A Deep Dive into Ship Steering Wheel History

Dec 3


George Roy

George Roy

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Ahoy, maritime enthusiasts! Have you ever wondered how ships have been expertly navigated across the vast oceans throughout history? The secret lies in the evolution of the ship steering wheel - a device that has come a long way since its humble beginnings. Today, we embark on an exciting journey that will unravel the fascinating ship steering wheel history, its development by the Royal Navy, modern adaptations, and the role of the helmsman. We will also discover iconic ship’s wheels that have left their mark in history and popular culture.

Key Takeaways

  • Ship steering technology has progressed from oars to wheels,A Deep Dive into Ship Steering Wheel History Articles revolutionizing maritime navigation.
  • The Royal Navy’s development of the ship’s wheel in the 18th century improved upon earlier systems and remains a significant part of maritime history.
  • Iconic ship’s wheels have been represented in popular culture for centuries, symbolizing seafaring capabilities and inspiring creativity.

Evolution of Ship Steering: From Oars to Wheels

A traditional ship's wheel with wooden spokes and a central hub

Ship steering has seen considerable advancements since the early days of maritime exploration, leading to the development of modern ships. Ancient mariners relied on rudimentary oars and paddles to navigate their vessels, gradually advancing to more sophisticated systems like tillers and whipstaffs.

These early steering mechanisms gave way to boat's wheel and the ship steering wheel, a groundbreaking invention that revolutionized maritime navigation, including the use of boat steering wheels and ship steering wheels, also known by its boat steering wheel name. The development of steering wheels has greatly impacted the ease of controlling vessels at sea.

Oars and Paddles

During the initial days of seafaring, sailors used steering oars and paddles to change their vessels’ trajectory. Rowers would paddle a steering oar on one side of the boat to control the direction of the ship, making up for the lack of a wheel on a boat. This technique, although effective for smaller boats, had its limitations, as it was not suitable for larger ships that required more precise navigation.

Tiller Steering

The introduction of tiller steering signified a major advancement in ship steering technology. The tiller, a lever that provides a mechanical advantage to rotate the rudder, enabled the helmsman to have continuous cognizance of the rudder’s position without the need for extra indicators. The tiller system, often utilizing a tiller chain for added efficiency, allowed for more precise control of a boat’s direction, yet it still faced challenges when it came to steering larger vessels.


Prior to the creation of the ship’s wheel, the whipstaff served as a vertical lever to manage the rudder. It improved upon the tiller system by incorporating a rope and pulley system, allowing for more convenient, controlled and accurate steering of the ship. However, the whipstaff was phased out as steering technology advanced, primarily because it required physical strength to operate and was less efficient and practical than the wheel and helm.

The Birth of the Ship's Wheel

The Royal Navy's innovative role in the development of ship's wheel

The 18th century saw a significant breakthrough in ship steering technology with the inception of the ship’s wheel. Developed by the Royal Navy, the ship’s wheel was designed to overcome the challenges faced by earlier steering systems, such as tillers and whipstaffs.

The ship’s ship wheel, also known as the boat wheel, consists of wooden spokes, a central hub, and an outer rim, with one spoke having extra grooves to indicate the rudder’s position - the so-called king spoke.

Royal Navy Innovations

The Royal Navy significantly contributed to the development of the ship’s wheel, offering a more effective steering system for larger vessels. They faced challenges in controlling larger ships with a tiller or whipstaff, leading to the invention of the ship’s wheel, which facilitated helmsman steering better leverage in maneuvering the substantial rudder and enabled multiple helmsmen to operate the wheel concurrently.

Noteworthy figures of the Royal Navy who were instrumental in the advancement of the ship’s wheel include Drake, Hawkins, Hood, and Jellicoe.

Design and Components

The ship’s wheel stands as a testament to design and craftsmanship, consisting of wooden spokes, a central hub, and an outer wood rim. Teak and mahogany, resilient tropical hardwoods resistant to saltwater spray and decomposition, were typically used in constructing the wheel. The king spoke, a spoke with additional grooves at its tip, allowed the helmsman to ascertain the exact position of the rudder while steering in the dark.

This intricate design is a testament to the ingenuity of the Royal Navy and the enduring significance of the traditional ship’s wheel in maritime history.

Modern Adaptations of the Ship's Wheel

Modern hydraulic steering system in a boat

The ship’s wheel has experienced several modifications in the contemporary era, as hydraulic and electronic steering systems gain popularity. These systems offer more precise and responsive control, making them an attractive choice for contemporary boats. However, they also come with a higher price tag and increased complexity, which can be a drawback for some users.

