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Steam tug Woltman in the port of Kiel during the Kiel Week 2007
Depiction of the steamship Europa in Meyers Blitz-Lexikon , Leipzig 1932, digital full-text edition

A steam ship or steamer (as the mostly unofficial name prefix often abbreviated with SS , from English Steam Ship , German also DS ) is a ship that is driven by one (or more) steam engine or one (or more) steam turbine. In the paddle steamer , the steam engine initially drives one or more paddle wheels, and it wasn't until 1836 that the ship's propeller, invented by the Austrian Josef Ressel , caught on.


Model of the first steamship built by Jouffroy d'Abbans in 1783
Clermont by Robert Fulton (1807)

In 1707 Denys Papin built a steamboat with which he drove on the Fulda from Kassel to Münden .

“On Saturday, September 24th, 1707 he left Cassel with his ship and arrived in Münden on the same day. We can explain the further circumstances of the unfortunate destruction of this first steamship in the world, which was caused by our Mündenschiff, - which was partly the result of the disagreement between the city magistrate and the local electoral officials, which unfortunately so often occurred in earlier times not more clearly than when we here literally communicate municipal and official acts pertaining to this matter. Acta des Magistrat zu Münden rubriciret 'taking away a vehicle, so come down from Cassel and wanted to go through the hole on the Weser.' - 1707 Protocollum in pto. of the ship that came down from Cassel. Actum Mündnen in Curia September 24th 1707 "

- Wilhelm Lotze : History of the city of Münden

The reader also learns about "... a wheeled ship with a steam engine ... a small rowing steamboat ... Papin with his wife and children ... some boxes and household appliances ... 1 or 2 shipmen ..." The model boat traveled the approximately 23 km long route on the Fulda with passengers, Cargo and ship personnel.

The Frenchman Claude François Jouffroy d'Abbans built the first functional steamship in 1783. On February 1, 1788, Isaac Briggs and William Longstreet patented the first steamship. The American Robert Fulton received a patent on February 11, 1809 for a modified design, which was also economically successful. His paddle steamer North River Steam Boat (commonly called Clermont by later generations ), built in 1807 , was still equipped with sails. It reached a speed of 4.5 knots (8.3 km / h) and was used between New York and Albany in regular service. The name Clermont for the ship probably comes from the place of the same name, which was frequently visited by Fulton's steamship.

The technical transition from sailing ships to steamers took a few decades. It was not until 1889, with that of Alexander Carlisle (later chief designer of the Olympic-class constructed) 20  knots fast -Star Liner White Teutonic provided the first ocean-going steamer without any sailing into service.

The effort just to operate the steam boiler of a high-speed steamer from the turn of the century around 1900 was enormous. In order to be able to achieve ever higher speeds with ever larger ships (see blue ribbon ), the performance of the machinery was increased further, which meant a correspondingly higher steam requirement. This required the operation of even more boilers. The boilers customary at the time were hand-fired, two-compartment large-volume flame tube boilers (so-called Scottish boilers or Schottenkessel) with up to four flame tubes.

The largest piston steam engine system ever used in civil shipping was on the express steamer Kronprinzessin Cecilie , which was put into service in 1907 for the North German Lloyd . The steam requirement of four four-cylinder, four-way expansion piston steam engines with a total of 46,000  hp was supplied by 31 boilers (7 single-end and 12 double-end boilers) with four furnaces each. The 760 tons of hard coal that was burned daily were carried by 118  coal trimmers from the coal bunkers to the boilers. During each of the three sea ​​watch , 76 men worked under extreme conditions to generate the steam alone.

The largest piston steam engines ever were used on the steamers of the Olympic class. The two four-cylinder, triple expansion engines on these ships were supported by a low-pressure Parsons steam turbine . Advances in turbine technology brought about the end of piston steam engine development.

