10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
As the hours tick away on your transatlantic flight, noisy, cramped, and boring, you may want to remember the way they used to do it, by steam. Charles Dickens took one of the new-fangled Cunard steamers from England to Boston in 1842, and wrote a funny, famous article about how it was noisy, cramped, and boring. It was bad enough that on the return trip, he took the slow traditional sailing packet. Dickens's account is evaluated in _Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships_ (HarperCollins) by Stephen Fox. It isn't surprising that with Fox's love of his subject (and his prodigious research) he has found that Dickens exaggerated for literary effect. Even so, the Industrial Revolution, finally applied to transatlantic travel, did bring more comfort to travelers, as well as much more speed. Fox has deliberately confined himself to the period from the birth of steam at sea to the climax, the _Mauretania_, the "greatest steamship ever built," launched in 1907. His history covers only in part the social whirl of cruising, which has been handled many times before. _Transatlantic_, a big book, covers in detail the changes wrought by engineering and the men who made them happen.
The changes were enormous. Sail gave way to steam via paddlewheels and then to propellers. Piston steam engines became turbines. Wooden ships became iron and then steel. Everything went faster, and the fascination for speed drove the innovation. The administrators of the passenger lines always virtuously denied having anything to do with racing, but everyone knew what ship was the current record-holder. The Owners of the lines denied involvement in races because speed was the enemy of safety. Originally, however, it was thought that the safest way to get through fog or nighttime gloom, even in an area threatened by icebergs, was to put on full speed and thus get out of there quickly. There were plenty of colossal disasters at sea, and many readers will find these the most interesting parts of this volume. Most surprising is how there was so little chivalry in these Victorian times. For instance, the 1854 sinking of the _Arctic_, a masterpiece of design from the United States Collins Line, occurred after it was rammed by another steamer in the Grand Banks. As the ship went down, there was chaos unrelieved by heroism; one fireman said, "It was every man for himself, and no more attention was paid to the captain than to any other man on board. Life was as sweet to us as to others." The not-full lifeboats discouraged further embarkations at gunpoint. 40% of the crew survived, and only 8% of the passengers. "Women and children first" was unheard of or unheeded; all the survivors were men.
Speed and safety were paramount for the owners, but the passengers remembered comfort, which also increased during the period. The upper class passengers could count on ten course meals and plenty to drink; a good deal of the crossing must have been spent drunk, perhaps as a way to feel less of the seasickness which is described here repeatedly. (Speed, therefore, in its way was a means to comfort, by cutting the voyage time.) Dining rooms and salons became monuments to the highest in Victorian taste. Fox describes them, and there are photographs in the book of very comfortable and luxurious surroundings, improbably but beautifully wrought in Renaissance or Tudor schemes. He also tells of the lesser conditions in steerage and the brutal work of the men who kept coal on the fires. He makes the analogy that the ships were like buildings (or even whole towns), and points out that the many Victorian buildings we have left are often retained or restored with respect and loving care. That has happened to none of the ships herein described. Every one is gone, a few lost in the deep and all the others lost to the wreckers for scrap. We have such ancient specimens as the _USS Constitution_ or _HMS Victory_, but even the most glorious examples of the age of steam are irrevocably gone. Fox's monumental book lovingly brings them back in the only way possible.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Perhaps the most interesting tidbit in TRANSATLANTIC, a book full of great tidbits, is that none of the great passenger liners celebrated in its pages are afloat today. Those that are in existence are rusting away quietly at the bottom of the North Atlantic --- the Titanic being the most renowned of the wrecks, but hardly alone. None of the others are left, being victims of time or of sinking or of the knacker's yard. The genius of historical preservation stretches back to the age of sail --- USS Constitution, USS Constellation, HMS Victory --- and forward to the age of flight --- the Wright Brothers' Flyer, a contemporary of many of the great transatlantic ocean liners, is extant at the Smithsonian --- but seems to have skipped the age of steam.
If the great liners are remembered at all, they will have to be remembered in the pages of TRANSATLANTIC, and the book is certainly monumental enough for that.
Author Stephen Fox has written a thick book but an immensely valuable one. TRANSATLANTIC begins at the dawn of its era, when steam engine technology and metalworking knowledge became advanced enough to imagine a great ship, powered by steam, independent of wind and tide, crossing the cold and forbidding distances of the North Atlantic and linking the Old and New Worlds. TRANSATLANTIC is the story of Samuel Cunard and Isambard Brunel, one a hardheaded businessman, the other a pioneering engineer, who built competing lines for the transatlantic traffic.
Fox describes the technological problems of building a ship that could, just for starters, carry enough coal to make the passage without refueling. Additionally, Cunard and Brunel had to build their ships strong enough to survive the buffeting of the North Atlantic storms, as well as building their enterprises strong enough to withstand the political storms of Washington and London. (The government contracts for carrying the transatlantic mail were crucial to building the great steamships.)
As the transatlantic steam traffic improved in its reliability, the new shipping lines faced a new and unprecedented set of problems. One was the need to balance competing interests on board with the new class of ship's engineers contending with captains and crew with vastly more saltwater experience. Another was the need not only to upgrade the experience of passengers but also to compete with ever-more lavish accommodations aboard competitors' ships. Most crucial, however, was the balance between speed and safety.
