Iraq Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

AI image of the three ships of Christopher Columbus: Santa Maria, Niña, and Pinta. Source: Charles/Adobe Stock

The History of Shipbuilding As We Know It


From the humble vessels of ancient civilizations navigating coastal waters to the majestic seafaring giants of the modern era exploring the farthest reaches of the oceans, shipbuilding has been an instrumental force in shaping the course of human progress for millennia. Beyond its utilitarian purpose, each hull fashioned, and every sail unfurled tell tales of exploration, trade, conflict, and cultural exchange. As we delve into the annals of maritime history, the story of shipbuilding unfolds as a reminder of our relentless pursuit of discovery, economic expansion, and the dance between human ingenuity and the boundless horizons of the open sea.

Shipbuilding Innovations Through the Ages

The oldest boat ever discovered is the Pesse canoe, found in 1955 in the village of Pesse in the Netherlands during excavation work. Using radiocarbon dating it has been estimated that the canoe is from around 8040 BC, but archaeologists believe it could be even older than that. A pretty straightforward design, the Pesse canoe is a “dugout canoe,” meaning it was carved from a single tree trunk.

The Pesse canoe, shown here, believed to be the world's oldest known boat, and was made roughly 10,000 years ago in the Mesolithic period, from a Scots pine trunk, in the Netherlands region. (Drents Museum / CC BY 3.0)

The Pesse canoe, shown here, believed to be the world's oldest known boat, and was made roughly 10,000 years ago in the Mesolithic period, from a Scots pine trunk, in the Netherlands region. (Drents Museum / CC BY 3.0)

Ancient Greece

To get to the first ships, we have to fast forward a few thousand years to the ancient world. It was during this period that the first leaps in shipbuilding as we think of it today were made. In the East Mediterranean, the Greeks emerged as masters of the sea. 

The trireme is the most famous of the ancient Greek ships. Characterized by its three rows of oars on each side, the trireme epitomized Greek naval dominance, displaying exceptional maneuverability crucial for engaging in intense sea battles. The Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, fought between the Greek city-states, led by the Athenians and Spartans, and the Persian Empire led by King Xerxes I is a prime example of this. Under the command of Themistocles, the Greek fleet and their triremes dominated the Persians, easily able to exploit the tighter quarts of the straits between Salamis and the Greek mainland.

Fleet of triremes based on the full-sized replica Olympias (Public Domain)

Fleet of triremes based on the full-sized replica Olympias (Public Domain)

Slightly smaller were the biremes which used two rows of oars instead of the three. Outside of battle the Greeks used various different designs for their merchants’ ships including the pentekonter and round ship, both of which were instrumental in forming Greece’s impressive trade networks.

Most ancient Greek ships were built from oak, pine, or cedar and were built using the same construction techniques. A hallmark of Greek shipbuilding is the shell-first construction method which involved the initial assembly of the hull's skeleton followed by the attachment of planks. These planks formed the hull, which was waterproofed via the application of tar and pitch which protected the wood from decay and the harsh elements of the sea. The Athenians, renowned for their naval prowess, made significant contributions to ship design. Under the strategic guidance of Themistocles, Athens expanded its fleet, emphasizing advancements in speed and maneuverability.

Roman Shipbuilding

While the Roman Empire started as a land power, the Punic Wars against the Carthaginians saw them become a major naval power too. For the most part Roman shipbuilders weren’t really innovators. Being late to the game they tended to look at what their enemy was using, copying their designs.

At the forefront of the Roman navy was the Liburnians, agile warships equipped with two banks of oars celebrated for their speed and versatility. Alongside these ships the Romans also used their own versions of biremes and triremes, adapted from Greek designs. Parallel to their military endeavors, the Romans crafted various merchant ships, including the corbita and the navis oneraria, facilitating trade and contributing to the empire's economic vitality.

The construction techniques used were also remarkably similar to those of the Greeks, utilizing the same oak, pine and cedar materials and the same hull-first method. A slight variation is that while both powers’ ships featured masts and sails to complement their man-powered oars the Romans tended to favor hemp over the linen used by the Greeks.

