Coal, Steam and Ships : Engineering, Enterprise and Empire on the Nineteenth-century Seas (Science in History), Crosbie Smith. Cambridge University Press, 2018. 450 pages.
By Dr. Daniella McCahey (University of Idaho)
In this meticulously researched volume, historian Crosbie Smith describes, in breathtaking detail, the emergence of British steam companies as major players in British politics and economics in the nineteenth century. Comprised of eighteen chapters, Coal, Steam, and Ships draws heavily on the methodology of Thomas Hughes on the study of technological systems, tracing the vast networks in place that allowed for the rise of ocean steam navigation. Smith offers evidence for conceptualizing the steamship as a system, beyond just its technological components. Instead, its technology was simply one aspect of great networks including shareholders, company boards, government patrons, coal brokers, engineers, physicists, the press, passengers, and crew. During this transition from sail to steam, three main questions drove investors, engineers, and company managers: Are big steamers safe? If they are safe, are they profitable? If they are safe and profitable, are they safer and more profitable than sailing ships? Much of Crosbie’s text breaks down how nineteenth-century men from many backgrounds sought to answer these questions.
A central theme in this text is the role of trust in the impending success or failure of any given steamship enterprise. This trust was essential to the business at every level: Trust in new technologies attempting to make coal use more efficient, trust that the ship could make it across the ocean (many ships took sails with them as a back-up in the earlier days), trust that passenger lives would be safe with the crew, the trust of the shareholders that management knew what they were doing, etc. Therefore, for those managing steam ship lines, a major component of their job was attempting to keep that trust intact; to demonstrate that their company had strong moral character in addition to operating under solid business principles. This often proved difficult when distractors took criticisms to the press. For example, in chapter 13, Smith deftly shows how critiques of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company from Railway Magazine on both the business practices and the morality of its management resulted in swift action from the company, as the public began to demand “severe moral penalties…” for those who failed to “live up to the standards demanded by those who ultimately made possible its existence and prosperity.” (262)
Similarly, when the mail steamer Tweed wrecked with great loss of life in 1847, an employee, who was also a passenger of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company wrote an account of the incident and “Rather than lay bare the Company’s shortcomings, the author represented the shipwreck as lesion that combined a direct experience of God’s awesome power.” (180) He highlighted the bravery and discipline of the crew, while simultaneously evoking “resonances with Biblical episodes concerning providential deliverance…” (181) This narrative had the effect of forestalling investigations into the “more disturbing features of the shipwreck” such as the very high death rate among passengers versus crew members. It also “provided notable enhancement to ….RMSP’s much depleted spiritual and moral capital.” (183) But when a catastrophic fire ripped through the RMSP ship Amazon in 1853, passenger and non-conformist minister William Blood condemned the sinful arrogance of the company in a well-circulated printed sermon, leading to a crisis of public confidence. (Chapter 10)
Exemplified in part by these incidents, Anglican and especially Presbyterian religious values were also interwoven into the forefront of the ocean steam industry. Shipbuilding was presented as a moral discipline in the context of nonconformist Protestantism. Even the main premise of steamships: that they could save time and money, fits within a Weberian ideal of the Protestant work ethic. Ship makers were dependent on God’s will and divine action, and success showed God’s favor. Failure could indicate a lack of commitment to prudence or discipline, sinful attributes to many nonconformists. Relationships within steamboat networks were often built in conjunction with connections in the men’s religious and family lives.
A part of Cambridge University Press’s “Science and History” series, Coal, Steam, and Ships devotes few chapters to strictly the science and engineering part of steamships (mostly in chapters 3 and 17), and instead considers technology more broadly, as a major system with many unpredictable and largely human components. When I began this book, I found his methodology inspiring and his array of sources to be impressive. I still believe this. If I can offer one criticism, it is that this is an extremely dense book. It is fewer than 370 pages, yet has 62 pages in its index. I am not critiquing a comprehensive index, nor suggesting that it is a difficult book to read. In fact, considering the wide network the Crosbie is examining, it is very engaging. But I did find it a very slow read, as more important figures and ships were introduced chapter by chapter. But when attempting to thoroughly trace the treads of such a large technological system, perhaps it is best to move slowly and I found myself quite enriched at its conclusion. This is really an essential read for any interested in the 19th century British Empire, British maritime history, the industrial revolution, or the history of marine technology.