The high personnel costs and the increasing competition in shipping across the North Atlantic forced the shipowners to make further cost savings. This was achieved by converting the boilers to oil firing, occasionally also by mechanical firing systems (which could not prevail) and by pulverized coal firing . With a compact design and lower weight, water-tube boilers generated more steam with less personnel. Some of the trimmers and heaters could still be employed until after the Second World War , or they could then switch to the engine room of ships with diesel engines to work as greasers. But these jobs also disappeared over time.


An internationally widespread prefix for steam ships (not part of the actual ship names) is SS (Steam Ship), in the German-speaking area DS (steam ship) or D (steamer). Sometimes there are also more specific abbreviations such as TS (Turbine Steamer, also TSS Turbine Steam Ship) for the turbine ship (German TS ) and PS (Paddle Steamer) for paddle steamer (German RD ).

SY (Steamyacht) is the English name for a steam yacht .

The prefix RMS ( Royal Mail Steamer ), common to many British steamers , indicates that the English Post uses this ship to transport letters. Large passenger ships in regular service between the continents are also referred to in German as Schnelldampfer or express steamers in order to underline the short journey times of the ships.

DB is the name for steam boat , in English-speaking countries SL is also used for steam launch.


A steam power plant consists of three main parts: boiler , steam engine or steam turbine and condenser .

Steam boiler

The boiler room of the museum steamer Schaarhörn
Production and operation of the Swiss paddle steamer Bern in Rotterdam in 1923

In the boiler of the water through fixed (wood, coal, coal dust) or liquid fuel (oil) is prepared by heating the steam generated. A fundamental distinction is made between flame tube boilers , smoke tube boilers and water tube boilers . In the early days of steam shipping, the flame tube boiler with one to four burners was widespread. In the beginning it was still a single train, but later it was further developed into a two-pass smoke tube boiler, which was more economical due to the additional use of the energy contained in the flue gases. Since these boilers are characterized by their large water content (up to 30 t), they are also known as the Scottish shell boiler or Schottenkessel for short. Steam tensions of a maximum of 15-20 bar could be achieved. Air preheaters (Luvo) for preheating the combustion air and economizers (Eko) for preheating the feed water increased the efficiency. With the help of a superheater, the saturated steam could be heated to superheated steam of over 200 ° C, thus achieving better energy utilization. At the end of the development, a coal consumption of 0.35-0.5 kg / (PS · h) could be achieved.

The advantages of the smoke tube boiler, such as high energy reserves with rapidly changing steam consumption or low sensitivity to feedwater contamination, were offset by the disadvantages such as heavy weight and comparatively long heating times of up to several days. The water tube boiler meant a further increase in energy utilization, as it enabled larger amounts of steam to be generated at a higher voltage (20–70 bar). However, due to the comparatively small amount of water circulating, the feed water control could no longer be done manually, but had to be controlled automatically. Water tube boilers could be heated up within a few hours, but required very good feed water care (demineralization and oil removal).

By switching from coal to oil firing, the jobs of many heaters and coal trimmers disappeared . The nuclear drive introduced on a trial basis in the 1950s and 1960s - that is, the generation of steam for steam turbines in a nuclear reactor  - was unsuccessful in merchant shipping. Nuclear-powered merchant ships such as the German Otto Hahn or the American Savannah were rejected by residents of the port cities. In civil seafaring, this technology was only able to establish itself with Russian icebreakers. In the military sector, nuclear reactors for steam generation can only be found on aircraft carriers and other large surface units of the USA and submarines of various sea powers, namely the USA, Great Britain, France, China, India and Russia.

Steam engine

500 hp max. 55 / min, Escher, Wyss & Cie engine of the paddle steamer « Stadt Rapperswil »

The generated steam is fed through pipes to the steam engine and (in the case of the usual double-acting steam engines) controlled by slides or valves so that it is always fed to the cylinder that is currently at top or bottom dead center. With the full-pressure steam engine, the entire cylinder is filled with steam, with the expansion steam engine only a partial filling. As a result, the steam expands and pushes the piston up or down. In the case of the expansion steam engine, the steam, which is now reduced in tension, is then passed into the next cylinder, where it continues to expand with output. This can be done in up to three stages (high pressure, medium pressure and low pressure cylinders). This work cycle is repeated continuously while the steam engine is running.

