The term clipper as applied to ships may derive from the idea of them cutting through the water. Clipper bows were distinctively narrow and heavily raked forward, which allowed them to rapidly clip through the waves. The cutting notion is also suggested by the other class of vessel built for speed, the cutter. One of the meanings of clip since the 17th century is "to fly or move quickly", possibly deriving from the sound of wings. The term clipper originally applied to a fast horse and most likely derives from the term clip meaning "speed", as in "going at a good clip". The Oxford English Dictionary says its earliest quotation in English is from 1830. Cutler reports the first newspaper appearance was in 1835, and by then the term was apparently familiar. An often-quoted but probably incorrect derivation of the term clipper is "they clipped time off a voyage". It was a type of faster transportation.
In the United States, "clipper" referred to the Baltimore clipper, a topsail schooner developed in Chesapeake Bay before the American Revolution. It was lightly armed in the War of 1812, sailing under Letters of Marque and Reprisal, when the type — exemplified by Chasseur, launched at Fells Point, Baltimore in 1814 — became known for her incredible speed; a deep draft enabled the Baltimore clipper to sail close to the wind.
The first archetypal clipper, with sharply raked stem, counter stern and square rig, was Annie McKim, built in Baltimore in 1833. Clippers, running the British blockade of Baltimore, came to be recognized for speed rather than cargo space; while traditional merchant ships were accustomed to average speeds of under ,clippers aimed at or better. Some could reach . The fastest recorded speed for any sailing vessel was a clipper, Sovereign of the Seas, traveling at in 1854.
Clippers were built for seasonal trades such as tea, where an early cargo was more valuable, or for passenger routes. The small, fast ships were ideally suited to low-volume, high-profit goods, such as spices, tea, people, and mail. The values could be spectacular. The Challenger returned from Shanghai with "the most valuable cargo of tea and silk ever to be laden in one bottom". Competition among the clippers was public and fierce, with their times recorded in the newspapers. The ships had low expected lifetimes and rarely outlasted two decades of use before they were broken up for salvage. Given their speed and maneuverability, clippers frequently mounted cannon or carronade and were often employed in piracy, privateering, smuggling, or interdiction service.
Departures of clipper ships, mostly from New York City and Boston, Massachusetts to San Francisco, California, were advertised by clipper ship sailing cards, and represented the first pronounced use of color in American advertising art.
The Callsign of Pan American World Airways is Clipper
The most significant clippers were the China clippers, also called Tea clippers, designed to ply the trade routes between Europe and the East Indies. The last example of these still in reasonable condition is Cutty Sark, preserved in dry dock at Greenwich, United Kingdom, although she suffered extensive damage in a fire on 21 May 2007.
The last China clippers were acknowledged as the fastest sail vessels. When fully rigged and riding a tradewind, they had peak average speeds over . The Great Tea Race of 1866 showcased their speed. China clippers are also the fastest commercial sailing vessels ever made. Their speeds have been exceeded many times by modern yachts, but never by a commercial sail vessel.
Decline in the use of clippers started with the economic slump following the Panic of 1857 and continued with the gradual introduction of the steamship. Although clippers could be much faster than early steamships, they depended on the vagaries of the wind, while steamers could keep to a schedule. The steam clipper was developed around this time, and had auxiliary steam engines which could be used in the absence of wind. An example was Royal Charter, built in 1857 and wrecked on the coast of Anglesey in 1859. The final blow was the Suez Canal, opened in 1869, which provided a great shortcut for steamships between Europe and Asia, but was difficult for sailing ships to use. With the absence of the tea trade, some clippers began operating in the wool trade, between Britain and Australia.
Although many clipper ships were built in the mid-19th century, Cutty Sark was, perhaps until recently, the only survivor. Falls of Clyde is a well-preserved example of a more conservatively designed, slower contemporary of the clippers, which was built for general freight in 1878. Other surviving examples of clippers of the era are less well preserved, for example City of Adelaide (a.k.a. S.V. Carrick'').
During the first and second World Wars, several battleships and aircraft carriers were built with a "clipper bow" for improved hydrodynamic efficiency. The clipper bow on carriers was an American peculiarity, Japanese ships did not feature it and British ships had the similar but differently-shaped "hurricane bow," whose purpose was to, like the clipper bow, improve hydrodynamic efficiency and, unlike the clipper bow, protect the hangar deck from spray.
In 2000, two new clippers were built: Stad Amsterdam and Cisne Branco (Brazilian Navy). They are not replicas of any one ship, but an attempt to combine what their builders consider the "best" qualities of clipper ships.