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No. 338:
Clipper Ship

Today, a bright, brief, unrealistic moment for sailing ships. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Clipper ships were not a specific design, they were a state of mind. And that state of mind lasted only a decade. Clipper ships ranged in size from a few hundred tons to over 4000. Between one and four hundred were built, depending on which ones you want to count as clipper ships.

Ocean shipping is a trade-off between speed and capacity. A longstanding compromise had been struck by 1845. Cargo moved over the seas in slow-moving, high-capacity merchantmen.

Then the balance was briefly destroyed. San Francisco had become the Golden Gate to Western America. It was a profitable port even before gold was found in 1848. A booming economy drove shipping to California. It also drove the market for Chinese tea. Shipping rates rose from $10 to $60 a ton. Suddenly it was profitable to build and operate ships that looked more like racing vessels than cargo carriers.

The word "clipper ship" came from the fast little Baltimore Clipper. It dated back to the War of 1812. The biggest of these, the Ann McKim, weighed less than 500 tons. But in 1843 it got from New York to Canton, China, and back with a load of tea in only 92 days. That got people's attention.

So masts rose into the sky. Hulls developed a knife-edged bow. And the widest beam was moved over half-way back. Economy and long life were literally thrown to the winds. Ships began to look like they'd sailed out of a child's dream. They were tall and beautiful. Acres of canvas drove them at 14 knots.

For a while those expensive ships paid for themselves on a single voyage. Author Nicholas Dean calls them the SST's of the 19th century -- speed at any cost. We are moved by their beauty when we see them in pictures. They touch our minds the way they touched the 19th-century mind.

But we can see them only in pictures. The financial boom ended in 1855. After that the fast ships quickly vanished. The last one afloat was serving as a barge when it accidentally burned in 1923. None were among the tall old ships that sailed into New York Harbor for the 1976 Bicentennial celebration.

The new steamers had nothing to do with the death of the clipper ship. Steam packets were running in 1855, but quietly. The clipper ship had long since come and gone when steam finally drove sail-driven merchantmen off the seas.

Strange things happen when you release the practical constraints that bind the inventive mind. The results are artificial, of course; but they can be stunning to see.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Snow, R.F., Gravity's Rainbow. American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Vol. 5, No. 2, p. 5.


The Flying Cloud, image of an American Clipper from a child's book, 1919


This scale model of The Flying Cloud (above) provides a good sense of its lean lines within the water.