Olympic & Sealandia – New Year Centenary Retrospective

By George Backwell at January 02, 2011 21:22
Filed Under: General

New Year may excuse a look back a century in time to recall what was happening in our area of interest during the year 1911. It was a year worth remembering, one in which Sealandia, the first ocean-going cargo ship with diesel engine propulsion was launched, and in the same year Olympic set out on her maiden voyage with propulsion shared between the new-wave steam turbine and the steam reciprocating engine.

Joseph Conrad described the modern passenger ship as, "A marvel of applied science on its technical side, and an unpleasantly unsteady imitation of a Ritz Hotel in its social atmosphere." Conrad, compelling nautical author and sailing-ship era master mariner recorded this impression in his 'Ocean Travel' essay after a transatlantic passage he made in the nineteen twenties. In their separate ways both Olympic and Sealandia exemplified two such marvels of applied science as Conrad had in mind.


The 6,800 dwt Selandia, the world's first ocean-going ship propelled by a diesel engine (according to majority opinion), was launched in 1911 at the Burmeister & Wain Shipyard in Copenhagen for delivery to Denmark's East Asiatic Company. Propulsion power was supplied by two 8-cylinder, 4-cycle, 1,250 hp diesel engines driving twin propellors.

Winston Churchill, minister responsible for the British Admiralty at that time, saw the significance of this development, making it his business to be on hand when Sealandia came to London, but it is not recorded whether he foresaw that the marine diesel engine would eventually leapfrog the steam turbine to dominate merchant ship propulsion as it does today.

Olympic – Sister-ship of Titanic & Britannic

On the heels of Cunard (transatlantic passenger ship rivals) who were taking up ship propulsion by the new steam turbine in their new ships, Olympic's owners, White Star Line, had been looking for the very latest engine for their trio of new ships.  However, Belfast builders, Harland and Wolff advised a more cautious 'belt and braces' approach, installing a combined constellation in Olympic. A low-pressure steam turbine powered the central shaft, while the well-proven steam reciprocating engine did the remaining work (two 4-cylinder triple-expansion engines) to drive the two outboard wing propellors.

In the summer of 1911, Olympic, the Titanic look-alike, made her maiden transatlantic voyage from Southampton to New York, eventually to earn the affectionate nickname 'Old Reliable', and from around this time onward the steam turbine gradually became the preferred choice of propulsion in passenger ship newbuildings.

Yes, 1911 was certainly a vintage year for innovations in marine propulsion, and will be a hard act to follow‚ a century further on.


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