What is a Steamboat?

Mary McMahon

A steamboat is a watercraft which uses steam for power. The steam pushes a large paddlewheel or a turbine, depending on the design of the steamboat, and this causes the boat to move. Many people use the term “steamboat” to refer to inland or small steamers, while “steamship” is preferred for ocean going ships and larger steamers. Steamboats are largely anachronistic now, but at one time they were a major mode of transportation in and between nations all over the world.

A steamboat utilizes steam for power.
A steamboat utilizes steam for power.

Some modern watercraft such as nuclear submarines technically use steam power, but they are not classified as steamboats, because their power generation system is markedly different than traditional steamers. Ships which use nuclear power are also powered by steam. These watercraft use nuclear reactors to power steam turbines, with the nuclear reaction generating intense heat which can in turn create steam for the turbines.

Nuclear submarines use steam power.
Nuclear submarines use steam power.

The groundwork for the steam engine was laid as early as the late 1600s, although it took almost a century for a working steam engine to be developed. The advent of the steam engine was a major event in human history, since it laid the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution and was later used as the basis for other types of engines. Steam engines began to be used on ships to replace sails, and the steamboat quickly dominated the shipping industry, since it was faster and more reliable than the sailing ship.

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Many people in the United States associate steamboats with the paddlewheel ships which plied the Mississippi river. Boats in a similar style also traveled along major waterways in other countries, allowing traders and explorers to quickly penetrate remote regions. Larger steamships took to the open ocean, transporting people more reliably than sailboats did. One of the most famous examples of a steamship was the Titanic, which briefly held the title of largest steamship in the world.

Diesel and gasoline powered engines replaced steamboats, although steamers continued to be produced until the 1980s. Many modern steamboats are operated as museum pieces, rather than functional ships. People who are interested in steamboats can learn more about them at museums dedicated to the history of steamers, and they may also be able to take rides on restored or replica steamboats. In a few parts of the world, it is also possible to spot a working commercial steamboat among other ships in a larger fleet.

Prior to the widespread adoption of diesel engines, steam-powered tugboats with paddlewheels were often used to move ships within a harbor.
Prior to the widespread adoption of diesel engines, steam-powered tugboats with paddlewheels were often used to move ships within a harbor.

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Discussion Comments

@SpecialBug: The only overnight paddle wheel steamboat in the United States is the American Queen. She steams up and down the Ohio, Tennesse and the Mississippi Rivers.

A ten night vacation on the Queen will run about $500 dollars per person.


Can anyone advise me on a where I might take a steamboat paddle wheel vacation, or if such a thing exists?

The ateamboat experience is still possible. Old time steamboat paddle wheels still run on the Kanawha River in Charleston, West Virginia, during the city's annual Sternwheel Regatta. Paddle wheels, steam up and down the river, while gazers watch from the banks.

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