Wood to steel and beyond: the history of shipbuilding

The evolution of ship building is much like the automobile – it used to be made completely of wood panels. Before the industrial era changed everything with the mass production of steel manufacturing, excavations of historic shipwreck remain from the Early Bronze Age right through to Medieval times confirms this statement. Now, many ships are built using steel plates, aluminum or fiberglass.

The early days of ship building

Humans have sailed the seven seas for thousands of years, with the first known vessel dating back 10,000 ago. The first proper ships, with sails made from animal skins or woven fabrics, are recorded around 3000 BC. The only metal components included copper fastenings in ancient Egyptian and various forms of metals used from Greek times. The metal on Greek vessels was used for anchors, fastenings, braces and other components that could be hammered to create a stronger ship.

Popularity of metal starts to grow in 19th century

By the nineteenth century, metal work had become a common art and timber vessels greatly benefited from iron elements. Initially it was iron bolts, which gradually transitioned into copper alloy for fastening timbers and copper alloy sheeting for the external hull to reduce the impact of collision with marine organisms. To allow greater strength and allow for greater internal space on the ship, the main structural elements such as the brackets used to secure the hull frames, started to be made from iron.

The industrial era of ship building

Thanks to the innovation of marine steam engine technology, steam powered engines were introduced to timber ships. At first paddle steamers, eventually several forms of compound engines with iron boilers and furnaces became commonplace. According to the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, one of the first steam engines to launch in Australia was the Sophia Jane, a timber-hulled paddle steamer which operated out of Sydney in 1831.

By the 1860’s, the technology in metal processing was further perfected, with metalworkers capable of rolling it into sheets, cutting and drilling it. This allowed shipwrights to design hulls made completely from iron and were common sight in Australia from the 1860’s, although due to the lack of shipyards present in Australia at this time, many of the vessels were built in the UK and transported over. Surviving examples of ships from this time include the James Craigthe 19th century’s only square rigger – which carried general cargoes and rounded Cape Horn approximately 23 times.

As the introduction of steel became more commonplace, so did ships made from this material. Either used in steel plate or sheet form, for all-metal hulls or as isolated structural parts. It is strong, yet heavy (approximately 30% heavier than aluminum) but offers a superior abrasion resistance than other ship building materials and is more cost effective. It’s also very common that a steel-cutting ceremony takes place before the construction process begins. In fact, it’s one of the few shipbuilding traditions that’s lasted the test of time. It involves laser cutting a design of a steel plate that’s intended for the hull of the ship. The vendor of the ship can either feature the design on the ship or keep as a memento.

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