The Corvus, the Roman ship boarding device. (Chewie/CC BY-SA 2.5)

The Corvus, the Roman ship boarding device. (Chewie/CC BY-SA 2.5)

This isn’t to say Roman ship design wasn’t without innovation. During the Punic Wars, the Romans invented the Corvus, a boarding device that allowed Roman soldiers to bridge and board enemy ships easily. They would then use these captured Carthaginian ships to improve the design of their own fleet. The naval superiority attained by Rome culminated in the Battle of Cape Ecnomus, where the Romans constructed the largest fleet in their history. 

Egyptians on the Nile

It wasn’t just in the Mediterranean that strides were being made in shipbuilding. Some of the ancient world’s most impressive shipbuilding actually originated in Egypt where the approach to ship construction was a diverse as the civilization itself.

Some of Egypt’s earliest vessels were known as papyrus boats, constructed using the plentiful papyrus reeds that lined the Nile. These simple boats, though lightweight, served essential functions in fishing, transportation, and religious ceremonies. As Egypt advanced, so did its construction techniques and wooden ships begin to take center stage with Acacia and Cedar wood becoming the primary materials of shipbuilding.

Detail showing fabrication of papyrus boats. Limestone, painted. Wall fragment from the Sun Temple of Nyuserre Ini at Abu Gorab, Egypt.  (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Detail showing fabrication of papyrus boats. Limestone, painted. Wall fragment from the Sun Temple of Nyuserre Ini at Abu Gorab, Egypt.  (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Notably Egyptian designs often differed from those of the Greeks and Romans. Notably, some ships utilized a distinctive "stitched plank" construction, where wooden planks were intricately sewn together using ropes, creating a flexible yet robust hull. The design of Egyptian ships was tailored to the specific needs of riverine and coastal navigation. These vessels, equipped with a single mast and sail, proved crucial for trade along the Nile and the maritime routes connecting the Mediterranean and Red Sea. Their adaptability allowed for efficient transportation of goods, fostering economic activities that were foundational to ancient Egyptian society.

The ancient Egyptians also had a much more profound religious connection to their ships and the Nile they sailed on. Egyptian ships often took on sacred roles and some were expressly built for religious processions, transporting statues of gods during ceremonies that symbolized the intertwining of daily life and spirituality. Completed ships have even been found in royal tombs, ready to serve their owners in the afterlife.

Of course, the Egyptians didn’t just build ships for peaceful purposes, they had some of the ancient world’s most advanced warships. Their often-massive war galleys featured defensive elements such as raised sides or bulwarks to shield against enemy projectiles. Equipped with both sails and oars, they displayed exceptional maneuverability on the Nile and the Mediterranean. These ships excelled at close quarters naval combat and ramming was a popular Egyptian tactic.  


In East Asia, the Chinese were busy building their own ships. From the eighth century BC onwards, they were building the junk, a distinctive ship design characterized by efficient square sails and robust hulls. These ships were used for long-distance voyages and featured multiple masts. Facilitating navigation across the South China Sea and beyond, which contributed to the region's flourishing maritime trade.

Around this time ancient India was taking a different approach to shipbuilding. Dhows, characterized by their distinctive triangular sails graced the waters of the Indian Ocean. These graceful ships were pivotal for trade, connecting the Indian subcontinent with the Middle East and East Africa.

A painting of a Baghlah, traditional deep sea dhow (Xavier Romero-Frias/CC BY-SA 3.0)

A painting of a Baghlah, traditional deep sea dhow (Xavier Romero-Frias/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Unfortunately, we lack detailed descriptions of ship designs used in other parts of Ancient Asia, particularly Japan. We do not know if, as an island power, ancient Japan was reliant on shipbuilding, with coastal trade and fishing being central to the economy and influencing shipbuilding techniques. The Japanese seem to have taken a more pragmatic approach, with their boats featuring single mast and simple rigging designs.

Medieval and Viking Ships- Bigger and Better

As the old powers fell and new ones rose shipbuilding continued to advance. In the North, the Vikings began building their iconic long ships, symbols of Norse seafaring prowess that dominated waterways across Europe. These long, slender ships, characterized by a shallow draft and capable of both rowing and sailing, epitomized the versatility of Viking naval engineering.

