As Mark Twain and any good, old-timey gambler can tell you, the paddleboat is where it’s at. The rotating paddles that propel these vessels across the water create a combination of sights and sounds that no other mode of transportation can offer. And, they’re a great way to dispatch any black hats that may be coming after you and your poker winnings. Whence did these glorious vehicles originate?
The first surviving written mention of a paddle-wheeled ship can be found in The History of the Southern Dynasties, a Chinese tome compiled in the 7th Century CE. The book was actually describing naval ships used by Admiral Wang Zhen’e against the Qiang, during the Liu Song Dynasty (ca. 420-479 CE). However, it’s entirely possible that paddleboats existed well before even this early date.
A few decades later, the ancient Chinese mathematician and astronomer Zu Chongzhi commissioned a special paddle-wheel ship for himself. This boat, known as the “Thousand League Boat,” was built on the Xinting River and presumably named for the distance one could travel before the “new boat smell” wore off.
Throughout the 6th and 7th centuries CE, numerous Chinese admirals used foot-treadle powered paddleboats in their naval campaigns. In 784 CE, Prince Li Gao developed a viable paddle-wheel warship design, and, centuries later, rulers of the Song Dynasty (circa 960-1279 CE) built entire fleets of paddleboats for their navies. Some included as many as eleven paddle-wheels on each side for greater speed and maneuverability. The Chinese continued to use paddleboats as part of their naval fleet as recently as the First Opium War (1839-1842).
But Maybe Europe?
The first mention of a paddle-wheel powered ship in European history comes from a 5th Century CE Roman military book titled De Rebus Bellicis (“On the Things of War”). The anonymous work describes an ox-driven paddleboat warship that, “drives with ease and swiftness, wherever utility summons it,” despite its size, which “prevented [it] from being operated by the hands of men.” Instead, it was powered by, “oxen, yoked in pairs to capstans, [turning] wheels attached to […] paddles” that “work with an amazing and ingenious effect, their action producing rapid motion.”
In the 15th Century CE, Italian engineer Roberto “Big Bob” Valturio had developed a new-and-improved paddleboat with five sets of paddles, all of which were powered by parallel cranks joined to one power source by a single connecting rod.
In 1704, the first steam-engine powered paddle-wheel ship was built by French mathematician, physicist, and inventor Denis “Big Denny” Papin. In fact, Papin’s vessel was the first steam-powered vehicle of any kind in the history of the world.
Building on Papin’s success, fellow Frenchman Claude-François “Big Frank” de Jouffroy oversaw the building of the world’s first paddle steamer in 1776; this ship was also among the world’s first functioning steamships. Seven years later, de Jouffroy and friends successfully piloted a new-and-improved paddle steamer up the Saône River in eastern France.
Later, in America…
The first commercially successful paddle-steamer was Robert Fulton’s Clermont, which began regular river voyages between New York City and Albany in 1807. Five years later, the first steam-powered paddleboat began sailing (?) the Mississippi River. Operating out of New Orleans, Captain Henry “Big Hank” Shreve’s boat was specially built for travelling the Mighty Mississip. By 1833, over 1,200 paddle-steamer landings were recorded annually in New Orleans.
Paddleboats driven by horses, called “team boats,” were used as ferries throughout the United States between the 1820s and 1850s. Sadly, these ships were almost entirely replaced by steamboats by the end of the 1850s.
The largest paddle-steamer ever to sail the Mississippi, the Sprague, was used to haul coal and petroleum in bulk. The Sprague was also among the last steam-powered paddleboats on the river, operating from 1901 until 1948.