Steam Engines to Smart Ships: The Evolution of Cruise Liner Technology

Royal Caribbean

Steam Engines to Smart Ships: The Evolution of Cruise Liner Technology

Today, cruise ships are the equivalent of floating hotels, but better. With all the food you can eat, plenty to do, and stops at exotic locations, the cruise industry is booming. Coming off pandemic lows for travel, the cruise industry is full speed ahead on making bigger and better ships. The recent launch of the Icon of the Seas by Royal Caribbean shows that cruising is back in a very big way. Literally. 

However, the modern-day cruise industry is a far cry from where cruising began. The birth of ships ferrying passengers around the world began as far back as 1822. Of course, back then, the creature comforts of cruising were far less desirable. With this in mind, let’s go back in time and see how the world has gone from steam engines to smart ships.

Steam Engines

Ferry or steam boat in Portland on Willamette river under steam with two American flags on an overcast day
The first true cruise ships were steam-powered by P&O back in the mid-1800s.

The true birth of the cruise industry is often traced back to the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company in 1822. Better known as P&O, it provided steam service between London, Portugal, and Spain. Steam engines were powered by coal and you’ve likely seen this at work in the movies as men shoveled coal into boilers.

Steam Technology

As steam engines got more powerful, cruise ships could travel farther, and faster.

To propel a cruise ship, boilers would provide power to paddle wheels and later on to screw propellers. The introduction of this technology helped with the idea that sailing across the ocean would not just be achievable, but could be done quickly. The steam turbine developed in 1884 would greatly help cruise ships to move faster in water and cut down on the time crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

Diesel Engines Onward

Industrial engine. Fragment of marine vessel motor. Diesel engine close up. Equipment for ship. Diesel engine for motor boat. Concept for maintenance of ship equipment. Industrial technology
Diesel power was the next big thing after steam engines were found to be less efficient.

As the transition to diesel engines took place in the early 20th century, cruise liner technology was greatly improved. Not only were cruise lines seeing lower fuel consumption, but maintenance costs and needs were much lower. By the middle of the 20th century, most cruise liners would be equipped with diesel-electric propulsion systems.

The combination of diesel engines and electrically driven propellers allowed cruise ships to gain better fuel efficiency and far better maneuverability. The increased maneuvering power was very welcomed and allowed cruise ships to add more ports.

As of today, many cruise ships still use a combination of diesel-electric engines. Even though gas turbines were available in some ships, new ships being built are now moving toward hybrid or fully electric engines.

Early Communication Technology

Morse old vintage with morse key telegraph on old desk in HMS M33 Royal Navy warship in the First World War showing at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard Museum, UK.
Early communication methods included Morse code for ship-to-ship contact.

During the original days of cruising, communication technology was almost nonexistent. Eventually, telegraph systems would be installed on cruises in the mid-19th century. For the most part, this system allowed cruises to send and receive messages via Morse code.

The introduction of telegraph technology would help ships communicate with one another, and send weather updates (as seen in Titanic), navigation warnings, and distress signals. At the time, this system was very advanced and traveled through undersea cables.

Radio Telegraphy

Marconi in front of his receiving device for wireless telegraphy, vintage engraved illustration. From the Universe and Humanity, 1910.
The introduction of radiotelegraphy finally allowed real-time communication between ships.

By the early 20th century, technology had evolved and cruise ships began to install radiotelegraphy. As cruise ships introduced various radio-powered transmitters and receivers, long-distance communication was possible.

Not only was this technology better, but it was also far more reliable. As this technology evolved, voice conversations enabled real-time communication from ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore.

Modern Communication

Telecommunication satellite providing global internet network and high speed data communication above Europe. Satellite in space, low Earth orbit. Worldwide data communication technology.
Having satellite technology greatly improved the speed by which emergency responses could be heard.

With technology evolving, satellite communication technology came to cruise ships by the second half of the 20th century. This was a massive shift in how well the cruise industry could communicate. Not only did this technology allow for more reliable communication but it also allowed passengers to communicate back home.

Satellites quickly overcame many of the early communication troubles that had held cruise ships back. The introduction of satellites also enhanced the safety of cruising as a whole as any distress calls were immediate as were any other on-board emergencies.

Early Navigation Technology

Navigation officer driving the ship on the river. Color corrected in film tones
The original navigation method for cruise ships was to navigate by the stars.

When cruise ships started to sail with passengers on board, navigation technology was still using celestial navigation. The earliest P&O ships were reliant on using the stars as a navigation tool. Both latitude and longitude were determined by the sun and the stars which the world relied on for hundreds of years.

The use of this technology along with charts remained in place until the early 20th century. At this point, the gyroscopic compass was widely available and quickly implemented in the cruise industry. This tech allowed cruise ships to find true north, which would help ships properly identify their heading.

