The Fastest Steamboats by Russell Doubleday

In 1807, the first practical steamboat puffed slowly up the Hudson, while the people ranged along the banks gazed in wonder. Even the grim walls of the Palisades must have been surprised at the strange intruder. Robert Fulton's Clermont was the forerunner of the fleets upon fleets of power-driven craft that have stemmed the currents of a thousand streams and parted the waves of many seas.

The Clermont took several days to go from New York to Albany, and the trip was the wonder of that time.

During the summer of 1902 a long, slim, white craft, with a single brass smokestack and a low deck-house, went gliding up the Hudson with a kind of crouching motion that suggested a cat ready to spring. On her deck several men were standing behind the pilot-house with stop-watches in their hands. The little craft seemed alive under their feet and quivered with eagerness to be off. The passenger boats going in the same direction were passed in a twinkling, and the tugs and sailing vessels seemed to dwindle as houses and trees seem to shrink when viewed from the rear platform of a fast train.

Two posts, painted white and in line with each other—one almost at the river's edge, the other 150 feet back—marked the starting-line of a measured mile, and were eagerly watched by the men aboard the yacht. She sped toward the starting-line as a sprinter dashes for the tape; almost instantly the two posts were in line, the men with watches cried "Time!" and the race was on. Then began such a struggle with Father Time as was never before seen; the wind roared in the ears of the passengers and snatched their words away almost before their lips had formed them; the water, a foam-flecked streak, dashed away from the gleaming white sides as if in terror. As the wonderful craft sped on she seemed to settle down to her work as a good horse finds himself and gets into his stride. Faster and faster she went, while the speed of her going swept off the black flume of smoke from her stack and trailed it behind, a dense, low-lying shadow.

"Look!" shouted one of the men into another's ear, and raised his arm to point. "We're beating the train!"

The fastest torpedo-boat destroyer.

Sure enough, a passenger train running along the river's edge, the wheels spinning round, the locomotive throwing out clouds of smoke, was dropping behind. The train was being beaten by the boat. Quivering, throbbing with the tremendous effort, she dashed on, the water climbing her sides and lashing to spume at her stern.

"Time!" shouted several together, as the second pair of posts came in line, marking the finish of the mile. The word was passed to the frantically struggling firemen and engineers below, while those on deck compared watches.

"One minute and thirty-two seconds," said one.

"Right," answered the others.

Then, as the wonderful yacht Arrow gradually slowed down, they tried to realise the speed and to accustom themselves to the fact that they had made the fastest mile on record on water.

And so the Arrow, moving at the rate of forty-six miles an hour, followed the course of her ancestress, the Clermont, when she made her first long trip almost a hundred years before.

The Clermont was the first practical steamboat, and the Arrow the fastest, and so both were record-breakers. While there are not many points of resemblance between the first and the fastest boat, one is clearly the outgrowth of the other, but so vastly improved is the modern craft that it is hard to even trace its ancestry. The little Arrow is a screw-driven vessel, and her reciprocating engines—that is, engines operated by the pulling and pushing power of the steam-driven pistons in cylinders—developed the power of 4,000 horses, equal to 32,000 men, when making her record-breaking run. All this enormous power was used to produce speed, there being practically no room left in the little 130-foot hull for anything but engines and boilers.

There is little difference, except in detail, between the Arrow's machinery and an ordinary propeller tugboat. Her hull is very light for its strength, and it was so built as to slip easily through the water. She has twin engines, each operating its own shaft and propeller. These are quadruple expansion. The steam, instead of being allowed to escape after doing its work in the first cylinder, is turned into a larger one and then successively into two more, so that all of its expansive power is used. After passing through the four cylinders, the steam is condensed into water again by turning it into pipes around which circulates the cool water in which the vessel floats. The steam thus condensed to water is heated and pumped into the boiler, to be turned into steam, so the water has to do its work many times. All this saves weight and, therefore, power, for the lighter a vessel is the more easily she can be driven. The boilers save weight also by producing steam at the enormous pressure of 400 pounds to the square inch. Steadily maintained pressure means power; the greater the pressure the more the power. It was the inventive skill of Charles D. Mosher, who has built many fast yachts, that enabled him to build engines and boilers of great power in proportion to their weight. It was the ability of the inventor to build boilers and engines of 4,000 horse-power compact and light enough to be carried in a vessel 130 feet long, of 12 feet 6 inches breadth, and 3 feet 6 inches depth, that made it possible for the Arrow to go a mile in one minute and thirty-two seconds. The speed of the wonderful little American boat, however, was not the result of any new invention, but was due to the perfection of old methods.