One feature of the age of steam, well documented in TRANSATLANTIC, was the frequent races between the great liners, with each ship on each voyage determined to break the New York-to-Liverpool record. The cost of such speed could be, and occasionally was, the safety of the ship, as captains raced through their fuel and took dangerous detours through iceberg country. And every so often --- described in harrowing detail by Fox --- there would be an accident or a significant loss of life, often under mysterious and unexplained circumstances.
The difficulty with TRANSATLANTIC is that there are not nearly enough shipwrecks in its 493 pages; there's much more focus on the growth of the steamship lines and the men who built them. For an oceangoing book, TRANSATLANTIC can be dreadfully dry at times, with too much emphasis on the genuinely uninteresting Cunard family and the changing fortunes of its competitors. Long passages on such things as engineering associations and ships' discipline certainly could have been excised with no appreciable loss.
Where TRANSATLANTIC shines, though, is in Fox's explanation of what it must have been like to sail on the great ocean liners. Fox is fortunate in that so many great writers of the period, including Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, sailed aboard these great ships, and wrote extensively about their experiences. Fox weaves their tales together with those of more prosaic passengers to present a complete and gloriously vivid picture of what it must have been like to sail the Atlantic in the nineteenth century, whether at the captain's table or down below in steerage.
Perhaps the only other possible complaint about TRANSATLANTIC is that there are not nearly enough photographs in the book illustrating the transatlantic liners. It could be, of course, that what photographs there were have passed out of history as completely as the ocean liners themselves. But what we are left with is a magisterial and majestic account, and the reader cannot, in good conscience, honestly ask for much more than that.
--- Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
This new book is a massive history of American and British steamship travel on the North Atlantic, covering the period between 1820 and 1910. It focuses on the changing styles and engineering advancements that were made in these two countries over the decades, as well as on the powerful men whose rivalries drove the industry forward. The book highlights the entrepreneurs who built the ocean liner companies, but gives equal insight into the engineering specialists who made the rapid advancement in steamship technology possible.
It is a story about men, and about machines, and the ever increasing demand for speed that drove both to their limits, and sometimes beyond. The ships covered begin with the first vessel made expressly for an ocean crossing voyage, Isambard Brunel's daring steam driven, paddle wheeler Great Western in 1838. The story follows the advancements made through the decades as ships came and went bringing fame or, sometimes, folly, and ends with the innovative, turbine powered, Cunard liner Mauretania around 1910.
It is one of the most readable books on the subject to see print in quite a while. The text is interesting and informative, with a fluid, breezy style that reads as smoothly as a good novel. The introduction sets the scene of what is to come with Britannia's triumphant entrance into Boston harbor. The author then steps back with a short but detailed look at the Atlantic passenger traffic dominated by the American sailing packets just before the advent of steam. As he does throughout the book, Fox captures the experience of the sailing ships to perfection, buttressing his wonderful descriptions with excerpts from first hand accounts.
After this brief introductory chapter about sail, the book plunges into the heart of its subject matter, the ever increasing role and final dominance that the maritime steam engine played in transatlantic travel. The coverage of the many steamship lines, along with their respective achievements and flaws, is expansive, if somewhat erratic. Some of the more important lines don't get the attention they deserve. The importance of the White Star Line to the industry seems particularly lacking.
It's not just a book about steamship companies, though. It is a story of shipbuilding firms as well, and the engineers whose genius made the mechanical march of progress possible. The engineering works in Scotland, South Britain and Ireland are where the author focuses his attention for this aspect of the tale. He covers in detail the intense rivalries that existed between the shipbuilders, which could be just as fierce as amongst the shipping magnates. Entrepreneurs and engineers were critical in equal measure to the success of the ocean greyhounds, and rarely has a book so wonderfully interwoven the contributions both groups made to the advancement of Atlantic steamship travel.
As mentioned above, this book does restrict its focus to American and British companies, with some of the German innovation entering into the picture only towards the end of the book. Of the achievements of other countries, like France, there is no mention at all. At its heart though, this is a book about Samuel Cunard and his Cunard Line. The prominently displayed Cunard funnels on the front cover are a not so subtle hint where Fox's admiration lies. Other important maritime merchants are mentioned to varying degrees, including Isambard Brunel (of Great Eastern fame), Edward Knight Collins (Collins Line), William Inman (Inman Line), Thomas Henry Ismay (White Star Line), and Albert Ballin (Hamburg-American Line) to name a few. Some companies get more attention than others, and not always in proportion to the importance of their contributions. Thomas Ismay, for example, gets very little coverage, and the achievements of the White Star Line ship innovations are mentioned briefly, then mostly glossed over.
Overall, however, if you are interested in the history of the first roughly 100 years of Anglo-American steamship progress, this lively, engrossing book will both educate and entertain in equal measure. I can only hope the author will consider penning a second volume taking up the story from 1910 until air travel finally made the majestic liners obsolete.
all the best, Michael (TheManInBlack) T