After doing the work in the last cylinder, the steam is condensed into feed water in the condenser and then de-oiled. The feed pump conveys it optionally substituted by one feedwater (Eko = economizer) back into the boiler, where the same operation is repeated. To compensate for inevitable losses of steam (leaks, steam whistle), every ship carries reserve feed water with it.

The ship's shaft is directly coupled to the steam engine.

There were different types of steam engines for steam ships. Most recently, machines with multiple expansion were common, in which the cylinders had different diameters . With the first cylinder, this was small and the diameter continued to increase up to the last cylinder. The benefit of this arrangement is that the force on each piston is the same, even though the vapor pressure decreases with the expansion.

Flame tube and smoke tube boilers as well as piston steam engines were generally characterized by great reliability and undemanding. The material used was mostly overdimensioned, although the lower quality steels and alloys used at the time could certainly cause problems with bearings. As a result, the oil consumption was enormous. A major advantage of the piston steam engine ensured its existence until the 1950s: its ability to switch from forward to reverse within just 3 to 4 seconds meant it could survive in the tug and icebreaker area.

Steam turbine

The Turbinia (built in 1894), the first turbine ship in history - straight away the fastest ship in the world

When a ship is propelled by a steam turbine, water vapor flows around a rotating shaft that is equipped with many turbine blades . The ship's shaft is coupled to this shaft. The kinetic energy of the steam is used. As with the steam engine, the steam turbine is followed by a condenser which returns the condensed steam as feed water.

The operation of large steam turbines initially caused technical problems due to two undesirable effects: the exhaust steam flowing from the last blade ring and flowing into the condenser reached the associated speed of sound at these points, and the water droplets previously created during the expansion eroded the turbine blades and the condenser pipes .

Since turbines require certain numbers of revolutions (more precisely circumferential speed ) for optimum efficiency , but the propellers cause cavitation problems at too high speeds , the full potential of the turbine drive could only be used through the use of geared turbines in the further course of the 20th century.

Steam turbines also use the steam's ability to expand with the aid of a high-pressure, medium-pressure and low-pressure component.

Since steam turbines (in contrast to some large ship piston engines) can only turn in one direction, an additional reverse turbine is required to brake the ships, which is usually integrated in the low-pressure part. It has a lower output.


Up until the 1950s there was also a combination of both drive systems: the steam engine was followed by an exhaust steam turbine . The exhaust steam drove a low-pressure steam turbine upstream of the actual condenser. This either acted on the same propeller shaft (Bauer-Wach system) or drove an additional shaft in multi-screw steamers such as the Titanic . In this way, the reliability of the technically mature piston engine was retained, but the efficiency was increased .

Turbo-electric drive

In the first half of the 20th century, a type of propulsion began to be used in which the turbines only drove electricity generators. With the electrical energy, in turn, electric motors were operated, which were coupled directly to the propeller shafts. Although this system has disadvantages in terms of space consumption, weight and efficiency at full power, it has great advantages in terms of power control and reversibility. Economic efficiency with lower output is also favored. Since turbines only run in the economic range at certain speeds, one or more can be switched off when the power consumption is low. The remaining steam turbines, on the other hand, can provide the required low power at economical speeds.

An equivalent principle can be found in motor ships with diesel-electric propulsion .

Rattle boat

In toy steamships , so-called putt-putt or rattle boats , there is a particularly simple form of steam drive that works without moving parts: In an evaporator, a flame brings the water to the boil until it evaporates explosively and the water is pushed out through the recoil tubes. When the water column swings back, fresh water enters the evaporator and the cycle starts all over again.