In England, about five years before the Arrow's achievement, a little torpedo-boat, scarcely bigger than a launch, set the whole world talking by travelling at the rate of thirty-nine and three-fourths miles an hour. The little craft seemed to disappear in the white smother of her wake, and those who watched the speed trial marvelled at the railroad speed she made. The Turbina—for that was the little record-breaker's name—was propelled by a new kind of engine, and her speed was all the more remarkable on that account. C.A. Parsons, the inventor of the engine, worked out the idea that inventors have been studying for a long time—since 1629, in fact—that is, the rotary principle, or the rolling movement without the up-and-down driving mechanism of the piston.

The Turbina was driven by a number of steam-turbines that worked a good deal like the water-turbines that use the power of Niagara. Just as a water-wheel is driven by the weight or force of the water striking the blades or paddles of the wheel, so the force of the many jets of steam striking against the little wings makes the wheels of the steam-turbines revolve. If you take a card that has been cut to a circular shape and cut the edges so that little wings will be made, then blow on this winged edge, the card will revolve with a buzz; the Parsons steam-turbine works in the same way. A shaft bearing a number of steel disks or wheels, each having many wings set at an angle like the blades of a propeller, is enclosed by a drumlike casing. The disks at one end of the shaft are smaller than those at the other; the steam enters at the small end in a circle of jets that blow against the wings and set them and the whole shaft whirling. After passing the first disk and its little vanes, the steam goes through the holes of an intervening fixed partition that deflects it so that it blows afresh on the second, and so on to the third and fourth, blowing upon a succession of wheels, each set larger than the preceding one. Each of Parsons's steam-turbine engines is a series of turbines put in a steel casing, so that they use every ounce of the expansive power of the steam.

It will be noticed that the little wind-turbine that you blow with your breath spins very rapidly; so, too, do the wheels spun by the steamy breath of the boilers, and Mr. Parsons found that the propeller fastened to the shaft of his engine revolved so fast that a vacuum was formed around the blades, and its work was not half done. So he lengthened his shaft and put three propellers on it, reducing the speed, and allowing all of the blades to catch the water strongly.

The Turbina, speeding like an express train, glided like a ghost over the water; the smoke poured from her stack and the cleft wave foamed at her prow, but there was little else to remind her inventor that 2,300 horse-power was being expended to drive her. There was no jar, no shock, no thumping of cylinders and pounding of rapidly revolving cranks; the motion of the engine was rotary, and the propeller shafts, spinning at 2,000 revolutions per minute, made no more vibration than a windmill whirling in the breeze.

To stop the Turbina was an easy matter; Mr. Parsons had only to turn off the steam. But to make the vessel go backward another set of turbines was necessary, built to run the other way, and working on the same shaft. To reverse the direction, the steam was shut off the engines which revolved from right to left and turned on those designed to run backward, or from left to right. One set of the turbines revolved the propellers so that they pushed, and the other set, turning them the other way, pulled the vessel backward—one set revolving in a vacuum and doing no work, while the other supplied the power.

The Parsons turbine-engines have been used to propel torpedo-boats, fast yachts, and vessels built to carry passengers across the English Channel, and recently it has been reported that two new transatlantic Cunarders are to be equipped with them.


A few years after the Pilgrims sailed for the land of freedom in the tiny Mayflower a man named Branca built a steam-turbine that worked in a crude way on the same principle as Parsons's modern giant. The pictures of this first steam-turbine show the head and shoulders of a bronze man set over the flaming brands of a wood fire; his metallic lungs are evidently filled with water, for a jet of steam spurts from his mouth and blows against the paddles of a horizontal turbine wheel, which, revolving, sets in motion some crude machinery.

There is nothing picturesque about the steel-tube lungs of the boilers used by Parsons in the Turbina and the later boats built by him, and plain steel or copper pipes convey the steam to the whirling blades of the enclosed turbine wheels, but enormous power has been generated and marvellous speed gained. In the modern turbine a glowing coal fire, kept intensely hot by an artificial draft, has taken the place of the blazing sticks; the coils of steel tubes carrying the boiling water surrounded by flame replace the bronze-figure boiler, and the whirling, tightly jacketed turbine wheels, that use every ounce of pressure and save all the steam, to be condensed to water and used over again, have grown out of the crude machine invented by Branca.

As the engines of the Arrow are but perfected copies of the engine that drove the Clermont, so the power of the Turbina is derived from steam-motors that work on the same principle as the engine built by Branca in 1629, and his steam-turbine following the same old, old, ages old idea of the moss-covered, splashing, tireless water-wheel.