Break-Even Distance between Sail and Steam, 1850-1890

Break Even Distance between Sail and Steam 1850 1890

Source: adapted from W.J. Bernstein (2008) A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, p. 327.

One of the leading technical drawbacks of a steamship was the requirement of carrying coal in storage, which was done at the expense of the regular payload. Even if steam technology is more effective and terms of speed and capacity, the energy performance of the engine implies that at some distance, the use of sailships remains an economically sound proposition. As steam engine technology improved (better boiler and piston systems), more power could be generated by the same quantity of coal, implying that longer distances could be traveled. Thus, the break-even distance between sail and steam steadily improved from the 1850s.

A steamship built in 1855 would require about 40% of its available cargo space to store enough coal to cross the Atlantic, making such a journey a losing proposition from a financial standpoint. By the 1860s, transatlantic steamship services became cost-effective, and steamships began to dominate. By the 1870s, particularly in conjunction with the opening of the Suez Canal (1869), South Asia became economically accessible. By the 1890s, steamship technology improved to enable long-distance voyages such as linking Great Britain with its Pacific Asian colonies (e.g. Singapore and Hong Kong). This marked the downfall of sailing as a commercially viable form of freight transportation. By the early 20th century, commercial sailship services had almost disappeared.