Scholarly series: The first ‘steamship’ in history

Yankee Innovators: Steamships to Silicon Chips will be the theme of the Wilton Library and Wilton Historical Society’s 11th annual scholarly series.

The four-part series will explore the insights, innovations, ingenuity and inventiveness of forward-thinking people, organizations and projects in America’s history. This year’s series is made possible by The Wilton League of Women Voters and Friends of Louise Herot.

Historian and author John Laurence Busch will lead the first installment in this year’s series — Building the First “Steamship” in History — Sunday, Jan. 28, at Wilton Library, from 4 to 5:30.

Busch’s presentation will be based upon his book, Steam Coffin: Captain Moses Rogers and The Steamship Savannah Break the Barrier. This will be Busch’s first lecture in Wilton, and he said he looks forward to “engaging an audience that knows the importance of understanding how we got here.”

During his lecture, Busch will discuss “why the first generation of humans who saw the first practical steam vessels did not trust the idea of crossing the ocean in one” and how a Connecticut native named Capt. Moses Rogers designed a vessel — the Steamship (SS) Savannah — “to address those fears.”

The proposition of making the first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean on a “steamship” was met with a mixture of skepticism and fear.

“The ocean is one of the most powerful forces in nature. The people of the early-19th Century respected that — I think even more so than we do today,” said Busch.

“Capt. Rogers was arguably the most qualified person to build such a vessel at the time. He knew the sea — having captained sailing sloops and a schooner out of New London — and he became one of the first steamboat captains, so he was familiar with the many features and early faults of this new technology.”

The SS Savannah became the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean in 1819.

Rogers built the ship in New York in 1818. It was initially built as a sailing packet, according to, but was converted to a 320-ton hybrid, equipped with a steam engine, paddlewheel and sails after a shipping firm in Savannah, Ga., committed to buy it for transatlantic service.

The SS Savannah traveled to Georgia in April 1819. The next month, President James Monroe took a ride on the ship before it left to cross the Atlantic Ocean on May 24, 1819.

During its crossing, the ship carried no freight or passengers and reached Liverpool, England, on June 20.

According to, “no other American steamship would cross the Atlantic for almost 30 years” after the SS Savannah’s historic voyage.

Upcoming lectures

This year’s scholarly series will run through March, with the following talks taking place from 4 to 5:30:

  • Feb. 11 — Shooting the Moon: Space Technology, Earthbound Nature, and the New Left During the Vietnam War with Neil Maher at Wilton Library.
  • Feb. 25 — Leading the Helicopter Industry into the 21st Century with Andrew Driver at the Wilton Historical Society.
  • March 18 — Faster, Smaller, Greener: How Semiconductor Lithography Enables Innovations All Around Us with Chip Mason at the Wilton Historical Society.

Receptions will follow each talk. There is no charge, but donations are welcomed. Registration for each lecture is strongly encouraged.

Information and registration: or 203-762-6334.