Because my books are set in C19th Cornwall, finding a subject and background that hasn’t already been explored, by me or others, is not easy. But while I was re-reading a history of the packet service based in Falmouth, one line triggered a light-bulb moment. It mentioned trials of a new high-pressure boiler fitted to one of the first steam driven packet ships.
For over fifty years the Post Office had run the packet service at a profit, the ships sailing to all parts of the globe carrying mail, bullion, passengers, and despatches to naval vessels. But the end of the wars with France threw scores of naval commanders and crews out of work. To give them employment and ensure the country would have trained men available in the event of another conflict, the Admiralty pressured the government to transfer responsibility for the packet service to them. Almost immediately it started losing money. Instead of continuing to use locally built schooners that were fast, light, and able to cope with most wind conditions, the Admiralty insisted on replacing them with naval brigs. These were cumbersome and top-heavy. In fact so many were lost during bad weather they became known as coffin brigs.
Desperate to get back into profit, knowing they needed faster voyages and a faster turnaround, the Admiralty decided to experiment with steam-driven ships. But initial trials were sabotaged by confusion and resistance. The engineers were civilians with no rank and therefore no authority, while the commanders and crew of the brigs knew nothing about engines and had no interest in learning.
Early steam-driven marine engines powered paddlewheels fitted on either side of the ship. The Americans were ahead of Britain with this technology and were already using paddlewheel steamers to carry passengers and freight along the Mississippi and other rivers.
But rivers are smooth. The sea isn’t. Paddlewheels digging into ocean waves at different times and different depths resulted in a jerky waddling motion that made all but the strongest horribly seasick.
Another drawback to high pressure steam was that without regular careful maintenance the boilers had a tendency to explode. When this happened in a railway locomotive, only the driver and stoker perished. But when a paddle steamer carrying two or three hundred people blew apart the loss and carnage were devastating.
This set me thinking. Might there be a safer alternative? I found one. It’s amazing, and I’ll tell you more about it next time.