Before the ship steering wheel was implemented, ships were fitted with what was called a whip staff- a truly insufficient device for navigating a ship. However, the ship steering wheel was not standard on ships until very late in the development of the ship itself. In the meantime the lackluster whip staff had to suffice. The invention of the ship steering wheel is credited to the British Royal Navy, though there has been much debate and speculation on the true origins, as no sufficient evidence exists to support the actual first use of the ship steering wheel. While this is the "official" story, many historians contest that the actual ship wheel was more likely invented by common dock hands and artisans rather than the British military itself. If you wish to learn more, then the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich provides a lengthy exposition on the history of the ship's wheel.

The date of the first uses of the ship steering wheel are thought to be around 1703, although it is difficult to pinpoint an exact date. This date is only conjecture, however, based on several known ships of that time that are seen to make use of early versions of the ship wheel. However, this date is often refuted because there is simply not enough evidence short of a singular model ship which shows a fully developed wheel. The ship steering wheel may have been invented long before 1703, but the first real implementations of it are simply seen around this date. For this reason it is difficult to say for sure without proper documentation of the event. There are several ships that show early implementations of the steering wheel from 1702 - 1715 such as the Russel, and the Ossory, but ships such as the Gloucester were manufactured during the same time and still made use of a whip staff. It is safe to say the ship's wheel as we know it today was invented in the early 18th century, but the exact date still remains a mystery.

The First Ship Steering Wheels

When ship steering wheels made their first appearance, they were placed above the "tiller's end" and a bit behind the "mizzen mast". Unfortunately, due to this placement the officer charged with steering the ship often had his view blocked by the masts of the ship. The steering wheel was also typically placed behind a large round object such as a wooden drum or barrel for balance. Due to the heavy steering of the ship, the wheel often required two separate men to push and pull together in order to steer effectively. Unfortunately, having two men steering the ship simultaneously in a small space often had them colliding and jockeying for position. This kind of conflict caused many ships to start being manufactured with two separate ship wheels in order to accommodate two men steering simultaneously.

One other common issue was an uneven amount of slack given to the tiller ropes. A common symptom of this problem was the wheels could not be centered as they were originally, causing the ships to drift one way or the other without an adequate amount of control. This caused the rope to either become too tight or too slack. After several decades of this problem, a solution was proposed by a gentleman by the name of Pollard, a local builder at the Portsmouth Dockyard. This new invention made use of what were called sweeps and rowles. This new method of keeping the ship centered was tested by Captain Bentinck in the early 1770's. After years of testing, the sweeps and rowles became standard on new ships built after 1775.

The true story of how the ship's steering wheel came to be is still somewhat of a mystery as historians disagree about the exact time line of its origin. Regardless, the ship wheel survives as an important piece of maritime history. Not only does this important artifact maintain its place in history, it also serves many modern day collectors as a necessary part of any tropical decor collection.