The development of ships went hand in hand with the development of the mankind. Ships became integral parts of people's daily life, and war. Ships were the key drivers for explorations and scientific and technological development in the history. Today, we can say that the usage of ships enabled the world trade and had shaped the world's economy.


The first known vessels date back 10.000 years ago, to the Neolithic period. These vessels could not be described as ships, but mark the beginning of the transport by sea. Animal skins or woven fabrics were used as sails and gave range to early "ships". The usage of these vessels allowed men wide explorations and enabled the settlement of Oceania, 3.000 years ago.

From 3.000 BC – Egypt and Mesopotamia

The earliest civilizations, ancient Egyptians ans Mesopotamian, made extensive use of boats for transport on the Nile, Euphrates and Tigris. By 3.000, Egyptians contributed to the development of the modern ship by inventing the hull. The hull was made by assembling wooden planks and tying them together by woven straps. The seams were sealed by reeds and grass stuffed between the planks.

Egyptian "reed ship"

The ancient Egyptians mastered the art of building sailboats. They made the distinction for boats traveling south with the sail up, and boats traveling north when rows were used for the movement of the boat. The proof of their shipbuilding skills is The Khufu Ship found intact in 1954. entombed at the foot of the Giza Pyramid. The ship was built 2.500 BC and had 44m in length.

The Khufu Ship

The Egyptians used larger seagoing vessels, using their access to the Mediterranean Sea. These boats were known as Byblos vessels due to their often stops to Byblos port, the largest exporter of cedar wood. Cedar wood of Lebanon was the essential material for the Egyptian architecture and shipbuilding.

From 1100 BC – Phoenicians, Greeks and the Romans

Gradually, the Phoenicians mastered the use of galleys, which they used to colonize the Mediterranean. By 1100 they colonized Byblos and became the greatest seafaring civilization of the time.

The Phoenicians were known for building two types of ships; one was a tubby sailing vessel used for the transport of goods and people and the other was the galley, a warship. The galley was a longer boat, with a sharp battering ram that served as a weapon and propelled oars were used for movement.

Phoenician trade ship - 1500 BC
Phoenician trade ship - 850 BC

The speed of the galleys were determined, by the number of oarsmen. Additional oarsmen were added to increase ship speed, but more oarsmen meant building longer ships. This was possible to some extent, however, length brings structural weakness thus, this tactic was limited. The Phoenicians than invented the banks of oarsmen by 700 BC. These banks of oarsmen were situated one above the other. This kind of the vessel is named the bireme. Within the next 2 centuries, a third bank was added, supposedly by the Greeks and a trireme was created. Trireme was used in the war between Greeks and Persians, in 500 BC, which was the first war in history that was decided by naval power.

Phoenicians galley

The first Roman Navy was created between 260-255 BC. The Roman navy consisted, in majority, of quinqueremes. The quinqueremes had 5 banks of oars that were driven by 300 oarsmen. The quinqueremes were copied by the Romans from a Carthaginian warship they have captured during Punic War.

7th-11th century – Longships

Germanic tribes developed a swift design of the oar-powered ship, known as the Viking longship, in 5th century onwards. One of the famous ships of this type is the Gokstad ship, 22m long, built from oak planks with two high pointed ends. The boat had 16 holes for oars along each side, and a ”steer board” - a broad oar fitted on the right side of the stern. A large rectangular sail is set on a mast near the center of the ship.

The Gokstad Ship

This design was kept by the Normans in the 11th century, with minimum changes and was the only type of ship used by the Scandinavians.

12th-15th Century – The Chinese Junk

A boat type named The Chinese Junk was developed at later stage of the Song dynasty. Chinese ships sailed in the South China seas. The region suffered from typhoons making a strong hull essential. The Chinese strengthened the hull by a bulkhead – a partition across the interior of the hull but sometimes along its length as well. These bullheads made the hull rigid and also provided with watertight compartments invaluable when a leak at the sea needed to be repaired.

The Chinese junk brought yet another innovation; a stern-post rudder. A stern-post rudder is a large heavy board which can be lowered on a stern-post when the boat sails into deep waters. This rudder fulfilled the function of both the keel as well as rudder. Multiple masts were another important innovation of these ships, each of them having their own set of sails. Marco Polo used the Chinese Junk ships for his explorations.

The Chinese Junk

These ships were large, and by the 15th century, they were over 135m long.

16th Century – Carracks, galleons and galleys

The Spanish carrack is the largest European sailing ship of the 15th century. It become the standard vessel of Atlantic trade and adventure in the 16th century. The carrack has unusually high castles in bow and stern, but in 1560s it is discovered that the forecastle seriously hampers sailing. The great bulk of it, catching the wind ahead of the mast, has the effect of pushing the bow to leeward - making it very difficult to sail close to the wind.


In 1580s, the high forecastle is eliminated and a type of ship with high stern and relatively low bow is introduced; the galleon. The ship was developed by the English, who proved its effectiveness by defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588.

The galleon becomes the standard for all large ships, both within the merchant navy as well as military.


17th - 18th century – East India

The great value of trade from India and the East Indies prompts the various East India companies - and particularly those of England and Holland - to invest in magnificent ocean-going merchant ships. These ships needed to have capacity for storing large amounts of cargo, they need to be strong and well-armed to fight off pirates or even the ships of rival companies; and they need to be comfortable for their captains and for important passengers, busy making fortunes in the east.

These were the most beautiful ships of that time period. The largest class, outdoing even the biggest warships, were 1200 tons in weight.

The largest ships of this kind were 50m long and 12m wide. With a ratio of 4:1 between length and width, these ships could not achieve a big speed. Speed was not a crucial factor for the East India companies, since they enjoyed the monopoly anyways. The ships used trade winds as assistance in the journey and made just one journey in and out from east per year.

With the 19th century bringing competition, speed of merchant ships became a factor and the age of clippers came.

18th Century ship

19th Century – The Clipper and the Steamship

As a result of the growing demand for a more rapid delivery of tea from China, in 1843 the Clipper era begun. Clippers were very fast sailing ships with three or more masts and a square rig. The demand for clippers continued during the “Golden Rush” when there was a need for quick ships that were used for the transportation of gold.

The decline in the usage of clippers started with the gradual introduction of steamships. Although clippers could reach much higher maximum speed than steamships, they depended on the wind and thus could not be accounted as punctual. As for steamers, they could keep the schedule and this made the more reliable.

The industrial revolution, new mechanical methods of propulsion, and the ability to construct ships from metal triggered an explosion in ship design. The quest for more efficient ships, the end of long running and wasteful maritime conflicts, and the increased financial capacity of industrial powers created an avalanche of more specialised boats and ships. Specialised ships built for entirely new functions, such as firefighting, rescue, and research, also began to appear.