The Economic History Review

Speed under sail during the early industrial revolution

Volume 72 Issue 2
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Pages: 1750–1830)Authors: Morgan Kelly, Cormac Ó Gráda
Published online: February 21, 2018DOI: 10.1111/ehr.12696

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Abstract This article measures technological progress in oceanic shipping directly by using a large database of daily log entries from British, Dutch, and Spanish ships to estimate daily sailing speed in different wind conditions from 1750 to 1850. Against the consensus among economic (but not maritime) historians that the technology of sailing ships was fairly static during this time, we find that average sailing speeds of British East India Company and Navy ships in moderate to strong winds rose considerably after the 1770s. Driving this progress was the introduction of coppering in the 1780s, but subsequent rises are probably due to a continuous evolution of sails and rigging, and improved hulls that allowed a greater area of sail to be set safely in a given wind. By contrast, the speeds of Dutch and Spanish vessels were stagnant. Using separate data on the crossing times of Atlantic mail packets, we find gradual progress from the 1750s, followed by marked improvements when American packets appeared in the 1820s.