Routes of steamship traffic on the Atlantic around 1898

Over time, the steamships replaced the sailing ships that had been common up until then . Their greatest advantage was their independence from the wind. With steamers, goods could be transported on rivers, inland lakes and seas very quickly and within a predictable time, as the steam generators provided constant energy for the journey. The steamers were and are fired with wood , briquettes and coal . At least in the case of the large steamers, the boilers were converted to operate with heavy oil after the First World War and new buildings were designed for this purpose. Steam shipping certainly had its peak in the first half of the 20th century. During this era, however, the more economical diesel drive began to spread , which was initially only used in small and slow ships. The fastest of all passenger steamers is the United States , completed in 1952. With a consumption of 50 tons of heavy fuel oil per hour, its propulsion reached an output of 241,785 hp , which was sufficient to propel the ship , which is over 300 meters long, at 38.32 knots . The fast passenger steamers were increasingly displaced by jet planes from the 1960s, and diesel engines were mostly installed in large cargo ships from the 1960s.

Todays situation

Paddle steamer Diesbar of the White Fleet in Dresden
The whaling steamer Hvalur 9 will be prepared for use in Reykjavík in 2018.

The last newly built transatlantic high-speed passenger steamer was the Queen Elizabeth 2, completed in 1968, and the last steam-powered passenger ships were built in the early 1980s. Many fast container ships were also equipped with steam turbines until the 1970s. With the sharp rise in the price of oil , however, these ships became unprofitable. To date, almost all of them have either been converted to drive with a diesel internal combustion engine or have been scrapped. In the military sector, for example, the last turbine ships of class 103 (Lütjens class) were decommissioned in 2003.

Ships represent a separate branch that extract heat from nuclear fuel in nuclear reactors and generate steam (usually only in a second liquid circuit ) in order to process the energy in steam turbines and (mostly) operate the hydraulic ship propulsion via electricity generators and electric motors. The Soviet icebreaker Lenin (1959–1989; now a museum) was the first ship for civil use powered by nuclear energy (via steam). The merchant ship Otto Hahn (1968–2009) was the only "atom (steam) ship" built in Germany. The USS Enterprise (CVN-65) (USA; 1961–2017) was the first aircraft carrier to be powered by nuclear power via steam. The modern US aircraft carriers and the French Charles de Gaulle currently obtain the energy for their steam turbines from several (mostly two) pressurized water reactors , which gives them a very large output and range. All porters from other nations are powered conventionally. Nuclear submarines represent another branch of the use of steam as an energy carrier for nuclear power: The US USS Nautilus (SSN-571) was the first nuclear submarine to enter service in 1954. There are currently six nations operating nuclear powered submarines; these are the USA , Russia , France , Great Britain , the People's Republic of China and India .

Several of the smaller steamers are still in operation today, for example at the White Fleet in Dresden (with nine steamers, the world's largest freshwater fleet) and in the historic port of Berlin on the Fischerinsel. The LWL Museum Henrichenburg also has a ready-to-run steamship called "Nixe".

The state steamer Schaarhörn , the Alster steamer St. Georg , the steam tugs Woltman , Claus D. and Tiger as well as the steam icebreaker Stettin are located in Hamburg , in Kiel the buoy laying buzzard invites you to tour the Kiel Fjord. In Flensburg , the saloon steamer Alexandra travels the Flensburg Fjord in scheduled and charter traffic.

On Lake Lucerne near Lucerne in Switzerland , five nostalgic paddle steamers from the turn of the 20th century still operate with the Lake Lucerne Shipping Company . Five paddle steamers and three paddle steamers that have now been converted to diesel-electric propulsion also operate on Lake Geneva . One of the Geneva liner, the Montreux , was converted back to steam operation with a new steam engine after a period of diesel-electric operation in 2001. The steam engine is remote-controlled from the bridge.

Two steamboats that have been completely restored also operate on Lake Thun and Lake Brienz (Lake Thun: Blümlisalp steam ship , Lake Brienz: Lötschberg steam ship ).

Two other side paddle steamers operate on Lake Zurich, namely the two sister ships Stadt Zürich (built by Escher Wyss AG , 1909) and Stadt Rapperswil (same shipyard, built in 1914).

