When Were Boats Invented?

Boats have been used by mankind for thousands of years and are older than any other form of transportation. They have been used throughout history for transporting goods, and people, for conducting warfare, explorations, discoveries and conquests.

The current ships and sailing vessels are advanced versions of the ancient boats. They are just more comfortable and have modern amenities however the basic design and mechanism have remained unchanged. The last 150 years have been extremely crucial in the history of boats and shipping. Directed by the needs of colonization, capitalism and imperialism, boats have become bigger, better and more efficient.

It is interesting to know that the mastery over shipping and possession of a strong naval fleet was key to the dominance of the world in ancient and medieval times. It allowed Britain to carve out the biggest colonial empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. Similarly, it allowed the Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish and French to conquer the New World or Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries.

History of boats- when were the earliest boats invented?

The history of boats is older than the history and the earliest evidence of writing in any civilization. The earliest boats were not built by modern humans but by their predecessors, the Homo Erectus about 800,000 years ago and this is how they probably spread from Africa to the other parts of the world.

Archaeological data states that the oldest boat in the world dates back to 8200-7600 BC. It is called the Pesse canoe and was discovered in the Netherlands. It was a three-feet long dugout, meaning it was made from a hollowed bark of the Pinus Sylvestris tree.

However, experts believe that boats were very much in use before that as well. This can be gauged from the earliest depiction of a ship on a rock carving in Azerbaijan dating back to 10,000 BCE! It showed a reed rowing ship carrying about 20 men.


Ancient boat in museum


Another ancient boat is the Uru or the fast boat that promoted ancient seafaring activities. It was designed, constructed and used off the Indian coast. Evidence of its use has been found in Beypore, a village in southern Kerala. These kinds of boats were used by ancient Arabs and Greeks for conducting sea trade and they carried about 400 tonnes of goods in these boats in the early centuries.

Throughout history, the evolution of boats has been slow and continuous and they have been modified according to the needs and changing times. For instance, ancient boats were minimalistic and had a very basic design.

They were called rafts and were made from tree bark, reeds, and logs of wood. In ancient Egypt, these rafts were made using the reeds of Papyrus and were quite sturdy. Cave paintings and relief carvings show that these earliest rafts were used in other regions of the world as well such as Kuwait, Peru, Bolivia, Easter Island and Scandinavia.

Then in medieval and early modern times, there was the invention of warfare ships, steam liners and more recently passenger cruises for recreation and sailing ships for leisure and professional sports.

Tracing the development and evolution of boats

Many civilizations flourished and were then destroyed by the ravages of time. However, archaeological remains have survived and these inform us of the practices, culture and also modes of transportation. Let us look at how boats evolved.

Earliest sailing boats

The evidence of the earliest sailing boats is found in ancient Egypt and they operated in the Nile. The ancient Egyptians were dependent on the Nile for travel that was conducted from present-day Aswan. Relief carvings show that these boats were mainly used for transporting obelisks ( pillars erected at entrances of temples) on the river Nile from Upper Egypt.


Old sailing boat


These boats had masts, sails and oars. They were about 100 meters and were quite durable. Since they were used in the Nile, rowing was required when winds were not dependable. These boats had a single square sail and a row of oarsmen. Later the Romans used the two and three-level bireme and trireme and these boats were huge so they employed more than a dozen oarsmen.

Use of Planks

Metal Age is dated to 3000 BCE when metal was beginning to be used in different ways. In shipping, it led to the development of planks that allowed the construction of larger ships for warfare and conducting trade. The earliest civilizations that made and used these ships were the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Egyptians.

Significant developments occurred in shipbuilding practices and about 2500 BCE, Egyptians started to venture out into the oceans, the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. They started making large wooden boats suitable for sea travel.

Galleys in Syria and Lebanon

From about 1550 to 300 BC, the Phoenicians from the Canaan civilization started manufacturing boats known as galleys. It was a vessel that was powered by men and used for trade and warfare. It had rows and many sails for gaining speed. They were very much in use till the 19th century. Galleys used for warfare were highly popular in the 16th century as this marked the age of exploration and discoveries. These galleys were also used as pirate ships and had ammunition and guns as well. The 1571 Lepanto war used hundreds of rowing ships and about 400 galleys and is the largest naval war recorded in history.

Long Boats built by Vikings

From 1000 AD, control over the seas and oceans for gaining political and economic paramountcy was realized by most kingdoms and civilizations. One such was a seafaring group from Scandinavia, called Vikings who raided, traded and settled in Europe from the 8th to the 11th centuries.

They constructed ‘longboats’ that were huge ships with sails. They were rowed by 60 to 70 men and were quicker, larger, but also narrow. This made them suitable for rivers and also long-distance open sea travel. They had long overlapping planks and a single huge mainsail. They were used for travel to and from Scandinavia and France, Britain and Spain.

Chinese Boats- Junks

From 1100 AD onwards, the Chinese started to build boats known as junks. These boats utilized rudders for steering and had watertight compartments. It also had battens on the sails that were used for transporting goods and also used as warships. These were much more advanced than the European ships that came in later and had similar features. The largest junk ship measured 150 m and had 9 masts.

