Coal, Steam and Ships: Engineering, Enterprise and Empire on the Nineteenth-Century Seas by Crosbie Smith
By Crosbie Smith. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. 468. Hardcover $39.99.
Crosbie Smith's latest book is the culmination of his long train of work on the subject of energy in the British culture. From "Work and Waste: Political Economy and Natural Philosophy in Nineteenth Century Britain" (History of Science, 1989) to Energy and Empire: A Biographical Study of Lord Kelvin (Cambridge University Press, 1989) to The Science of Energy: A Cultural History of Energy Physics in Victorian Britain (Athlone and University of Chicago Press, 1998), Smith has led our understanding of how the concept of "energy" reshaped both the scientific and cultural landscapes of Great Britain.
While the previous works were often landlocked, Coal, Steam and Ships is specifically situated where Britain's strategic advantages in energy sciences and technologies were most prized, on the high seas in support of its overseas empire. It owes much to the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council grant project "Ocean Steamship: A Cultural History of Victorian Maritime Power," focused on the cultural networks that secured British ocean steam navigation, a project that drew together a number of researchers with whom Smith has also co-authored journal articles and academic papers.
Smith divides his book into three geographic sections: "Part I: North [End Page 1105] Atlantic Steam," "Part II: Westward for Panama," and "Part III: Eastward for India and China," with the last section, "Part IV: Engineering an Ocean Economy," presenting a synthetic picture of the coal economy. Indeed, coal—more specifically efficiency in coal use—is the first of two major themes that weave throughout this book, and throughout many of Crosbie's other works. The main characters—not just the well-known Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Samuel Cunard, but also lesser-known industrialists like George Burns and Thomas Assheton Smith—were fixated as much on coal consumption as they were on safety, both of which had a strong economic as well as moral basis.
Part I's highlight is an in-depth analysis of the competition between Junius Smith's Sirius and Brunel's Great Western to be the first to cross the North Atlantic under steam (spoiler alert: Sirius took the prize, Great Western took the glory, and Samuel Cunard took the market), with a through dissection of the famous dispute with the scientific writer Dionysius Lardner, who claimed the idea of crossing the North Atlantic by steam was "chimerical." Part II examines the difficulties with developing regular service to Central and South America. These routes were often marked by tragedy, including the loss to grounding of RMSP Solway in 1843 and the loss to fire of RMS Amazon on its maiden voyage in 1851. Part III focuses on the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, or P&O. The "P" was for the Iberian Peninsula, as Portugal and Spain were major trading partners with Britain, though much of the trade was dominated by sending passengers and cargo via Egypt even before the Suez Canal opened. These long-distance voyages were particularly scrutinized for efficiency, for as Smith notes, "Coal accounted for half the total costs in the case of Peninsula service, and almost three-quarters in the case of the Alexandria steamers" (p. 250). Part IV charts the rise of the compound engine as the credible acme of efficient steam propulsion.
Smith's second major theme in Coal, Steam and Ships, as well as his other works, is his attribution of engineering values like safety and economy to the philosophical underpinnings of the various British Protestant denominations. All through the pages of this and his other books, Smith takes enormous pains to distinguish between and allocate the various theologies of Evangelism, Presbyterianism, and Anglicism to these engineering principles. Of course, British Protestants were not the only ones to exhibit these values; in France, the engineers Frédéric Sauvage, Augustin Normand, and Claude de Jouffroy d'Abbans all linked their Catholic religiosity to the development of efficient screw propellers (Michel Lagrée, "Religion and Technological Innovation: The steamboat in 1840s France," History and Technology 12, no. 4 : 327–59). Nor were these confined to Christianity; the Sephardic Jewish marine engineers Joseph and Jacob Samuda also brought their religious convictions to furthering their work (Edward Jamilly, "Patrons, Clients, Designers and Developers: the Jewish [End Page 1106] Contribution to Secular Building in England," Jewish Historical Studies 38 : 75–103, at p. 88).
The index is as meticulous as the research; sixty-two pages of extensive cross-referencing ensure that the reader will never be lost.
Larrie D. Ferreiro is a naval architect, historian, and the 2017 Pulitzer finalist in history for his book Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It. His latest book is Bridging the Seas: The Rise of Naval Architecture in the Industrial Age, 1800-2000 (MIT Press, 2020).