In Austria , the paddle steamer Gisela runs on the Traunsee in regular service. Several times a year nostalgia trips are made on the Danube with the steamship Schönbrunn , which is privately owned by the Austrian Society for Railway History . The Thalia , a propeller-driven steamer converted to oil firing, runs regularly on Lake Wörthersee .

In addition, the Hohentwiel is still on the move on Lake Constance today .

Passenger steamers also operate on inland waterways in other European countries. So z. B. in the Czech Republic , Prague , two side wheel steamers for passenger transport are operated on the Vltava by the Prague steamship company.

Ships powered by conventional piston steam engines in commercial, not primarily tourist, use are very rare today. One of these exceptions is the Badger ferry on Lake Michigan . The whalers Hvalur 8 and Hvalur 9, built in 1948 and 1952 by the Icelandic whaling company Hvalur, are also conventional steam ships with oil-fired steam boilers and four-cylinder steam engines. They have been back in whaling service since 2009 after having hung up for 20 years , most recently in 2018 as the whaling season for 2019 and 2020 was canceled. The Hvalur 6 and Hvalur 7 , also powered by steam engines , were sunk by militant whaling opponents in 1986 and then lifted, but have remained in service since then.

Famous civil steamers

The Queen Mary , completed in 1936, was one of the largest and most powerful steamships
Steam icebreaker Stettin in the port of Kiel



  • Franz I. first steamboat trip on the Danube, on September 17, 1830 from Vienna to Pest

Great Britain

United States


  • Sinaia (1924) - transported Spanish Republicans into exile in Mexico in 1939
  • Normandy (1935) - Winner of the Blue Ribbon 1935–1936, 1937–1938
  • France (Norway; 1961)


  • Andrea Doria (1952) - important luxury steamer of the post-war period


  • Jermak (1899) - first real icebreaker

More articles

See also


  • Wilhelm Lederer: Marine engineering vol. I ship steam boilers. Fachbuchverlag Leipzig
  • Wilhelm Lederer: Ship engineering, Vol. II, ship piston steam engines. Fachbuchverlag Leipzig
  • Wilhelm Lederer: Ship engineering, Vol. III Ship steam turbines. Fachbuchverlag Leipzig
  • Jürgen Taggesell: Photo documents of old ship piston steam engines
  • Flavia Travaglini: The Catastrophe of Neptune. A detailed chronicle, written by Charles Favre, of the sinking of the steamship on Lake Biel in 1880 and its uplift. W. Gassmann AG Verlag, Biel / Switzerland, ISBN 3-906140-41-5
  • Hans-Jürgen Warnecke: Ship propulsion systems - 5000 years of innovation. Koehler-Verlag, Hamburg 2005, ISBN 3-7822-0908-7
  • Bösche, Hochhaus, Pollem, Taggesell u. a .: Steamers, diesels and turbines - the world of marine engineers. German Maritime Museum Bremerhaven, Convent Verlag, Hamburg 2005, ISBN 3-934613-85-3


  1. Alonso Péan, Louis de La Saussaye: La vie et les ouvrages de Denis Papin , Franck, Paris 1869, pp. 235ff., ( Digitized ).
  2. Chapter 14. Actual evidence that the first steamship in the world on the Fulda from Cassel to Münden and was destroyed there , in: Geschichte der Stadt Münden , Münden 1878, p. 113ff., ( Digitized ).
  3. a b K. Intemann: Icelandic whaling boats Hvalur 6, 7, 8 and 9 (PDF) In: Ships and more . 2010. Accessed July 4, 2020.
  4. qu / fab (afp, dpa): Iceland will refrain from whaling in 2019 . In: . German wave. June 28, 2019. Accessed July 4, 2020.
  5. No whaling in Iceland in 2020 . International Fund for Animal Welfare. April 28, 2020. Accessed July 4, 2020.

Web links

Wiktionary: Steamship  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: Dampfer  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Steam Ships  - Collection of images, videos and audio files