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Technology and Culture 48.3 (2007) 471-496

"Trust in Providence"
Building Confidence into the Cunard Line of Steamers
Crosbie Smith
Anne Scott

Dependence on the providence, and trust in the promises of God, are duties which must be acknowledged by all those who believe in a Providence. . . . How wonderful is the power and knowledge which can regulate the universe and direct the secret thoughts of the human race, which can so connect the changes in the different parts of the material world, the very winds which blow, with the purposes of the heart of man, as in every instance to bring to pass that which is wise and proper.

—Dr. John Burns1 [End Page 471]

In their study of the "moral economy of the ocean steamship," Smith, Higginson, and Wolstenholme explored how the values of a Liverpool Unitarian community shaped the design decisions of Alfred and Philip Henry Holt's Ocean Steamship Company; analyzed Alfred Holt's early high-pressure marine compound engines as responses to a moral imperative of maximum economy; linked Unitarian opposition to waste with the Holts' crusades for reliability and safety; and discussed evidence provided by the North American Review (1864) for the Cunard Company's avoidance of both extravagance and parsimony.2

This article examines the cultural and religious contexts that shaped the Cunard Company's commitment to safety and reliability rather than to speed, luxury, or technological display. It thus shows how a particular form of evangelical Christianity, central to the theology of Scotland's Thomas Chalmers, helped define the business and technological culture of the small group of Glasgow shipowners and engineers who created Samuel Cunard's British & North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company in 1840. Members of this group did not celebrate the ambitions of speed, experiment, and ostentation believed to increase human pride and tempt Providence. Rather, their version of evangelicalism looked to the fulfillment of God's promises through honest and competent craftsmanship founded in experience.

There is ample evidence that by the third quarter of the nineteenth century Cunard's line of steamers had acquired a reputation for safety and reliability unique among shipowners competing for passengers and mail on the dangerous North Atlantic routes. In 1866, for example, a contributor to the new journal Engineering advised readers that his own choice for crossing to the New World "would incline to those [ships] of the Cunard fleet" since they were as "safe as the Bank of England."3 A decade later, William Lindsay asserted with italicized emphasis that over the company's thirty-five years, "neither life nor letter entrusted to their care has been lost through shipwreck, collision, fire, or any of the too frequent causes of disaster, during the numerous voyages made by the Cunard steamers across the Atlantic."4 And in the 1890s, Edwin Hodder, biographer of one of Cunard's founding partners, quoted Mark Twain as saying "he felt himself rather safer on board a Cunard steamer than he did on land."5

In Hodder's view, the company's reputation did not rely on radical innovations. "It was always the policy of the Company that others should [End Page 472] experimentalise," he affirmed, "and when the novel principle had been proved by indubitable tests, then, and not till then, to introduce it into their next vessel."6 Thus while Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Great Britain had introduced the concept of a transatlantic iron-screw steamer in 1845, Cunard did not abandon the construction of wooden-hulled mail steamers before 1853, or paddle wheels before 1862. And while the Holts had introduced compound engines in 1866, Cunard waited another five years, preferring the reliable but coal-hungry side-lever engines whose Clyde pedigree dated to the 1820s. As we shall see, Cunard and his associates believed there were ways to "experimentalise" that would not imperil passengers' lives.7

Cunard's Glasgow circle contrasts strongly with that of the Unitarian Holts, who represented the new generation of steamship engineers and owners of...


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