophesied a future round-the-world (p.180) trip in forty days.9 Yet even in his enthusiasm, the Journal's writer could not ignore the major obstacles facing oceanic steamship travel, principally the supply of coal. Either a ship had to carry all her own fuel or refueling stations would be needed along the way. The first option severely limited a ship's cargo-carrying capacity, while the second was dependent on geography and geology. These problems meant that, on certain routes, modern sailing ships were able to rival steam for the transport of bulky, low-value commodities until the early twentieth century.10 What sailing ships could not promise was regular year-round journey times, and the need for such a service for government communication and the mails kept up the pressure on steamship designers.

In comparison to the voyage to Australia, the 3,000-mile Atlantic crossing was relatively short. Both Sirius and Great Western managed to carry sufficient fuel (around 450 tons of coal) to make the crossing, though the Manchester Guardian's report made clear that the true winner was the Great Western. She had not only completed the journey four days faster, but had done so with marginally less fuel despite being a substantially larger ship with more powerful engines.11 This was hardly surprising since the Great Western had been designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel specifically for the Atlantic crossing and was the largest steamer in the world. Her tonnage (a measure of internal volume) was almost twice that of the Sirius, enabling her to carry 600 tons of coal and a small amount of cargo.12

On the Atlantic crossing, the speed and reliability of the steamships is clearly illustrated by statistics released by the steamship companies for marketing purposes. In 1839, sailing ships from the major packet companies took between twenty-five and forty-five days to make the westward crossing of the Atlantic, depending on the weather conditions. In the same year, the Great Western's average westward journey took just over sixteen days, and the variation between her journeys was only a couple of days. The eastward crossing of the Atlantic was always faster than the westward, thanks to favorable winds and currents, but with steam, the crossing times became more similar. In 1839, sailing packets crossed eastward in an average of twenty-two days, while the Great Western took an average of fourteen days.13

Cunard and the Mails

The company that was to dominate transatlantic travel and communication from the 1840s was the British and North American Steam Packet Company, founded by the Nova Scotian businessman Samuel Cunard. Cunard formed a partnership with businessmen and shipbuilders in Glasgow and Liverpool, and in May 1839, their company won the British government contract to deliver (p.181) the Royal Mail to Halifax and Boston. Mail contracts were extremely valuable to both railway and steamship companies, for the government paid substantial sums for the safe and fast delivery of the mail. Mail contracts subsidized routes that had little potential for freight or passengers and enabled companies to invest in bigger or better equipment. But mail contracts always came with conditions. Cunard's initial mail contract required the steamship company to run a monthly service using four ships, to carry military forces at reduced rates, and to pay penalties for delays.14

The first of Cunard's Clyde-built paddle steamers, Britannia, sailed from Liverpool on July 4, 1840. A year later, Charles Dickens crossed the Atlantic on the Britannia and wrote a vivid description of his experience in American Notes (1842). The Britannia was not as large as the Great Western, and the start of Dickens's account is devoted to the overwhelming lack of space. His expectations had been raised by pictures displayed in the booking office, and he and his wife received a shock on being shown to the “utterly impracticable, thoroughly hopeless, and profoundly preposterous box” that was their cabin. Although her engines were expected to consume around 420 tons of coal during a fourteen-day crossing, Britannia carried 640 tons of coal just in case, leaving little space for anything else. Dickens's other abiding memory of the voyage was of being “excessively sea-sick.”15

Cunard's company went from strength to strength. Its government contract was renewed in 1847, and by the early 1850s, its steamers were leaving Liverpool every Saturday, alternating between Boston and New York.16 The original four ships had been decommissioned, and the service was now provided by the Hibernia and Cambria (built in the mid-1840s) and the America, Canada, Niagara, and Europa (launched in 1848). It was the America that William Chambers boarded one foggy morning in mid-September 1853. Crossing to the ship from the Liverpool docks had been a more exciting experience than anticipated, since a mild collision in the fog had sent some of the luggage overboard, but once aboard the America, Chambers's first transatlantic crossing went smoothly. He was fascinated by the organization of the ship, noting everything from the duties of the crew and the power of the ship's engines to the accommodation provided for the ship's cow. Twelve days later, the ship entered the great natural harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she landed the mails and government dispatches, and was refueled for the remaining thirty hours' journey to Boston. Chambers did remark on the mechanisms for making best use of the limited space, but the America was substantially bigger than the Britannia (and the Great Western), and he was happier with his shipboard experience than Dickens had been. He was also less seasick.17

By the 1850s, the Cunard Line's steamers had been joined on the Atlantic (p.182) by steamships from French and American companies. The United States Mail Steamship Company, run by Edward Collins of New York, was one of Cunard's most serious competitors. Collins held the American government's mail contract, and his ships had a reputation for speed and luxury. Even William Chambers's admiration for Cunard did not prevent him commenting that their ships “fall considerably short of the Collinses in point of spaciousness and elegance of accommodation” and that “they do not sail so fast as the Collins steamers.”18 But Cunard had one great advantage over both Collins and William Inman's Liverpool & Philadelphia Steamship Company: safety.

