Blasco de Garay's 1543 Steamship

In 1543, a naval officer under Charles V is said to have propelled a ship of two hundred tons, by steam, in the harbor of Barcelona. No account of his machinery is extant, except that he had a large copper boiler, and that paddle wheels were suspended over the sides of the vessel. Like all old inventors he refused to explain the mechanism. The following account was furnished for publication by the superintendent of the Spanish royal archives. "Blasco de Garay, a captain in the navy, proposed in 1543, to the Emperor and King, Charles the Fifth, a machine to propel large boats and ships, even in calm weather, without oars or sails. In spite of the impediments and the opposition which this project met with, the Emperor ordered a trial to be made of it in the port of Barcelona, which in fact took place on the 17th on the month of June, of the said year 1543. Garay would not explain the particulars of his discovery: it was evident however during the experiment that it consisted in a large copper of boiling water, and in moving wheels attached to either side of the ship. The experiment was tried on a ship of two hundred tons, called the Trinity, which came from Colibre to discharge a cargo of corn at Barcelona, of which Peter de Scarza was captain. By order of Charles V, Don Henry de Toledo the governor, Don Pedro de Cordova the treasurer Ravago, and the vice chancellor, and intendant of Catalonia witnessed the experiment. In the reports made to the emperor and to the prince, this ingenious invention was generally approved, particularly on account of the promptness and facility with which the ship was made to go about. The treasurer Ravago, an enemy to the project, said that the vessel could be propelled two leagues in three hours that the machine was complicated and expensive and that there would be an exposure to danger in case the boiler should burst. The other commissioners affirmed that the vessel tacked with the same rapidity as a galley maneuvered in the ordinary way, and went at least a league an hour. As soon as the experiment was made Garay took the whole machine with which he had furnished the vessel, leaving only the wooden part in the arsenal at Barcelona, and keeping all the rest for himself. In spite of Ravago's opposition, the invention was approved, and if the expedition in which Charles the Vth was then engaged had not prevented, he would no doubt have encouraged it. Nevertheless, the emperor promoted the inventor one grade, made him a present of two hundred thousand maravedis, and ordered the expense to be paid out of the treasury, and granted him besides many other favors."

"This account is derived from the documents and original registers kept in the Royal Archives of Simuncas, among the commercial papers of Catalonia, and from those of the military and naval departments for the said year, 1543.
Thomas Gonzales
Simuncas, August 27, 1825."

From this account it has been inferred that steam vessels were invented in Spain, being only revived in modern times; and that Blasco de Garay should be regarded as the inventor of the first steam engine. As long as the authenticity of the document is admitted and no earlier experiment adduced, it is difficult to perceive how such a conclusion can be avoided; at least so far as steam vessels are concerned. It may appear singular that this specimen of mechanical skill should have been matured in that country; but at the time referred to, Spain was probably the most promising scene for the display of such operations. Every one knows that half a century before, Columbus could find a patron no where else. The great loss which Charles sustained in his fleet before Algiers the previous year, must have convinced him of the value of an invention by which ships could be propelled without oars or sails; and there is nothing improbable in supposing the loss on that occasion (fifteen ships of war and one hundred and forty transports, in which eight thousand men perished and Charles himself narrowly escaped) was one principal reason for Captain Garay to bring forward his project. M. Arago, who advocates with peculiar eloquence and zeal the claims of Decaus and Papin, as inventors of the steam engine, thinks the document should be set aside for the following reasons: 1st. Because it was not printed in 1543. 2d. It does not sufficiently prove that steam was the motive agent. 3d. If Captain Garay really did employ a steam engine, it was "according to all appearance" the reacting eolipile of Heron, and therefore nothing new. To us there does not appear much force in these reasons. M. Arago observes, "manuscript documents cannot have any value with the public, because, generally, it has no means whatever of verifying the date assigned to them." To a limited extent this may be admitted. Respecting private MSS. it may be true; but surely official and national records like those referred to by Spanish secretary should be excepted. We have in eighth chapter of our Third Book quoted largely from official MS. documents belonging to this city, (New-York:) now these are preserved in a public office and may be examined to verify our extracts as well as their own authenticity: and the Spanish records we presume are equally accessible, and their authenticity may be equally established. The mere printing of both could add nothing to their credibility, although it would afford to the public greater facilities of judging of their claims to it. So far from rejecting such sources of information respecting the arts of former times, we should have supposed they were unexceptionable.

But it is said although a boiler is mentioned, that is not sufficient proof that steam was the impelling agent, since there are various machines in which fire is used under a boiler, without that fluid having any thing to do with the operations: Well, but the account states that which rally appears conclusive on this point, viz. that this vessel contained "boiling water" and that Ravago the treasurer, opposed the scheme on the ground that there would be and exposure to danger "in case the boiler should burst." And this danger could not arise from the liquid contents merely, but from the accumulation of steam, (the irresistible force of which was, as has been observed, well known from the employment of eolipiles) it is obvious enough that this fluid performed an essential part in the operation in other words was the source of the motive power. Had it not been necessary, Garay would never have furnished in it such a plausible pretext for opposition to his project. It has been also said "if we were to admit that the machine of Garay was set in motion by steam, it would not necessarily follow that the invention [steam engine] was new and that it bore any resemblance to those of our day." True, but it would at least follow that Garay should be considered the father of steam navigation, until some earlier and actual experiment is produced. Arago further thinks, that if Garay used steam at all, his engine was the whirling eolipile-- "every thing" he observes would lead us to believe that he employed this. We regret to say there are strong objection to such an opinion. That an engine acting on the same principle of recoil as Heron's eolipile might have been made to propel a vessel of two hundred tons is admitted; but from modern experiments with small engines of this description, we know ; 1st, that in order to produce the reported results, the elasticity of the steam employed must have equivalent to a pressure of several atmospheres; and 2d, that the enormous consumption of the fluid when used in one of these engines must have required either a number of boilers or one of extraordinary dimensions. Had Garay employed several boilers, the principal difficulty would be removed, as he might then have made them sufficiently strong to resist the pressure of the confined vapor; he however used but one, and every person who has witnessed the operation of reacting engines will admit that a single boiler could hardly have been made to furnish the quantity of steam required, at the requisite degree of tension.

As the nature of this Spanish engine is not mentioned, every person is left to form his own opinion of it. We see no difficulty in admitting that he employed the elastic force of steam to push a piston to and fro or that he formed a vacuum under one by condensing the vapor. Such applications of steam were likely to occur to a person deeply engaged in devising modes of employing it, in the sixteenth as well as in the seventeenth century, not withstanding the objection so often reiterated, that the arts were not sufficiently matured for fabrication of metallic cylinder a piston, and apparatus for transmitting the movements of a piston to revolving mechanism. The casting and boring of pieces of ordinance show that the construction of a steam cylinder was not beyond the arts of the sixteenth century, or even of the two preceding ones; while the water-works, consisting of forcing pumps worked by wheels, and also numerous other machines put in motion by cranks, (and the irregularity of their movements being also regulated by fly wheels) described in the works of Besson, Agricola, &c. show that engineers at that time well understood the means of converting rotary into rectilinear motions, and rectilinear into rotary ones.

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