The Mediterranean powers lived up to the Greek and Roman legacy of shipbuilding. The medieval era saw the emergence of key vessels such as the cog and carrack. The mighty cog, broad-hulled with a single mast became the workhorse of medieval trade in the region. Meanwhile, the carrack, with its high forecastle and aftcastle was an absolute powerhouse, excelling in both trade and naval warfare. These ships were some of the first to be armed with cannons and were capable of extended sea journeys. They marked a pivotal shift towards larger and more complex designs.

Medieval shipbuilders employed traditional craftsmanship but were innovators in their own right. The introduction of bulkheads, dividing the hull into compartments, not only enhanced stability but also contributed to safety at sea. Rigging and sail design underwent refinements, improving the maneuverability and overall efficiency of these vessels.

The medieval period also saw a major evolution in naval warfare. Ships played a significant role in the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. Notable among them was the massive carrack the “Grace Dieu,” Henry V of England's flagship (although delays meant it wasn’t finished in his lifetime). This imposing vessel, with its multiple masts and heavy armaments, represented the pinnacle of medieval shipbuilding. It was ships like this that made England a maritime juggernaut, a title it has enjoyed for many centuries. 

19th century depiction of the Grace Dieu by Antoine Léon Morel-Fatio. (Public Domain)

19th century depiction of the Grace Dieu by Antoine Léon Morel-Fatio. (Public Domain)

The Age of Exploration- Setting Sail for New Horizons

Following the medieval era came the Age of Exploration, spanning from the late fifteenth century to the early seventeenth. It was a period of intense maritime exploration and expansion of European influence across the globe. Unsurprisingly then, it was also a period of major advancements in shipbuilding and design. The demand for ships capable of navigating vast oceans led to the creation of innovative designs, marking a departure from the maritime traditions of the past.

One of the era's most influential ships was the infamous “Santa Maria,” the flagship of Christopher Columbus himself during his first voyage to the Americas in 1492. It may not have been the era's most technologically advanced ship, but the Santa Maria played a pivotal role in the exploration of the New World, symbolizing the spirit of discovery that defined the Age of Exploration. 

In fact, other ships in Columbus’s fleet were more impressive than his flagship (which sank off the coast of Hispaniola on December 24, 1492). A notable advancement during this period was the development of caravels, exemplified by the "Niña" and the "Pinta," the other two Spanish-built ships in Columbus's fleet. These vessels, with their distinctive triangular sails and improved hull design, were highly maneuverable and well-suited for long-distance voyages. The Niña, in particular, became renowned for its role in subsequent transatlantic journeys, highlighting the adaptability of caravels.

AI image of the three ships of Christopher Columbus: Santa Maria, Niña, Pinta. (Charles/Adobe Stock)

AI image of the three ships of Christopher Columbus: Santa Maria, Niña, Pinta. (Charles/Adobe Stock)

It wasn’t just the Spanish making leaps. The Portuguese were pioneers in maritime engineering and exploration too. They introduced the world to the carrack-squared rigging system, enhancing the sail configuration of ships like the "São Gabriel" and the "São Rafael." These vessels, led by Vasco da Gama, successfully navigated the treacherous waters around the Cape of Good Hope, opening direct sea routes to Asia.

As ships got bigger and bigger, the materials used to build them also had to transform. The “Golden Hind,” captained by Sir Francis Drake, is a notable example. Its builders embraced technological innovation by using an oak frame combined with copper sheafing. This enhanced the ship’s durability, allowing it to circumnavigate the globe under Drake’s command and making it one of the Elizabethan era’s most famous ships. 

It wasn’t just building techniques and ship designs that improved. The introduction of navigational instruments like the astrolabe and quadrant made navigating the oceans’ vast expanses that much easier. The "Victoria," the only surviving ship of Ferdinand Magellan's expedition, utilized these instruments in its historic circumnavigation of the globe, proving the feasibility of long-distance sea travel.