Much like early railway locomotives, steamboats did not have a good safety record: their boilers were prone to explode. With a certain ghoulish glee, the piece of American news that the Times chose to reprint from the newspapers carried back by Sirius in 1838 concerned a steamboat explosion just outside Cincinnati. “Both the boilers burst with a very loud noise. Nearly all on board … were killed or wounded…. The pilot was thrown about 100 perpendicular feet into the air, came down to the water, and sank beneath its surface, never to rise with life again.”19 If such an accident happened in the middle of an ocean, it was likely to be completely fatal, particularly if it caused a fire. Once iron-hulled ships started to replace wooden steamers, the fire risk was lessened, but new problems emerged in the reliability of magnetic compasses.20 Nevertheless, William Chambers reassured his readers in 1854, after describing the potential problems of magnetic compasses and the risks of “rocks, collisions and conflagrations,” that so much care was taken onboard Cunard ships—tests on compasses, all lamps being put out at midnight, spare parts kept for the machinery—that even “the most timid class of passengers” need not be worried.21

The Cunard company was always fixated on the absolute reliability required by its mail contract. Cunard ships were not at the technical forefront: they were still commissioning wooden paddle steamers in the 1850s, when Inman was using iron-hulled ships with screw propellers. And Cunard officers did not take risks: raw speed was not as important as ensuring the mails were delivered. This conservative approach helped Cunard avoid the accidents and disasters to which other steam shipping lines seemed prone.22 The Collins ship Arctic was lost in 1854, with three hundred lives (including several members of Collins's family), and the Pacific was lost in 1856.23 In 1854, one Inman ship disappeared without trace, and another ran aground. By the end of the 1850s, Collins had ceased to trade and Inman was barely surviving, but Cunard continued to deliver the transatlantic mails.

The delivery of the mails was the raison d'etre for the steamers: the governments of Britain and the United States were willing to pay substantial (p.183) amounts of money for the speediest possible delivery of the mails, and most of the early transatlantic steamers had little cargo space for anything larger. Even Brunel's Great Western, on her return from New York in 1838, carried just the mail (20,000 items), sixty-eight passengers, newspapers, and a small cargo of cotton, indigo, and silks.24 As larger transatlantic steamers were launched, more passengers and cargo could be carried, but the mails continued to take precedence. Chambers reported his departure in 1853 being delayed until the arrival of “at least two cart-loads of well-stuffed leather bags” containing the mails and several boxes of “special dispatches for Canada.”25

The new generation of larger Cunard ships, on which Chambers sailed, could accommodate 160 first-class passengers, who were served breakfasts of “Irish stew, cold meat, ham … eggs, tea, coffee, and hot rolls” and dinners of “the best soups, fish, meat, fowls and game, with side-dishes in the French style; followed by a course of pastry of various kinds, with a dessert of fresh and preserved fruits.” A trip across the Atlantic was not cheap—Chambers paid £25 for his first-class return—but it became a real possibility for thousands of upper-middle-class men and women, as is attested by the number of Americans who visited London for the Great Exhibition in 1851 and British (including Chambers) who visited New York for the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1853. Importantly, as well as carrying passengers and their food, these new ships were large enough to carry 900 tons of coal and still have space for 900 tons of cargo.

As the Great Western's 1838 return cargo suggests, newspapers were one of the obvious articles to send by steam, being small and relatively urgent. With so many business interests dependent on transatlantic information—such as cotton and tobacco prices—getting the latest news had real commercial value. Similarly in the book trade, the latest literary news was valuable to those on both sides of the Atlantic who wished to be the first to announce a reprint of the latest literary sensation, and also to those who wanted to gain a better understanding of how the transatlantic trade operated.

With faster and more reliable delivery of correspondence, and the possibilities of personal transatlantic travel and faster freight delivery, the years around 1850 were marked by a growing interest in doing transatlantic literary business (see chapter 17), particularly from the British perspective. Up to this point, British publishers had remained relatively aloof from both American literature and the American market. During the late 1840s, editorials in the Literary World and the Publishers' Circular regularly quoted each other. But the American book trade had developed in quite different ways from the British book trade, and successful transatlantic business (p.184) would not come easily. This was partly why William Chambers became one of those transatlantic tourists, spending two-and-a-half months in North America in the fall of 1853.

Chambers's explicit goal was to investigate the conditions of settlement, since Chambers's Journal had been recommending North America as an emigration destination since its launch in 1832.26 Chambers sought out emigrants (especially those from his native Scotland), inquired after their new lives, and investigated the cost of land, average wages, and the ease of finding work. His observations ultimately bolstered his belief that North America-more so than Australia—was an extremely suitable new home for industrious and sober workers and small capitalists.

