Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Steamboat Inspection Service Anniversary

July 7, 1838:   First Laws Established for the Inspection of Steamboats

In the early days Congress hesitated to pass adequate safety laws because of fear of interfering with the growing steamboat industry which was playing a big part in the country's economic development.
The advent of the steam engine, in particular, freed ships from the limits of the wind, giving them greater flexibility to stay out of harm's way. However, early steam engines were driven by primitive boilers which exploded frequently, causing large losses of life.

In 1823 alone, 14 percent of all steam vessels in the United States were destroyed by explosions, resulting in more than 1,000 fatalities.

As the industry grew the general public became aware of the need for maritime safety laws. In January 1838, at President Van Buren’s urging, the Senate finally passed steamboat legislation, but the House refused to budge. That spring as the steamboat Moselle moved out into the river above Cincinnati, OH, with over 200 passengers onboard her four boilers exploded killing 62 with 52 missing and presumed killed.

That casualty caused the House to act and the Steamboat Act of 1838 became law to "provide better security of the lives of passengers on board of vessels propelled in whole or in part by steam" (5 Stat. L., 304). Unfortunately, it was not a very effective law. Although the act required the inspection of steamboat boilers, it provided virtually no means to enforce it or to stop operating a vessel that failed inspection. It would not be until the Steamboat Act of May 30, 1852 (10 Stat. L., 1852) that an organization and form of a federal maritime inspection service would begin to emerge.

On February 14, 1903, congressional action transferred the Steamboat Inspection Service to the newly created Department of Commerce and Labor. It remained here until its functions were transferred to the Coast Guard during World War II.

There is more information on the Steamboat Inspection Service on the US Coast Guard History website.