For centuries, sailing ships were the most reliable means of transiting long distances at sea, but a voyage onboard such a vessel was lengthy and risky. The first steamships were modest in design; they were simply sailing ships with steaming capabilities. At the time, crossing the Atlantic Ocean – the bridge linking the Old and the New World – onboard such a vessel was regarded as an impossible task.
The first steamship to make this daring voyage was the 1818-built SAVANNAH, an American hybrid sailing ship/paddle steamer, which in 1819 made the crossing in about 27 days, opening a new chapter in maritime history. The transit was, however, purely experimental as despite publicity, efforts to attract passengers and cargo were unsuccessful.
Over the coming years, thanks to the construction of higher specification ships, more and more steamships transited long distances other than the North Atlantic crossing, while the advancement in shipbuilding technology led to the first truly commercial liner ventures. In the late 1830s, the founders of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) launched a service between England and the Iberian Peninsula, while in 1840 the British and North American Royal Mail Steam-Packet Company – the predecessor of the Cunard Line – established a transatlantic Royal Mail service.
Meanwhile, the difficult economic reality in Europe encouraged thousands of people to immigrate to the New World, which at the time offered great opportunities to hard-working and determined individuals.
In 1845, the GREAT BRITAIN – designed by the British engineering pioneer Isambard Kingdom Brunel – entered service, becoming the first iron-hulled steamship driven by a propeller to cross the Atlantic. She did so in 14 days; about half the time it had taken the SAVANNAH 26 years earlier. Brunel’s next creation, the GREAT EASTERN, completed in 1859, was a major step forward as she was more than twice her predecessor’s length and could carry up to 4,000 passengers. Moreover, she was capable of transiting from Britain to Australia without re-coaling. Despite her innovative design, the GREAT EASTERN was a financial failure and never made a voyage to Australia.
Even though the first steps in the transportation of passengers to remote locations by steamship had been made, a voyage from Europe to the East was still long and tiresome. However, things changed for the better with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which dramatically reduced steaming time.
Although Britain had been the leader in steamship evolution, by that time, vessels flying flags of other maritime nations were operating regular long-distance passenger services. Increasing competition encouraged further investment in technologically advanced ships, which could carry passengers more comfortably and – most importantly – more safely and faster.
The battle for the construction of the fastest ocean liner to operate in the popular transatlantic route led to an accolade being presented to the ship that made the westbound crossing with the highest average speed, the so-called “Blue Riband”. Nearly all record breaking ships, which by then had managed to trim the crossing time to less than 6 days, including the 1890-built MAJESTIC of the White Star Line and the 1893-built CAMPANIA of its main rival, Cunard, were flying the flag of the British Empire.
Meanwhile, the recently formed German Empire was attempting to challenge Britain’s dominance. Its ruler, Kaiser Wilhelm II, grandson of Britain’s Queen Victoria, convinced of the importance of a strong navy and merchant marine for any world power, encouraged the construction of ocean liners that could rival their British counterparts. The 1897-built KAISER WILHELM DER GROSSE and two of her sister vessels, the 1901-built KRONPRINZ WILHELM and the 1903-built KAISER WILHELM II of Norddeutscher Lloyd (NDL), as well as the 1900-built DEUTSCHLAND of Hamburg-Amerika Linie (HAPAG), all managed to capture the Blue Riband.
Concerned by the rapid rise of Germany in the ocean liner business, White Star Line commissioned in 1897 the construction of its new flagship, the OCEANIC, which was delivered in 1899. Two years later, White Star got delivery of an even larger passenger liner, the CELTIC, the first ship to surpass in size Brunel’s GREAT EASTERN.
In 1904, construction began for Cunard’s MAURETANIA and LUSITANIA. Following their delivery, the two gigantic liners set new speed standards on the Atlantic, which were surpassed many years later. White Star – which by then was controlled by American financier J.P. Morgan – followed suit by ordering three even larger vessels, the OLYMPIC, the TITANIC and the BRITANNIC. The widely known and popularised on the big screen TITANIC disaster of 1912, in which more than 1,500 people perished, had a profound effect in shipping, particularly on vessel safety and design.
Meanwhile, the rivalry between Britain and Germany continued unabated. HAPAG, which at the time was led by the great visionary Albert Ballin – widely considered as the father of modern cruising – ordered a series of three gigantic ships, the IMPERATOR, the VATERLAND and the BISMARCK. The vessels set new standards in comfort and luxury with their interiors resembling European mansions and grand hotels. These vessels also proved very popular with passengers traveling in steerage – the part of a ship providing the cheapest accommodation – most notably immigrants traveling to the United States in search of the American Dream.
During World War I, a great number of ocean liners were requisitioned by their respective governments and were converted into war ships – armed cruisers, troopships or hospital ships. Others continued their regular passenger services under the constant threat of enemy attack. The MAURETANIA and its running mate, the even larger AQUITANIA, were initially converted into armed cruisers, but soon proved unsuitable for such duty due to their massive size and fuel consumption. Both vessels later served as troopships as their huge carrying capacity coupled with their high speed ensured the quick dispatch of a large number of troops into the battlefields, something that proved to be of strategic importance. After all, passenger ocean liners had a proven track record in war operations having successfully served as troopships since the mid-19th century.