Hydraulic Steering Systems

Hydraulic steering systems, a type of hydraulic system, utilize a pump to move a cylinder, or steering rope, resulting in improved feedback and control, though necessitating more maintenance and a higher expense. The primary elements of a hydraulic steering system on a ship include:

  • Control equipment (steering wheel or helm)
  • Power unit (hydraulic pump or motor)
  • Transmission unit (hydraulic hoses or pipes)
  • Steering mechanism (rudder or steering gear)

Despite the increased costs, hydraulic steering systems have become more accessible for smaller vessels in recent years.

Electronic Steering Systems

Electronic steering systems, also commonly referred to to as “fly-by-wire” systems, are commonly utilized in modern boats, particularly in larger, high-performance vessels such as yachts. These systems transmit electrical signals from the helm to an electronic control unit (ECU), which subsequently controls the boat’s outboard motor or rudder through actuators.

While electronic systems provide precision, responsiveness, and customization options such as joystick controls and multiple helm stations, they are costly and more intricate than mechanical or hydraulic systems, thus making them more suitable for experienced or professional boaters.

The Role of the Helmsman

Helmsman navigating a ship using the ship's wheel

The helmsman, the person in charge of operating the ship’s steering wheel, holds a key role in ship navigation. Possessing the necessary abilities and composure to take the helm, the helmsman works closely with other navigation officers on the bridge to ensure the smooth and safe operation of the vessel.

Training and Skills

To become a helmsman, one needs intensive training and expertise in various skills necessary to operate a ship’s steering wheel and other navigation mechanisms. Fundamental qualifications for aspiring helmsmen include a high school diploma or GED, being aged between 18-35 (17 with parental consent), and having no felony convictions.

Beyond these basic requirements, helmsmen must possess a wealth of knowledge and abilities, such as understanding ship steering systems, comprehending navigation and chart reading, and exhibiting solid leadership and decision-making skills.

Teamwork on the Bridge

Efficient teamwork on the ship’s bridge is required for successful navigation. The helmsman interacts with other navigation officers, such as the conning officer, who provides course and speed change instructions, and the lee helmsman, who may offer advice and adjustments. This collaboration ensures smooth navigation and secure operation of the ship while the Officer on Watch (OOW) assumes responsibility for the safe and efficient navigation of the vessel.

Iconic Ship's Wheels in History and Popular Culture

Iconic ship's wheel on a historic vessel

Iconic ship’s wheels, from historic vessels to their appearances in blockbuster movies and literary classics, have captivated generations. These enduring symbols of maritime history continue to captivate us, showcasing the importance of the ship’s wheel in shaping our world.

Historic Vessels

Iconic ship’s wheels have graced the decks of historic vessels such as the HMS Victory and the USS Constitution. The HMS Victory, Admiral Nelson’s flagship during the Battle of Trafalgar, featured a ship’s wheel with two pedestals of a unique design and size, depending on the scale of the model. The USS Constitution, on the other hand, boasts a double wheel design, allowing four sailors to hold the wheel in place.

These legendary ship’s wheels symbolize maritime history and represent the seafaring capabilities of their respective nations, each belonging to a ship called by a unique name.

Pop Culture Representations

The ship’s wheel has left its imprint in popular culture, being prominently featured in movies including Pirates of the Caribbean and in novels such as Moby Dick. In Pirates of the Caribbean, the ship’s wheel is depicted as a double steering wheel on the Black Pearl, while the Flying Dutchman features a large horizontal wheel on starboard side. These representations showcase the enduring appeal and significance of the ship’s wheel in both history and fiction.


In conclusion, the ship steering wheel has played a pivotal role in the evolution of maritime navigation, transforming from simple oars and paddles to modern hydraulic and electronic systems. The Royal Navy’s innovation, the skillful helmsman, and enduring representations in history and popular culture remind us of the incredible journey of this essential maritime instrument. As we continue to navigate the vast oceans of our world, the ship’s wheel remains a symbol of mankind’s unyielding spirit of exploration and adventure.

Frequently Asked Questions

When was the steering wheel invented for ships?

It is speculated that the first ship steering wheel was implemented around 1703 based on evidence from several ships of the time.

Why did ships have 2 steering wheels?

Two wheels connected by an axle give a helmsman the option to choose which side of the ship they wish to sit on and control from. Additionally, having two people at the helm of water vessel can be beneficial in severe weather, providing extra strength needed to maintain control of the ship.

How did 17th century ships steer?

In the 17th century, ships were steered with a whipstaff, a simple tiller-like steering device, that had been used since the 14th century. This preceded the invention of the ship's wheel.

What are the main stages in the evolution of ship steering?

The evolution of the ship's rudder and steering has progressed from oars and paddles to tillers, whipstaffs, and eventually the ship's wheel.

Who invented the ship's wheel?

The Royal Navy of the 18th century is credited with inventing the ship's wheel.