Originally published in DNA on 20 Jan 2019
Many of you must have read about the first train in India — the famous 1853 run from Boribunder to Thane. It heralded a new dawn for communications, industry and transport in India. An equally important event happened 30 years prior to that, in 1825 in Calcutta. The first trans-ocean steamship reached India: The SS Enterprise. It had completed the maiden England-India voyage using steam engines! The steam engine and its successor, the diesel engine, completely revolutionised the shipping world. Ships using sails were always made of wood; they were slow moving and small in size. The steam engine enabled the use of iron for building ships, and eventually enabled the building of vessels over 200 metres long. The RMS Titanic, for example, was nearly 300 metres long and moved at a speed three to four times that of the erstwhile sailing ship!
Hence, to move from sail to steam was a milestone for any country, including India. The Nawab of Awadh had a small steamboat built for himself by Henry Pickett. This was followed by other river steamboats such as the Diane. The Diane was the first steamboat built in India, being put together in Calcutta by JT Roberts. But it had little luck when it came to commerce and Roberts had a tough time selling his product. Eventually, its English Oak structure had to be replaced by teakwood (Indian teakwood was much in demand for ship building), before finally being launched in 1824. Just the previous year, some in London were giving serious thought to rounding the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) by a steamship — an idea which many described as a waste of time. But the success of the Diane and other steamboats increased the interest in such an ambitious project which finally went ahead. A preliminary study concluded that 80,000 rupees would be required to run the vessel during the entire trip (running costs are into a few lakhs per day on modern ships); much of it on coal, its fuel.
Interestingly, the Nawab of Awadh financed nearly a fifth of this amount! The Calcutta Steam Committee even announced a cash prize if the ship managed to reach within its declared ETA, which was 70 days. The SS Enterprise was a peculiar, hybrid ship — it had sails along with a steam engine. Such ships were called ‘Auxiliary steamships’. The transition from sail to steam actually had an in-between invention to show! For some part of the journey, the sails were rigged and used, as the weather permitted. Elsewhere, the steam engine kicked into action.
As it turned out, the ship took over 100 days to complete the journey instead of the promised 70. Ten of these were spent in replenishing the coal on board. In December 1825, the SS Enterprise arrived at Calcutta harbour, marking a shift from the age of sail to the age of steam. Although it took roughly the same amount of time as a contemporary sailing ship, the advantages were obvious and the technology was here to stay. The vessel was sold to the East India Company for the princely sum of 40,000 rupees, and immediately pressed into service as a supply and communication vessel for the Anglo Burmese War.
The person who had commanded the SS Enterprise to India, Captain Johnston, was now put in charge of another ambitious project — navigating a steamboat called The Hooghly from Calcutta to Allahabad for a distance of eight hundred miles. At the same time, another steamboat, The Brahmapooter, journeyed from Calcutta into Assam.
Not long after that, the ship building yard at Bombay Docks got to work on a steam ship. The docks run by the Wadias already had a long and rich history of building worldclass vessels, including those directly commissioned into the Royal British Navy. Hence, when the building of the steam ship ‘Hugh Lindsay’ was taken up in 1829, it was hardly to anyone’s surprise. This ship plied from Bombay to Suez and back. Proposals to extend the service into Europe, via railways, were discussed. At the time called the ‘overland route’, since the Suez Canal was yet to be built! Ten years later, the Victoria — the fastest steamer in the world then — was launched. A steam-powered ship built at the Mazagon Docks also made its way to its buyer a few years later — the Imam of Muscat! Each of these ships had a silver nail hammered into the ship’s body for good luck – a Parsi tradition!
The steam engine and its related innovations – the steel or iron hull and the new screw type propeller — completely revolutionised global shipping, trade and commerce. Ports and routes hitherto unreachable or unnavigable by sailing ships were now thrown open. Immense amounts of cargo could now be carried in massive ships; today’s largest ships are many times larger than the ones in which Columbus and Vasco Da Gama travelled! The steam engine enabled more progress to be made in ship construction in 200 years than wood and canvas sails had in 500!