chain boats of europe

In his travelogue, a vagabond abroad, Mark Twain describes an encounter with a curious boatman on the Neckar River in Germany.

We ran forward to see the ship. It turned out to be a steamboat – as they first started sailing up to the Neckar in May. She was a tug of war, and one of very peculiar build and aspect. I would often see him by the hotel, and wondered how he propelled himself, since apparently he had no propellers or pedals. ,

As she grinned and groaned, we understood the secret of her moving impulse. He didn’t drive himself up to the river with a paddle or a propeller, he pulled himself up on a big chain. This chain is kept in the river bed and is tied at two ends only. It’s seventy miles. Is [one hundred and ten kilometers] Tall. It comes over the bow of the boat, passes around a drum, and is paid out. She pulls that chain, and therefore drags herself up or down the river. Strictly speaking, she has neither a bow nor a stern, as she has a long bladed rudder at each end and never turns. She uses both rudders at all times, and they are powerful enough to enable her to turn right or left and swerve around curves, despite the strong resistance of the chain. I do not believe that even the impossible can be done; But I have seen it happen, and therefore I know that there is an impossible thing that can be done. What miracle will man try to do next?

What Mark Twain described is known as a chain boat. These boats were very popular on European rivers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It consisted of a fixed chain that followed the course of the water and lay along the bottom of a river as far as navigation was required. Specially made chain boats picked up the chain from the riverbed at the bow end, passed it over the deck of the boat, and sank it back into the river. On deck, the chain passed around a heavy winch powered by a steam engine which pulled the chain and propelled the boat.

Chain shipping somewhat revolutionized inland shipping during the Industrial Revolution in Europe in the late 19th century, until ships powered by steam engines became self-propelled. Previously, boats had to carried to the river by humans or animals of burden. The chain drive of these riverboats made optimum use of the relatively low powered steam locomotives of that period. In addition, the boats were particularly well suited for shallow or fast-flowing rivers where paddle steamers could not be used.

Jacopo Mariano's concept of shipping.

Jacopo Mariano’s concept of shipping.

The concept was first visualized by the Italian engineer Jacopo Mariano in the 15th century. In a manuscript from 1438, Mariano includes a depiction of a boat being pulled upstream on a cable laid along a river. The cable was shown to be wrapped around a central shaft driven by two, side-mounted water wheels. Behind the river craft was a small boat-like object that was pulled by the current, holding the cable taut and thus ensuring the necessary friction on the shaft.

Fausto Veranzio's concept of shipping circa 1595

Fausto Veranzio’s concept of shipping circa 1595

In 1595, Croatian polymath Fausto Veranzio described a system of cable boat navigation that enabled greater speeds. It consisted of two boats connected by a cable that went around a winch firmly attached to the bank of the river. A boat propelled by large water sails traveled downstream and pulled the large boat upstream against the current. The large barge had two, side-mounted water wheels that coiled the cable and further increased its speed.

In 1723, Magdeburg’s mathematics professor Nikolaus Mollwitz made a proposal for a machine that would help boats negotiate fast currents under Magdeburg’s bridges. His machine consisted of two horizontal shafts, the towing cable being twisted around the front shaft in such a way that it remained open again and again on the rear shaft. With the additional use of levers, it should have been possible for five or six men to successfully effect the passage of the boat through the part of the river that needed fifty. The machine was never built, but from details omitted by Paul Jacob Marperger, elements of this basic principle are similar to those used in the construction of later series boats. This section of the river later became the starting point for the first series boats in Germany.

chain boat

Model of chain boat at Technosium State Museum for Technology and Work. Photo: Klaus Luginsland/Wikimedia Commons

Serious attempts to chain boats were made only in the 1820s in France. Engineers Tourse and Courtout connected a nearly 1-kilometer-long cable made of hemp to the banks of the Sane river near Lyon. It was wound around a rotating drum on board, which propelled the boat. Six horses were used to spin the drum. Later, Tourse and Courtout built another system on the Rhne between Givers and Lyon, but replaced the horses with a stream engine. Then Vinochon de Quemont conducted trials on the Seine River in which the rope was replaced by a chain. In 1826, MF Borden tested a variant with two steam ships. One of the ships propelled together a rope 600 meters long using a paddle wheel. After the rope was fully untwisted, the ship anchored the second tugboat and pulled it up to itself with its series of attached barges, with the rear tugboat assisting the process with its power. Both boats then changed positions and repeated the process.

From the time of those early attempts in the first half of the nineteenth century, chain boat technology had steadily improved and the first successful use of chain boats occurred in France. In 1839, the first technically and economically successful chain steamer, hercule, was built on an approximately 5 to 6 kilometer long stretch of fast-flowing water on the Seine River within the city of Paris. After that, other French rivers and canals were also provided with chains. By 1873, a chain of over 500 km had been laid along the Seine.

chain boat

Chain of a chain boat in the canal of Burgundy, France. Photo: Vet Fager/Wikimedia Commons

In Germany, chain boat navigation began in 1866 with the laying of an iron chain in the Elbe between Magdeburg-Neustadt and Bachau, a distance of about 6 km. It regularly hauls boats up to 250 tonnes using an engine that generates only 60 hp. By 1871, the chain extended from Magdeburg to Scandau on the Bohemian border. Three years later the route was extended north-westwards to Hamburg. The 28 series boats made uphill speed over a total length of 668 kilometres. These boats were used until the late 1920s, when the bulk of the chains were lifted, keeping only those in the toughest sections. The last section was closed only after the end of World War II.

On the Saale, chain boats became operational in 1873, running from the mouth of the river to the Calbe, and by 1903 services had been extended to Halle for a total distance of 105 km. Chain shipping on the Saale suffered a sharp decline with the outbreak of World War I and was completely discontinued in 1921.

chain boat

A chain boat on the Canal de Saint-Quentin, France. Photo: Boerkewitz/Wikimedia Commons

Chain towing revolutionized Elbe shipping, which until then had been shaped by towing for centuries. Chain towing reduced the crew on the barge by more than half, while shortening the delivery time, allowing the captain to travel three times the number of voyages previously possible. Shipping goods by chain boat became so reliable that many goods transferred by railways were switched back to cheaper waterways.

Chain boats became obsolete in the early 20th century as steam engines became more powerful. The new paddle steamers were able to deliver more traction for less coal consumption. The compound engine of a paddle steamer requires only half the amount of coal based on its power output. Chain steamers were unable to take advantage of these mixed steam locomotives due to uneven operation. In addition, chain shipping companies faced high investment and maintenance costs. The construction of dams and locks also created artificial barriers that prevented chain boats from operating.

chain boat

A Ketenschief (chain ship) on the Neckar near Heilbronn, circa 1885.

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