Everybody now knows that sailing ships can cross the ocean powered by the free fuel of the wind: except the wind is not free. It requires masts and sails and a lot of rope and a large crew to handle it all. And even then you can only move when the wind is blowing. By the beginning of the nineteenth century the world had five thousand years invested in sailing technology. But living with that technology meant that the advantages of steam power were obvious. A steam ship could leave port when it wanted to, and even travel against the wind. The crew could be a tenth of the size needed on a sailing ship, which meant more of the power was used for moving cargo and less for moving the ship and crew. The ship and crew are expenses. The cargo is the profit. And the new nation of America had a shortage of manpower, meaning a shortage of sailors. Steam ships were the obvious way to increase profits.
Which is why, in 1818, the successful cotton merchant William Scarbrough of Savannah, Georgia paid $50,000 for a 319 ton packet ship then under construction at the Fickett and Crockett shipyard, on the East River, in New York City. Scarbrough was convinced that the future of naval commerce was in steam, and he was president of (and principle investor in) the newly formed Savannah Steamship Company. He was intent upon establishing regular steam ship service between America and Europe. And to shepherd that dream into reality Scarbough sought out Captain Moses Rogers.
Moses Rogers seemed to have grown up in almost the perfect time and place for a young man with a maritime heritage, a mechanical bearing of mind and an adventurous spirit. He was pure Yankee, born in New London, Connecticut. He had been one of the first captains of Robert Fulton’s “North River Steamboat” (Later called the “Claremont”) and in June of 1808 had shared command of John C. Steven’s steamboat “The Phoenix”. Stevens had missed beating Fulton to the honor of first steamboat in America by just a month, and missed profitability by not having the Governor of New York as a partner.
On August 22, 1818 the newly named “Savannah”, 98’6” long by 25’10” wide, with three masts and a man’s bust for a figurehead , slid off the ways in upper Manhatten and immediately sailed to Vail’s Speedwell Iron Works, at Mooristown, New Jersey where a 90 horsepower 30 ton steam engine, removable side paddlewheels and a 17’ bent smokestack were installed . The work took six months. On March 29th 1819 the Savannah sailed on her shakedown cruise to her namesake port. Then on May 22nd, she set sail for Liverpool, England.
The British were not impressed. It seemed to them the limited power of the steam engine was not worth the loss in cargo space. Given the cold shoulder in England the Savannah sailed for Copenhagen, where the King of Sweden offered to buy the ship for $100,000. But not having been authorized to sell, Captain Rogers said no. Ah, if he had only said yes, this story might have had a happier ending, because back home in America, the nation was being rocked by the Panic if 1819.
The steamship Savannah was a good idea. But like most ideas, good and bad, it was judged a failure. Nobody got rich off the Savannah and most people associated with her went broke. And that is why they should be remembered. It's the way history moves forward; not in a great sweep of historic successes followed by success, but in fits and false starts and at least half the time when humanity does succeed it is almost by accident and in spite of ourselves. At no time in history was anybody any smarter or more talented or luckier than anybody alive right now. And I think it helps to be reminded of that, every so often. The Savannah is such a reminder.