What Is a History of Ships?

Before railroads, cars, and highways, humans traveled and traded primarily using waterways. Early humans made small boats for hunting, fishing and trading, and the first civilizations defended themselves and expanded their territories with war ships. Explorers expanded empires by traveling to new lands on ships and starting colonies.

Early human cultures made rafts and dugout canoes from readily available natural materials. Early Polynesian people traced their lineages by the boats their ancestors arrived on. For them, boats were similar to family trees or tribes. Starting as early as 1100 B.C. and continuing for the next 2,000 years, early civilizations such as the Phoenicians, the Greeks and the Romans, used oar-powered naval ships with wooden hulls and over time found ways to add more oarsmen and improve the strength of the hulls for ramming during naval conflicts.

In the 1400s, civilizations began to replace oar-powered ships with sail-powered ships. Over the course of the 15th century, shipbuilders progressed from making single-mast ships to making ships with up to four masts and eight sails.

In 1787, John Wilkinson built the first ship with a metal hull. With the metal hull, Wilkinson created stronger ships that could better withstand enemy cannon fire. Since the advent of metal hulls in the 18th century, shipbuilders make cargo ships, barges, cruise ships, submarines, and most seafaring vessels out of metal. Manufacturers often use synthetic materials, such as fiberglass, for smaller fishing and recreational boats.