Advanced Navigation Technology

Captain's bridge on a yacht. Steering wheel. Concept - boat control. Radio station. Steering wheel for yacht control. Radio communication on the ship. Professional ship radio station
The advancement of technology to radio direction finders helped evolve navigation capabilities in a big way.

Fast forward to a radio direction finder or RDF tool. When installed on cruise ships, RDF was able to get the direction of lighthouses and coastal stations. This greatly improved overall navigation close to shore, especially in foggy or difficult sea conditions.

Over the last 50 years or so, it should come as no surprise the cruise industry has relied heavily on the global positioning system in combination with radar. The use of radar significantly helps cruise ships identify what is around the position of the ship. Whether it’s another ship, land, or something else, radar is there to assist.

GPS Adds Reliability

Boat electronics
Available GPS data allows cruise ships to know exactly where they are at any given time.

Working in combination with radar is the use of GPS as of the early 1990s. You can now find GPS available on every cruise ship ferrying passengers around the world. Not only is GPS extremely accurate, but it’s constantly being updated, so cruise ships know it’s also the latest data available.

Modern Navigation Technology

Navigational bridge on big cargo ship. Wheelhouse on vessel. ECDIS, radar.
Display screens on a cruise ship bridge help provide the exact position of a ship.

Fast forward to today and cruise ships are also introducing ECDIS technology. Better known as Electronic Chart Display and Information System, this digital navigation tool combines multiple technologies.

Factoring in GPS data, radar, and other navigation systems, ECDIS will give a cruise the most up-to-date look at the ship’s position and surroundings. It’s this system that is largely responsible for making sure cruise ships don’t run aground in shallow ports.

Early Sanitary Conditions

Early cruise ships had awful sanitary conditions that allowed for terrible smells and discomfort.

It should go without saying that early sanitary conditions on cruise ships were not the best. Going back in time to the earliest P&O cruises, toilets were mostly buckets. These buckets were then emptied into the sea, so double gross. On the same ships, taking a bath was equally unsanitary as passengers were bathing in seawater and shared tubs, so germs and disease easily spread.

Poor Food Sanitation

Fragment of the side of an old cruise river steamer with a lifebuoy.
By the time cruising became popular, food sanitation was still very poor as leftovers were just dumped in the ocean.

When it came to food, sanitary conditions throughout the 1840s to the 1900s were just as bad. Any unused food or other waste was dumped directly into the sea or ocean. Needless to say, these were not great conditions and were bad for both the ship and anything in the water.

Improved Sanitary Conditions

Black trash bag on the green floor of a cruise ship during a cruise
As the 1900s wore on, improved sanitation methods allowed garbage to be collected and stored until a ship docked.

As it became clear to local and national governments that the cruise industry was growing, sanitary improvements had to be made. Concerns about bringing diseases from one country to another prompted the world to create an international set of health regulations. By the early 1900s, these regulations were firmly established.

While these regulations varied by country, the focus was to create a minimum set of standards for sanitation. This included ventilation for passengers as many ships did not have air conditioning. There were also strong guidelines around toilets and waste disposal. As freshwater was still a premium while at sea, taking a bath was still something cruise lines rationed.

Technology Advances Sanitation

air conditioner system on a ceiling a cruise ship
By introducing more stringent regulations, the U.S. helped advance cruising in a popular way.

As the middle of the 20th century rolled around, sewage treatment technologies had grown stronger. The introduction of chlorination as well as other disinfection chemicals had a dramatic effect on being able to properly clean many different public areas on board.

Better yet, refrigeration was now being introduced on board toward the middle of the 20th century. This gave cruise ships a whole new opportunity to better store and prepare food.

However, disease was still an issue on board, specifically gastrointestinal illnesses, which are still a problem today. To address this, the U.S. Public Health Service added increased inspections of cruise ships and advocated for stronger sanitation guidelines for the cruise industry.

Modern Sanitation Regulations

Dining Room Buffet aboard the abstract luxury cruise ship. Healthy breakfast at modern liner concept
Today, modern sanitation regulations make cruising very safe and clean.

When 1975 rolled around, the U.S. CDC (Centers for Disease Control) increased cruise industry guidelines. These updated guidelines impact food storage, water safety, and filters, as well as waste management and even pest control.

Thankfully, technology was developing fast enough for modern cruise ships from the 1970s onward to employ sewage treatment facilities. Having the ability to clean properly, these treatment facilities completely changed how much of the environment cruise ships impacted.

Today, cruise ships can desalinate water and create significant freshwater supplies for ships carrying 6-7,000 people. Hand hygiene remains a big deal as all cruise ships have hand washing stations before entering any large eating area.

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