In the aftermath of WWI, the immigrant trade grew even further as millions of people from devastated parts of Europe went in search of a better life in the Americas, Australia and New Zealand. However, the Emergency Immigration Act passed by the United States Congress in 1921 put a lid on immigrant flows, dramatically altering the ocean liner business model. It was then that the concept of mass tourism began to take shape, with liner companies replacing Third Class and steerage with the so-called Tourist Class to accommodate a large number of Americans interested in visiting Europe. With the fall in profits largely due to the reduced immigrant trade, the leading liner companies decided to rebuild their fleets with smaller and more versatile vessels, which naturally had lower operating costs.
Nevertheless, the race for the construction of the largest and fastest ocean liner to serve the transatlantic route would continue with even greater strength in the coming years. In 1926, the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT), better known as the French Line, launched the 43,000-ton ÎLE DE FRANCE, the largest liner built since the end of WWI. The vessel was a departure from other passenger liners, with modern and distinctive interiors, largely inspired by the contemporary Art Deco style.
Despite the Great Depression, which shook the global economy in the 1930s, the world’s powers put much weight on the construction of high-specification ocean liners that could serve both during peace and war. After all, WWI had demonstrated the difference that a powerful merchant fleet could make to the outcome of a war. During the late 1920s and the 1930s, some of the largest and fastest passenger ocean liners ever built, were delivered by British, German, French and Italian shipyards, which provided work – albeit in most cases in very poor conditions – to thousands of otherwise unemployed workers.
In 1929 and 1930, Germany’s NDL took delivery of the BREMEN and the EUROPA, the fastest ships to cross the Atlantic since MAURETANIA’s record two decades earlier. Two years later, “Italia” Flotte Riunite, better known as the Italian Line, placed two imposing newly-built ships in the transatlantic service, the REX and the CONTE DI SAVOIA, the former being the first Italian liner to take the Blue Riband. In the mid-1930s, the French and the British followed suit with the NORMANDIE and the QUEEN MARY, respectively, which broke both the size and speed records. The latter became the first ship to cross the Atlantic in less than four days. Over a period of 100 years, the duration of the crossing had been slashed by about 10 days.
As World War II broke out in late 1939, it was only a matter of time before most of these imposing liners, along many others – including another Cunarder, the QUEEN ELIZABETH, which had been delivered in the meantime, becoming the largest and lengthiest ocean liner ever built – would be called to join the war effort. Like in WWI, the services rendered by ocean liners were of strategic importance. Winston Churchill credited the QUEEN MARY and the QUEEN ELIZABETH – the largest and fastest troopships controlled by the Allied Powers – for cutting the duration of the War by about a year, thus dramatically reducing the loss of life, both civilian and military. Without these ships, which could speedily dispatch thousands of troops into remote battlefields in one single voyage, the outcome of World War II might have been very different.
Despite the end of the War, tension between the world powers was there to stay. In the early years of the Cold War, the US government financed the construction of a large passenger liner that could be quickly converted into a troopship in case of war. The ship made her maiden voyage in 1952 as the UNITED STATES, becoming the fastest ocean liner to cross the Atlantic, a record that remains unbeaten to this day. Meanwhile, vessels specifically designed for the Europe to Australia and New Zealand route were launched in the late 1950s and early 1960s due to an explosion in immigration in the two countries.
However, the beginning of the end for the liner industry had come a few years earlier, when in late 1958 the first commercial non-stop transatlantic jet flight landed in New York. Suddenly, crossing the Atlantic became a matter of hours. Within the coming years more and more people opted to fly rather than sail to and from the United States and as a result in some ocean liner voyages the crew outnumbered passengers.
Despite the rapidly shrinking market, in 1962 the FRANCE, the French Line’s new flagship, made its maiden voyage hoping to revive passengers’ interest in ocean travel. She was one of the first liners to be constructed with cruising operations in mind. Nevertheless, the FRANCE struggled to compete and was decommissioned nearly thirteen years later. In 1969, Cunard, got delivery of the QUEEN ELIZABETH 2, which operated both as an ocean liner and a cruise ship for nearly four decades. However, unlike the QUEEN MARY and the QUEEN ELIZABETH, she was not a record breaker, as speed was irrelevant in the jet era.
From the late 1960s, the few liner companies that had survived the crisis, as well as new players that foresaw a commercial opportunity, started placing more and more emphasis on the voyage experience, offering passengers a growing selection of services and extensive onboard entertainment. The ship was not anymore simply a means of reaching a remote destination in comfort and luxury. Moreover, the focus was shifted from the transatlantic and other long haul routes, to exotic destinations, such as the Caribbean. Cruise ships quickly became a popular holiday and entertainment venue for the middle class and in the 1970s and 1980s entered mainstream culture thanks to the American hit television series “The Love Boat”, which aired in nearly 30 countries.
The development of large passenger ships is the result of major technological advancement in the early 19th century. These vessels marked a turning point in civilisation, as their massive carrying capacity altered the world map and fueled what later became known as “globalisation”. For over a century, ocean liners were national symbols and a means for the leading maritime nations to demonstrate their dominance. They have played an invaluable role to humanity. In periods of peace they have transported millions of passengers – from wealthy industrialists to deprived immigrants seeking a better future – in locations that for centuries only the most daring explorers could visit. During war they have treated wounded soldiers and have rapidly transported troops to distant battlefields, which often dramatically altered the war’s outcome. The advent of mass air travel led to the demise of the ocean liner, which, however, managed to evolve into the cruise ship of the present day.
This section presents a wide selection of some of the most popular passenger ocean liners and cruise ships that operated from the mid-19th century until present.