Chambers was also supposed to be enjoying a change of scene on his doctor's recommendation, and he did play the tourist some of the time. Being out of season meant that the famed resort of Saratoga Springs was a disappointment, but it enabled him to sit alone at Niagara Falls, contemplating the “simple dignity and beauty” of the falls without the annoyance of the “army of parasitic guides.”27 He enjoyed a steamboat trip up scenic Lake Champlain, en route to Montreal. But Chambers's idea of being a tourist was intrinsically linked with social observation. He routinely visited schools, libraries, hospitals, and prisons, and he did the same in America. He visited schools in Toronto, libraries in Boston, manufactories in Cincinnati, waterworks in Philadelphia, and a slave auction in Richmond. The accounts of the United States written by previous British travelers—including Frances Trollope, Harriet Martineau, Charles Dickens, and Charles Lyell—inspired many educated Britons to visit the youthful, idealistic republic for themselves. Chambers hoped that learning how other countries handled education, justice, religion, and politics might enable him to influence improvements for the humbler classes in Britain.

After his death, Chambers's memorialist noted that “when he took a holiday anywhere, he generally combined work with it.”28 On one level, this meant that he would write up his experiences for publication, and indeed, twenty articles—conveying his heartily good opinion of most things in North America—duly appeared in Chambers's Journal between February and October 1854. They were subsequently issued as a book titled Things as They Are in America (1854) (see fig. 15), in which Chambers appears as yet another intelligent and curious British tourist, distinguished, perhaps, by perceptive remarks on hotel organization and accommodation. In contrast to other writers at the time, Chambers said very little about slavery, reflecting the fact that his tour focused on the northern and midwestern states. He would return to the topic in 1857, however, with another series of articles (p.185) and a book, American Slavery and Colour.29 But “work” for Chambers did not just mean social observation and publishing his travel experiences. Chambers's private diary for this trip survives in the National Library of Scotland and records his visits to booksellers and publishers, as he sought to make contacts and understand how the American trade worked. His trip had a strong, though unofficial, business purpose. (p.186)

Transatlantic Opportunities

Figure 15. Title page of William Chambers's Things as They Are in America (1854), reporting on his experiences in Canada and the United States.


(1.) R. Roberts, “The ‘Sirius’ and ‘Great Western’ Steamers,”Manchester Guardian, May 23, 1838, 3.

(2.) “Liverpool,” Times, April 11, 1838, 5; “Ship News,” Times, April 16, 1838, 7.

(3.) “Money-Market and City Intelligence,” Times, May 17, 1838, 5.

(4.) “Express from Falmouth,” Times, May 22, 1838, 6; Roberts, “‘Sirius’ and ‘Great Western’ Steamers,” 3.

(5.) “Express from Falmouth,” 6.

(6.) Roberts, “‘Sirius’ and ‘Great Western’ Steamers,” 3.

(7.) Cowan, American Technology, 105–12.

(8.) These services were routinely advertised on the front page of the Times; my examples all come from May 1838.

(9.) “The Three Eras of Ocean Steam-Navigation,” CEJ, September 16, 1854, 188–90.

(10.) Marsden and Smith, Engineering Empires, 89

(11.) Roberts, “‘Sirius’ and ‘Great Western’ Steamers,” 3.

(12.) Great Western's tonnage was 1,340 tons, but, unlike sailing ships, some of this volume was occupied by her engines and paddle wheels, so the available cargo space was not as substantial as might be expected.

(13.) Bowen, Century of Atlantic Travel, 31.

(14.) Marsden and Smith, Engineering Empires, 108–11;Cunardchap. 2

(15.) Dickens, American Notes, 9, 21.

(16.) Hyde, Cunardchap. 2

(17.) W. Chambers, Things as They Arechap. 1

(19.) Cincinnati Evening Post, reprinted in Times, May 22, 1838, 6.

(20.) Marsden and Smith, Engineering Empires, 27–33.

(21.) W. Chambers, Things as They Are, 12–13.

(22.) Smith, Higginson, and Wolstenholme, “‘Imitations of God's Own Works’”; Smith and Scott, “‘Trust in Providence.’”

(23.) Hyde, Cunard, 38–39. See also [William Chambers], “Steam Vessel Disasters,” CEJ, December 23, 1854, 405–7; [William Chambers], “A Few More Words on Steam Vessel Disasters,” CEJ, February 10, 1855, 86–87.

(24.) “Arrival of the Great Western,” Times, May 23, 1838, 5.

(25.) W. Chambers, Things as They Are, 4.

(26.) Scholnick, “Intersecting Empires.”

(27.) W. Chambers, Things as They Are, 108–9.

(28.) W. Chambers, Memoir of William and Robert Chambers, 382.

(29.) Things as They AreW. Chambers, Things as They Are (2nd ed.), 369–74.