The principle of moving water with a screw has been known since the invention of the Archimedes' screw, named after Archimedes of Syracuse who lived in the 3rd Century BC. It was not until the 18th century however, and the invention of the steam engine, that a practical means of delivering effective power to a marine screw propulsion system became available, but initial attempts to build such a vessel met with failure.
In 1807, the world's first commercially successful steam-powered vessel, Robert Fulton's North River Steamboat, made its debut. As this vessel was powered by paddlewheels rather than a propeller, the paddlewheel thereby became the de facto early standard for steamship propulsion. Experimentation with screw propulsion continued in some quarters, however, and between 1750 and the 1830s numerous patents for marine propellers were taken out by various inventors, though few of these inventions were pursued to the testing stage, and those that were proved unsatisfactory for one reason or another.
Ericsson and Smith
In 1835, two inventors in Britain, John Ericsson and Francis Pettit Smith, began working separately on the problem. Smith, a farmer by trade who had entertained a lifelong fascination with screw propulsion, was first to take out a screw propeller patent on 31 May, while Ericsson, a gifted Swedish engineer then working in Britain, filed his patent six weeks later.
Smith quickly built a small model boat to test his invention, which was demonstrated first on a pond at his Hendon farm, and later at the Royal Adelaide Gallery of Practical Science in London, where it was seen by the Secretary of the Navy, Sir William Barrow. Having secured the patronage of a London banker named Wright, Smith then built a 30-foot, 6-horsepower canal boat of six tons burthen called the Francis Smith, which was fitted with a wooden propeller of his own design and demonstrated on the Paddington Canal from November 1836 to September 1837. By a fortuitous accident, the wooden propeller of two turns was damaged during a voyage in February 1837, and to Smith's surprise the broken propeller, which now consisted of only a single turn, doubled the boat's previous speed, from about four miles an hour to eight. Smith would subsequently file a revised patent in keeping with this accidental discovery.
In the meantime, Ericsson was conducting his own experiments. In 1837, he built a 45-foot screw propelled steamboat, Francis B. Ogden, named after his patron, the American consul to Liverpool. In the summer of 1837, Ericsson demonstrated his boat on the River Thames to senior members of the British Admiralty, including Surveyor of the Navy Sir William Symonds. In spite of the boat achieving a speed of 10 miles an hour, comparable with that of existing paddle steamers, Symonds and his entourage were unimpressed. The Admiralty maintained the view that screw propulsion would be ineffective in ocean-going service, while Symonds himself believed that screw propelled ships could not be steered efficiently. Following this rejection, Ericsson built a second, larger screw-propelled boat, the Robert F. Stockton, and had her sailed in 1839 to the United States, where he was soon to gain fame as the designer of the U.S. Navy's first screw-propelled warship, USS Princeton.
Smith's original 1836 patent for a screw propeller of two full turns. He would later revise the patent, reducing the length to one turn.
Apparently aware of the Navy's view that screw propellers would prove unsuitable for seagoing service, Smith determined to prove this assumption wrong. In September 1837, he took his small vessel (now fitted with an iron propeller of a single turn) to sea, steaming from Blackwall, London to Hythe, Kent, with stops at Ramsgate, Dover and Folkestone. On the way back to London on the 25th, Smith's craft was observed making headway in stormy seas by officers of the Royal Navy. The Admiralty's interest in the technology was revived, and Smith was encouraged to build a full size ship to more conclusively demonstrate the technology's effectiveness. He was able to attract a number of investors to provide the necessary capital, including the banker Wright and the engineering firm of J. and G. Rennie, who together formed a new company called the Ship Propeller Company. The company's proposed vessel was initially tentatively named Propeller, but the name eventually adopted for the ship was Archimedes, after the 3rd century Greek inventor.