What is a Paddle Wheel?

Sheri Cyprus

A paddle wheel is an engine-driven, turning mechanism that propels a boat, usually a steamboat, through the water. It's known as a waterwheel. Scoop-shaped paddles, or buckets, are attached around the outer edge of the wheel's circle. Each bucket, or scoop, connects to a spoke; the spokes all meet at a round hub section in the center of the paddle wheel.

Paddle wheels are typically utilized by steamboats.
Paddle wheels are typically utilized by steamboats.

An old-fashioned type of boat propeller, the paddle wheel has mostly been replaced by electric motors or diesel or gas turbine engines. These newer engines allow paddle wheels to turn much more powerfully to create strong propulsion of boats through water. Paddle wheels are typically made of steel, although many of the earliest ones are wooden. A paddlebox is an enclosure on the upper half of paddle wheels designed to prevent excessive splashing. Paddle wheels can be controlled to move forward, backward or in a full circle.

Several countries in Europe have restored paddle wheel boats that are used for travel tours.
Several countries in Europe have restored paddle wheel boats that are used for travel tours.

The earliest type of paddle wheels are thought to date back to China in the eighth century. People, rather than any type of mechanical propulsion, powered these boats along the Yangtze River. The artist/inventor Leonardo DaVinci invented the basic mechanical paddle wheel with its circle of water-scooping shovels. DaVinci used a system of gears to turn the wheel.

When the steam engine was introduced and developed in steamboats by Robert Fulton in 1811 in the United States, DaVinci's invention was then able to be powered to create strong propulsion for large ships. The sternwheeler riverboat became the main vehicle of commercial trade throughout the 19th as well as part of the 20th century. The American Deep South became known for its paddle steamboats through the adventure stories of writer Mark Twain. The Mississippi and Ohio rivers as well as the waterways of Missouri, Louisiana and Tennessee formed the main routes for sternwheelers.

Sternwheelers have a paddle wheel at the back, while others referred to as sidewheelers have one on each side. Geography plays a large part in whether river boats will have stern or side paddle wheels. Sidewheels are designed for easier turning capability on narrower waterways, while sternwheels are made to handle shallow waters with strong currents.

Australia is known for its collection of old paddleboats along the Murray River in the southeastern part of the country. The earliest paddle steamer there is thought to date to 1853. Other countries, including China, the United States, Canada, and several in Europe have restored paddle wheel boats that are used for travel tours.

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Discussion Comments


My husband and I love to go on paddle wheel cruises on the Missouri River. They have a couple of operators that run cruises throughout the warmer months and they are a great way to spend a summer evening.

Most of the paddle wheel boats are huge multi-story affairs and they have a bar and often a band playing. You can get a drink and sit out on the deck and watch the river float by. There are few things more relaxing.


A few years back some friends and I traveled down a long length of the Mississippi River on a home made raft.

It was 12 by 16 and it had a paddle wheel on the back. The paddle wheel was made from an old street sign that we were able to cut up and it was powered by two bicycles that were mounted to the raft.

The paddle wheel really didn't make us go any faster but it was critical for helping us steer out of the way of obstacles or over to the shore to camp at night. It was a clever design but it took a lot of maintenance to keep it going.

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