Dutch Yachts

The Yachts were invented in the 14th century by the Dutch and were mostly used by rich Danish merchants. They were also part of the Dutch naval fleet at one time.

Galleon ships

The earlier galleys used oars but the Galleon ships of the Spanish had huge sails tied with numerous sturdy ropes. The sails were so broad that many people were required to put them in place. These were used in the 17 th century for transporting goods from the New World. These were also reformed into pirate ships.

Steam Ships

Britain remained a strong naval power but it lost its paramountcy to the United States after the latter achieved independence in 1776. From then Americans started building excellent ships at a much less cost than the British. The advent of the Industrial revolution during the same time led to the development of steam-powered ships, made for long-distance travel.

The earliest steamships were constructed in 1819 and transported cargo and passengers across the Atlantic. These ships worked on steam power. Their engines burned coal to heat water for producing steam in huge boilers. This steam drove the propellers or paddlewheels.

Clipper Vessels

The American ship makers had become one of the finest in the field by the early 1800s and they created Clipper ships. These ships were expansive, and had tall masts and long hulls that were directed for gaining speed quickly.

They had three masts, protruding bows and broad sails. The first clipper vessel was the Rainbow and it was constructed in New York in 1845. Another huge Clipper boat was the Royal Clipper which had a five-masted barque.


Clipper ship


Many other clippers were also constructed in East Boston and were then used in the China-England tea trade after the British East India Company’s monopoly over the Chinese tea trade ended. After that, an American clipper ship called the Witch of the Wave reached England from Canton in only 90 days. In 1854, another clipper called the Lighting covered 436 miles in 24 hours creating new speed records. Thus, the use of clippers was a turning point in the history of shipping and trade.


At the turn of the century, sails and masts began to disappear and also metal was extensively used for building ships. The first ocean liners were built in the late 18th century, around 1845 and extensively used iron. They had propellers and hulls made of steel.

Earlier Atlantic going ships had wooden hulls, and the new lever operated steam engines exerted enormous pressure on the rather fragile bottom in which they were fitted. This made repairs frequent and tiresome. The solution was found and it was iron hulls. This is what gave rise to the earliest ocean liners.




These ships were enormous and one such example is the Great Eastern which measured 692 feet, displaced 32,170 tonnes, and had a propeller, two paddle wheels and an auxiliary sail.

Stern Wheelers and Paddle Steamers


Paddle Steamers


Apart from large ocean-going steamships, there were smaller vessels called paddle steamboats or sternwheelers that operated on rivers. There were paddle wheelers that had paddle wheels on both sides. These riverine boats were used for inland river transportation and travel in Britain and other regions of Europe in the 1880s. They were built for conducting coastal trade with neighbouring areas. As the name suggests, they used paddles and steam.

Diesel Ships

The earliest commercial diesel ships were made in the early 1900s. In 1904, a French diesel ship called Petit Pierre was constructed. It measured 125 feet and had a 25-hp engine with a pitch propeller to reverse it. It was a barge kind of ship and was used in inland waters of the Marne-Rhine canal.

From then onwards, diesel ships became commonplace and had a powerful motor engines.

The invention of the earliest Hovercrafts

Hovercrafts are a type of boat whose bottom is made of air-filled cushions.
A hovercraft has three parts- a platform or its bottom, a motor fan and a skirt. The air enters the platform through the fan and the skirt prevents it from escaping outside.


These are sturdy and currently used for various kinds of watersports, and also in military, rescue and search operations and by the Coast Guard. These are lightweight and easy to handle.

The earliest hovercraft was invented and tested by Christopher Cockerell in 1955. The first design was rudimentary and used cushions filled with air.

Container Ships

Over the 19th and the 20th centuries shipbuilding saw many technological advances resulting in the construction of large container ships that were used for international trade. These ships are designed to provide maximum storage space for containerized cargo on the decks.


Container Ship


The hull of a container ship is a large warehouse that is divided into numerous compartments by vertical railings. These cells or compartments are made to keep packed containerised cargo. They are mostly made of steel but other substances such as aluminium, fibreglass and plywood are also used. Container ships carry different materials ranging from packaged food to metals and hazardous substances. Modern container ships can store more than a thousand containers.

Cruise Liners and passenger ships


Passenger ship


In the late 1990s, ships made for recreational purposes like passenger cruises came into vogue. They were exquisite, adorned with all comfort as they were designed for the rich. These could be used for recreational sailing, fishing or just exploring the waters. Since then, passenger cruises have become quite popular and many people love to spend their holidays on an exotic sea voyages.


Boats have been in use since times immemorial. They have evolved; the earliest ones were made of reeds and then wood and finally, iron and steel were used in their construction. They are indispensable and are used for the transportation of people, and goods, and are responsible for the diffusion of cultures, religions and practices across different regions.

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Disclaimer: The authors’ views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Marine Insight. Data and charts, if used, in the article have been sourced from available information and have not been authenticated by any statutory authority. The author and Marine Insight do not claim it to be accurate nor accept any responsibility for the same. The views constitute only the opinions and do not constitute any guidelines or recommendations on any course of action to be followed by the reader.

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