We associate ocean travel and cruises with leisure and vacations. We think of grand ocean liners crossing the Atlantic and embarking on world cruises. We think about a world of refined luxury that eventually became available to the mass market. It all developed quite differently. To understand how we arrived at today’s cruise industry, we need to understand communication, business travel, government subsidies and competition.
1815 Communication Knowledge has value. It’s been said Nathaniel Rothschild made great profits in the London gilt market (bonds) because he had news of the British victory at Waterloo on June 18, 1815 about 24 hours before the news arrived by the Duke of Wellington’s couriers. The Rothchild bank had its own network of messengers on horseback, carrier pigeons and fast boats. Few people had that kind of network, but ships and trains would provide a way for mail, couriers and secret treaties to travel.
1840 Samuel Cunard’s ship Britannia, made its first transatlantic crossing, sailing from Liverpool, England to Halifax, Canada in 12 days and 10 hours. The company, British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company had a mail delivery contract The firm’s name was later changed to Cunard. The ship was a steam driven paddlewheel also equipped with masts for sails. It was the first liner designed to also carry passengers. The average speed was 11 knots.
1845 The clipper ship, originally developed in Baltimore around 1812. The design on these five-masted ships was perfected over about 50 years. They were built for global trade, specifically New York to San Francisco (the Gold Rush), China to England (tea) and India to China. They were fast. The Sovereign of the Seas set a world record of 22 knots per hour, although 16 knots was more common. They were designed for shipping, not passengers.
1883 The train that was later known as the Orient Express started service between Paris and Giurgiu, Romania. Diplomats needed to travel over land. Mail needed to be delivered. Gold transferred. Since this was land travel for business people and government officials, it was luxurious.
1897 Marconi invents wireless transmission, allowing radio signals to be sent through the air for 3.7 miles. By 1902 signals could be transmitted about 700 miles. Ship to land and ship to ship communication was possible.
1902 JP Morgan decides to get into the shipping business. There’s lots of traffic across the Atlantic. Britain and the US are two major world leaders. The Germans and French have also been building liners, ships specifically designed for long ocean voyages. Examples from the period include the Lusitania and Mauritania (1907) owned by Cunard. That same year JP Morgan’s White Star Line commissioned its Olympic class ships, the Olympia, Britannic and Titanic. In 1909 the Mauretania won the Blue Riband with a speed of 26 knots. These were the luxurious liners we’ve seen in movies. Many were converted into troop ships during the first and second world wars.
1952 The SS United States, built in 1950 wins the Bleu Riband, crossing the Atlantic at 35.69 knots. Designed as a passenger ship, it was the fastest ocean liner sailing in either direction. The US government put up $50 million of the $78 million it cost to build the ship. The ship’s superstructure was extensively aluminum.
1947 Windjammer Barefoot Cruises is founded. Tall, sailing ships evoking the history of the original clipper ships. They sailed the Caribbean. The line sailed until 2007.
1953 The De Havilland Comet becomes the first commercial airliner. In 1957 the Boeing 707 was introduced into service. A faster alternative for transatlantic business travelers was now available. Cargo and mail too.
1960’s Cruising became a vacation alternative. Caribbean cruises became popular. The class structure led the way to single class cruising.
1972 Carnival Cruise Line is founded. The target market was younger people. They popularized “The Fun Ships.”
1977 The Love Boat TV series starts its 10 year run. The Pacific Princess serves as the backdrop for the series. Millions of Americans are introduced to cruising.
1997 Viking River Cruises is founded, sailing rivers in Europe. Starting with four ships, the company now has 76 river ships and 6 ocean going ships.
2018 Royal Caribbean International launches Symphony of the Seas, the largest cruise ship afloat at 228,081 tons. The ship carries a maximum of 6,680 passengers. It’s an Oasis class vessel.
Over time, we’ve gotten away from communications, mail delivery, shipping and setting speed records. Large or small, there’s a ship for everyone’s tastes.
Cover photo: Victory 1 Great Lakes ©Dennis Cox/WorldViews