For centuries, crossing the Atlantic meant taking a sailing ship at the mercy of wind and current, sometimes making a fast passage, sometimes a slow one, and sometimes a stormy one. Business could not be conducted reliably because no-one knew when goods dispatched from one side of the ocean would arrive on the other - if at all.
That began to change on July 4th, 1840.
When the Royal Mail Ship Britannia swung out of Coburg dock in Liverpool on July 4 1840 and nosed her way into Halifax harbour on July 17, the world of travel changed forever.
RMS Britannia departing Boston in 1844
Not that the citizens of Nova Scotia’s capital were aware of this historic event: the ship docked at 2am. But headlines soon followed, trumpeting the news that this coal-fired, wood-built paddle-steamer had crossed the Atlantic in 12 and a half days.
Charles Dickens' cabin aboard RMS Britannia, 1842
In the first decades of the 19th century, sailing vessels took between six and 12 weeks to make the trip. And since ships only departed when the hold was full of cargo, timetables were irregular. As for steam engines, they had been powering boats along rivers and lakes for half a century. They had even powered ships across the Atlantic. But Britannia broke new ground because she was fast, safe and did not run out of coal. Crossing at a steady eight-and-a-half-knots it proved that fixed schedules could be set.
Sir Samuel Cunard
International maritime transport never looked back – and neither did Samuel Cunard, the owner of Britannia, whose voyage will be re-created today when the Queen Mary 2 sets sail from Liverpool bound for the US exactly 175 years on.
There's more at the link.
Steam changed shipping from a hit-or-miss affair to a reliable conduit for business. The schedules and practices established by steamship transport carried over to airlines in due course, and today ships carry the vast majority of the world's trade.