Steam proved its worth in relatively short order on land; on water it took a little longer. The French experimented early with steam driven boats and by 1780 the Pyroscaphe was paddling up the Saone River near Lyons. But it was the American engineer Robert Fulton (1765-1815) who convinced everyone of the future of steamboats. In 1807, the Clermount, a product of Robert Fulton's mind, a paddle-wheeler, drove herself by steam-power upriver on the Hudson, from New york to Albany.1
At Quebec, in 1809, John Molson, famous for his beer, financed the construction and operation of the steamship, Accommodation. Thereafter, she made regular runs between the cities of Montreal and Quebec. In July of 1819, the American steam ship, Savannah crossed the Atlantic in 26 days. (She had a dozen sails and used them far more than she did her steam engine, nor could she steam 26 days straight as she could not carry enough coal.) In 1825, a voyage was made by sea from Falmouth to Calcutta in 103 days, 64 of which were under steam.2 On April 27, 1831, a steamship, the Royal William, was launched at Quebec by the Quebec and Halifax Steam Navigation Company; it arrived at Halifax on August 31st. So too, in these early years, in June of 1833, the steamboat, Maid of the Mist made its first trip from Saint John, New Brunswick, to Windsor, Nova Scotia.
And so we are brought up to the beginning of that period when steam ships plying the oceans were becoming a common site. A development in which the province of Nova Scotia played a very significant part, as it can be seen from a review of the life of Samuel Cunard. For awhile steam ships and sailing ships overlapped. Though it was a pretty battle between graceful sailing "Clippers"3 and side-wheelers, "Steam Kettles," -- as the 19th century wore on, it became clear which mode of ocean travel was to win, though ingenious combinations of rigs and sails led to many improvements in wind power, improvements which prolonged the age of sail well into the 19th Century.
At least, sail had the advantage of being cheap. Paul Johnson explains:
"Wooden ships had many advantages, not least the fact that they could be repaired in yards anywhere in the world or just beached on a friendly, tree-lined shore. They were strong, too. It is worth remembering that HMS Victory, a 100-gun ship of 2,162 tons, laid down at Chatham in 1759 (though not completed until 1778), carried the flag of 14 admirals, including Nelson, was involved in eight major actions in 34 years, was not paid off till 1835 and still survives. But ships made of wood developed weaknesses if built beyond a certain length; in 1811 theoretical studies by Thomas Laing demonstrated that the safe maximum Length was about 300 feet. By contrast, the length of bars of iron for transverse frames was almost limitless, and iron ships could dispense with a keel and be built to virtually any size. And, if steam-power was coming for ships, it seemed anomalous, as well as a fire risk, to put an iron engine in a wooden hull."4By 1835 a fever had broken out amongst the English shipping companies. It seems, as the decade moved along, more and more investors recognized the opportunity of sending steamers across the Atlantic to America. The race was on! On April 4th, 1838, a 178-foot steamer, the Sirius, left Cork heading for New York. Many were skeptical that such a ship could make it. On April 23rd, the Sirius steamed into New York Harbour amid much excitement. Later that day a larger vessel, built especially for the crossing, the Great Western (235 feet), came in: a crossing time of an amazing 15 days!5
We can see from a contemporary report that there was considerable use of steam boats in Nova Scotia, as of 1848:
"Mail steamers leave Halifax weekly, for England, the United States, Bermuda, and Newfoundland -- the latter touching at Sydney Cape Breton -- there is also Steam intercourse between Halifax and St John's [Saint John] New Brunswick including the intervening ports along the Western Shore and between Windsor, Annapolis and St. John's, on that side of the province washed by the Bay of Fundy. A Steamboat plies in the Bras d'or lake, Cape Breton, and occasionally there is another connecting Pictou with Prince Edward's Island -- Lines of Stage coaches run trice a week from Halifax to Pictou and Annapolis."6