The Industrial Revolution and Modern Ships

The modern era's rapid technological advancement began with the Industrial Revolution, beginning in the 1760s and lasting into the 20th century. This period transformed not just societies but revolutionized the field of shipbuilding. It was this era that saw the traditional wooden ship fade into obscurity as the use of iron and later steel paved the way for larger, more powerful ships. 

While iron wasn’t necessarily new to ship construction, the Koreans had been using it in the armor of their “geobukseon” turtle ships since the late 16th century, the introduction of iron-hulled steamships marked a watershed moment for not just shipbuilding but navigation as a whole. This really began with the "SS Savannah," which launched in 1819. This hybrid ship made history as the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean. While it still relied on sails for a sizable portion of the journey, the inclusion of a steam engine demonstrated the potential of hybrid propulsion systems.

The latter half of the 19th century saw the gradual adoption of steel in ship construction, offering enhanced strength and durability and giving birth to steel giants. The battleship "HMS Dreadnought," commissioned in 1906, epitomized this shift. With an all-big-gun armament and steam turbine propulsion, the Dreadnought set the standard for modern battleships, influencing naval architecture for decades.

The HMS Dreadnought was a sign of things to come, and the 20th century marked an era of unprecedented innovation in shipbuilding, giving rise to colossal vessels that transformed the seascape. The advent of steel and later aluminum, coupled with advancements in propulsion and navigation technology, ushered in yet another new age of maritime engineering.

The ill-fated ocean liner "RMS Titanic," launched in 1912, exemplified the ambition and scale of early 20th-century shipbuilding. Though tragically short-lived, the Titanic was equipped with technological marvels such as wireless communication and innovative safety features like its double hull construction and watertight compartments. Despite its tragic maiden voyage, the Titanic spurred further advancements in ship safety and design. It also taught designers not to call their ships unsinkable.


In tracing the captivating journey of shipbuilding, from the ingenious designs of ancient civilizations to the cutting-edge innovations of the present and the speculative glimpses into the future, one thing becomes clear: the evolution of ships mirrors humanity's unyielding spirit of exploration and adaptation. Shipbuilding, an art forged in the crucible of necessity, has not only shaped the course of human history but also continues to propel us toward new horizons. 

We may feel like we’ve conquered the seas, but new challenges await us. Engineers have turned their sights to the stars and companies like SpaceX and its Starship are building the kinds of vessels our ancestors could only have dreamed of. Human ingenuity knows no bounds and our enduring quest for discovery has only just begun.

Top image: AI image of the three ships of Christopher Columbus: Santa Maria, Niña, and Pinta. Source: Charles/Adobe Stock

By Robbie Mitchell


Beighton. R. 2021. World’s first crewless, zero emissions cargo ship will set sail in Norway. Available at:

Bryan. E. 2013. WMD- The Turtle Ship. Military History Matters. Available at:

D. Ferreiro. L. 2020. Bridging the Seas: The Rise of Naval Architecture in the Industrial Age, 1800–2000. MIT Press. Available here:

Groeneveld. E. 2018. Viking Ships. World History Encyclopedia. Available at:

Labate. 2017. Roman Shipbuilding & Navigation. World History Encyclopedia. Available at:

Landström. B. 1970. Ships of the Pharaohs: 4000 Years of Egyptian Shipbuilding. Doubleday & Company.



If one accepts that Noah built an ark, this theory of progression gets turned on its head.

Frequently Asked Questions

The earliest historical evidence of boats is found in Egypt during 4 BC. Egypt was narrowly aligned along the Nile, totally supported by it, and served by transport on its uninterruptedly navigable surface below the First Cataract (at modern-day Aswān).

On August 3, 1492, Christopher Columbus and his crew set sail from the port of Palos in southern Spain on three vessels: la Santa Clara (Niña), la Pinta and la Santa Gallega (Santa Maria).

Not only have ships and boats been used for transportation throughout history, but they have also been used for a number of other reasons including to transport cargo, fishing, as a type of defense from armed forces, sports, leisure, and relaxation.

Robbie Mitchell's picture


I’m a graduate of History and Literature from The University of Manchester in England and a total history geek. Since a young age, I’ve been obsessed with history. The weirder the better. I spend my days working as a freelance... Read More

Next article