How Cruise Ships Work

History of Cruise Ships

The Oceanic, the largest liner in the world when it was built by White Star Lines and launched in 1899, became beached in Scotland due to poor navigation.
The Oceanic, the largest liner in the world when it was built by White Star Lines and launched in 1899, became beached in Scotland due to poor navigation.

Everyone likes to go on vacation, right? Well, during the latter part of the 19th century, the world developed an appetite for travel. Trave­ling by sea was nothing ne­w, but it wasn't exactly speedy. Thomas Newcomen changed that in 1712 when he invented the steam engine, a revolutionary way to harness kinetic energy and convert it to power.

As the steam engine evolved, so did its uses, until in 1819 the first American ship aided by a steam engine crossed the Atlantic. The S.S. Savannah left from the U.S. city bearing its name on May 22, 1819, and arrived in Liverpool, England, 29 days later. While the Savannah only used its steam engine for approximately 85 hours (roughly 12 percent of the trip), the voyage made history, and the era of the steamship began [source: Columbia Encyclopedia].


The passenger ship industry flourished in the late 1800s and early 1900s, courtesy of the steam engine and of the growing number of American immigrants crowding ocean liners. Trans-Atlantic passage was still primarily one way, although affluent passengers traveled back and forth between England and New York for business or holiday.

Ambitious British shipping company White Star Lines began aggressively building the first fleet of ocean liners in 1849 and would revolutionize trans-Atlantic passage over the next 60 years. White Star set records in size and grandeur, building, among others, three large ships dubbed Olympic Class liners. The Olympic, Britannic and Titanic broke the mold of traditional ocean liners, and their speed and interior features made other ships look obsolete. But ocean travel was on the verge of changing.

The popularity of trans-Atlantic sea passage gradually declined with the arrival of the airplane. People could fly to more destinations in a fraction of the time it took on an ocean liner, so shipping companies changed their business model to focus on tourism instead of passenger transportation. In 1900, the American-Hamburg Company built the first ship specifically designed for cruises. The Prinzessin Victoria Luise measured 406 feet (124 meters) long by 52 feet (16 meters) wide, and was 4,409 gross tons [source: Norway-Heritage]. (In nautical terms a ton, typically called a gross register ton or gross ton, does not measure weight; it represents 100 cubic feet of internal capacity.)

During the early 1930s, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler boosted the fledgling cruise industry by offering holiday packages to German workers as part of a state-sponsored effort to unite the nation. Hitler eventually commissioned several new ships for service, making the Nazi Party early pioneers of the cruise ship industry.

Since the early days, cruise ships have shared one universal goal: Don't sink! Learn how they try to avoid that fate on the next page.