April 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 3
The Sirius steamed into New York Harbor early in the morning of April 23. Later that day thousands of curious onlookers thronged the Battery to see the British steamer that had dropped anchor near Castle Garden. Her epochal seventeen-day journey from Cork had halved the typical duration of Atlantic crossings. The era of transatlantic steam service had begun.
Six years before, a London-based American merchant by the name of Junius Smith had endured a monotonous fifty-four-day crossing from London to New York. When he returned to London, he tried to interest backers in the applications of steam power to sea voyages, with little initial success.
Although coastal and inland steam navigation was well established by the 1830s, many experts gravely doubted the practicability of ocean crossings by steam. On the high seas boilers rapidly became encrusted with salt and had to be scoured regularly to prevent corrosion. Oceangoing steam vessels could make only sparing use of their engines and had to rely mostly on their sails.
In 1834 the British inventor Samuel Hall perfected a new type of steam engine that recycled boiler exhaust. Hall’s surface condenser enabled ships to use fresh water in their boilers throughout an ocean voyage.
Two years later Junius Smith finally enlisted the aid of the shipbuilder and African explorer Macgregor Laird and formed the British & American Steam Navigation Company. They began work on the construction of a mammoth, seventeen-hundred-ton steamship to be called the British Queen .
In their wake rival steam navigation companies appeared in England. A group of investors in Bristol hired the engineer lsambard K. Brunei to build a 1,340-ton transatlantic steamer. As Brunei’s ship, the Great Western , raced toward completion, construction delays beset the builders of the British Queen. Determined to be first, Smith and Laird chartered the Sirius , a sailing packet, and converted her to steam.
The Sirius arrived in New York just eight hours before the Great Western , which had weathered a strike by the stoking crew, rampant seasickness among the passengers, and a boiler-room fire that almost killed Brunei, to complete her passage from Bristol—and to set the new record—in fourteen days.