In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Steam Warships

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • National Studies
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Steam Ships
  • Steam Power
  • Engineers
  • Paddle Wheel Warships
  • Wooden Screw Steam Warships
  • Coast Assault
  • Coast Defense
  • Gunboats
  • Ironclads
  • The American Civil War
  • The Monitor
  • Life on Board
  • The Armored Battle Fleet, 1870–1890
  • Torpedoes and Torpedo Boats
  • Iconography
  • Infrastructure
  • Preserved Steam Warships

Military History Steam Warships
Andrew Lambert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0139


The steam warship was a transitional stage between warships powered by human muscle power or the wind, and the modern warship propelled entirely by mechanical means that emerged in the late 1880s. Steam propulsion gave warships additional mobility, speed, and maneuverability, but its main impact was to enhance the strategic power of maritime forces. Initially conceived as auxiliaries for “conventional” sailing ship navies, a process that culminated in the paddle wheel warship of the 1830s and 1840s, steam capital ships emerged in the late 1840s, using screw propellers and compact engines in modified wooden sailing warships. Iron hulls and armor plate reinforced the shift to steam propulsion: after 1870 steam warships slowly abandoned auxiliary sails. Compound and then triple expansion engines improved boilers and twin-screw propulsion, ending the need for sails outside the central Pacific. The subject has been dominated by design and technical histories, generally undervaluing political, economic, and strategic issues, while works in the latter fields tend to ignore technical development and overestimate capabilities. Academic studies date back to the 1930s and, although still limited in extent, have increased markedly in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Although technical histories have been produced since the early 20th century, they remain largely disconnected from academic study. While most studies examine the steam warship in a narrow naval context, their primary impact was strategic; steam warships transformed the tactical capabilities of navies against shore-based defenses and the logistics of maritime power projection, enhancing the strategic role of sea power in war, deterrence, and diplomacy. The critical role of sea power in the Crimean and the American Civil Wars prompted a proliferation of defensive systems to deny steam warships access to coasts, harbors, and rivers. These included major fortress programs; submarine mines; new warship concepts, including the Monitor; coast defense battleships; torpedo boats; and submarines. Britain, the dominant sea power, created a specialized power-projection battle fleet, deterring rival powers from challenging British interests. Elsewhere, the steam warship became the basic tool of imperialism; small “gunboats” carried colonial power into the heart of continents, with suitably medicated crews. Between 1865 and the late 1880s, Britain faced no serious naval challenge. The next wave of naval competition emerged at roughly the same time as the maturing of the modern warship in 1889, leading to a fifteen-year period of design stability and a quadrupling of world battleship fleets.

General Overviews

Warship history has been dominated by works devoted to mastering the technical detail of warships and their construction and service careers, with lists of ships, dates, and specifications. Relatively few works have set the warship in wider contexts, even separating them from commercial steamships. Among such works, few focus on the 19th century. The excellent Conway’s History of the Ship volumes (see Gardiner and Lambert 1992 and Greenhill and Gardiner 1993) were the first large-scale attempts to encompass the field and pioneered the comparative study of the steam warships as well as the tactical and strategic roles they fulfilled. They addressed the evolution of technology, contrasting approaches to the opportunities provided by mechanical power, the interconnected nature of attack and defense, and the long-ignored issue of steam and sail ship handling, and these works must be read together. Sondhaus 2001 offers a narrative naval history overview. The rapid and varied development of steam warships has confused many historians who fail to grasp the different value of new and old ships of the same type, or confuse small coast defense assets with large ocean-going types, notably those who claim that the Royal Navy operated coast defense ships in the period 1865–1890. Such errors are easily avoided. Ship designs are easily understood, although like any specialist branch of historical literature, there are important tools. Detailed specifications reveal the intended role of the ship. Designers strove to meet requirements set by strategic, tactical, economic, and political input. In the early 1860s, Russia invested in a large fleet of slow, low freeboard, low endurance, armored turret ships because it feared a British attack on Saint Petersburg. Comparing these ships with the much larger, longer ranged and more seaworthy contemporary British battleships makes the point very clear. The best warship histories, notably Brown 1990 and Brown 1997, the first two volumes of five, link design to these wider considerations.

  • Brown, D. K. Before the Ironclad: The Development of Ship Design, Propulsion and Armament in the Royal Navy 1815–1860. London: Conway, 1990.

    Examines the development of warships and design expertise. It provides students with the tools needed to understand the link between warship function and design. See also Brown 1997.

  • Brown, D. K. Warrior to Dreadnought: Warship Development 1860–1905. London: Chatham, 1997.

    Part of a five-volume set, with Brown 1990, by an eminent naval architect and historian of British warship design.

  • Gardiner, R., and A. Lambert, eds. Steam, Steel and Shellfire: The Steam Warship, 1815–1905. London: Conway, 1992.

    Multiauthor work examining the evolution of naval technology in strategic and political context. The scale of the work, excellent bibliographic referencing, and illustrations make this a landmark text. It has not been superseded.

  • Greenhill, B., and R. Gardiner, eds. The Advent of Steam: The Merchant Steam Ship before 1900. London: Conway, 1993.

    Important chapters on steam technology, screw propulsion, iron hulls, and steam-sail navigation make this an essential companion to Gardiner and Lambert 1992. Merchant steamships were used extensively in 19th-century wars as auxiliary warships, transports, and blockade-runners.

  • Sondhaus, L. Naval Warfare, 1815–1914. London: Routledge, 2001.

    Narrative overview, especially good on the activity of smaller navies; the many wars; and civil wars of Latin America, the Crimean, and the American Civil and Italo-Austrian Wars. A good textbook and guide to the secondary literature.

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