How does the vessel move? Propulsion systems pt.1

History of sailing

Development of propulsion… how we get to this place? In the history of shipping were different methods to move the vessels. The first primitive method was a paddle. The first change, which was used for thousands of years were sails. History know also first hybrid propulsion system. Sails and paddles. Hybrid solutions are with us for many years already only the names were different in that times. The technology of sails was changed during years, different amount of masts, different shape of sails… But this was still the same technology. To make a first big step ahead from sails to steam we have to wait until the 18th century. This first big step was paddle propeller steamboats. In 1787 was built the first steamships in the US by John Fitch. The first test of this steamboat at Delaware took place on the 22nd of August. The first steamship experiment at the open sea with a longer distance is dated July 1813, the short voyage was done from Leeds to Yarmouth.

Development of propeller. A milestone in propulsion systems.

After successfully research steamships, technology starts to change rapidly. The first big milestone was a change of paddle propeller, to the underwater propeller, which is still in use now. In 1836 Francis Pettit Smith patent his propeller idea which was originally installed in 1839 at SS Archimedes. This was a milestone that changes shipping and creates a new standard for many years. Standards developed in next years, as water-lubricated thrust bearing developed in 1859 is standard up to this day.

From steam to diesel engine

The next major change was a transformation from steam to diesel engines which took place in 1911, but diesel engines were invited by German inventor Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel. The biography of Rudolph Diesel is very interesting, I can strongly recommend it to everybody. The first successful run of diesel engines took place in 1897. A little bit more than a decade, Copenhagen Shipyard was started to build the first Motor Vessel in history, MV Selendia. This was the first ocean-going diesel-powered ship. A maiden voyage of MV Selendia from Copenhagen to Bangkok in 1912. MV Selendia was around 5000 gross tonnage ship. To compare in the same year, 1912 was built the largest steamship in this time, the RMS Titanic with 46.000 tons of gross tonnage. MV Selendia was small which change the world of shipping. In April 1922, British engineers calculate and publish results in the “Pacific Marine Review” that diesel engines save 40% of fuel compared to steam engines.

The constant development of propulsion systems

In the next years, evolution was pushing diesel engines from experiment to most common propulsion these days. Of course, today are discussions about the next standard fuel, which be in use but we will get to this point, few articles later. With this article, I am opening new series about types of propulsion and modernization of diesel engines, from the first one to the most modern installed today. This is the start of new sets of articles about engines and propulsion systems!

Next article about propulsion systems is already available!


  • Mateusz Białas

    Researcher of Autonomous and Remotely Controlled ships. Since 2014 in Maritime Industry. Experience gained at Ro-Ro, Ferry, Container, and Heavy Lifts, design of Navy Ships.

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Oswaldo Carlos Rojas Montero
Oswaldo Carlos Rojas Montero
2 years ago

A good publication.

Igor Tabulynsky
Igor Tabulynsky
2 years ago

Hello Mateusz ! Well done !!!


[…] runs ashore, most probably after 10 years, it will start to come on board. The same was with the Diesel engine. 10 years after the first test run, diesel finds its way to the first vessel. A few years later it […]

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