100 years of motor ships

‘Selandia’ – the world’s first motor ship ‘Selandia’ – the world’s first motor ship

In February 1912, the 'Selandia', the world's first true motor ship, took to the water and made her maiden voyage from Copenhagen, where she was built at the B&W yard, to Bangkok.

The ship was ordered by the East Asiatic Company of Denmark for service between Scandinavia, Italy, and Thailand. Known as the ‘ship without a funnel’ – she distinguished herself from steamships by the engine exhaust exiting through the fore mast – she was a combined passenger and cargo vessel, with, according to a contemporary account "very ample and rather luxurious" cabins for 20 first class passengers, these being single-berth cabins of "exceptional size, with toilet and bath for every two cabins, and an extra feature is the servants' rooms, arranged in connection with private cabins."

She was built by the Burmeister & Wain shipyard in Denmark, was 370ft long and 53ft wide, and of 6,800dwt. But what made Selandia unique was that for propulsion she had two eight-cylinder, four-stroke, 1,250 hp diesel engines, of a design with both crossheads and piston rods, which gave a service speed of11 knots. In addition, the generating sets were diesel-powered.

There had, of course, been diesel powered vessels before 1912. However, Selandia was the first true ocean-going ship exclusively using such a propulsion plant and so deserved the title ‘the world’s first motor ship’.

The idea was not solely the preserve of either the builder or the owner. Selandia was the winner of a somewhat hectic race to launch the first example of a new technology. Dr Rudolf Diesel’s patent on his engine had expired in 1910, and several companies were keen to build and improve on his ideas, on a scale large enough to go to sea in a large vessel.

The key to B&W’s success was its patented reversing device for internal combustion engines with a moveable camshaft. B&W had also developed a four cylinder, stationary diesel reversible engine, in which the function of the inlet/outlet valves was changed over during reversing by means of a change-over valve in the charge/discharge pipe. After B&W’s patent had been granted, the company built an eight-cylinder reversible marine diesel engine, the DM830X, which was the first enclosed diesel engine with forced lubrication to be manufactured. The engine had been intended for a small ship ordered from the B&W shipyard by the East Asiatic Company, but the company changed tack and rather than one small vessel, ordered three much larger ships, each powered by two of the engines in a twin-screw plant. Two of the new diesel ships, the Selandia and the Fiona, were to be built at B&W in Copenhagen, while the third, the Jutlandia, was built in Scotland, on the Clyde, by Barclay, Curle & Co.

Selandia was the first to be completed, being launched in November 1911 and delivered in February 1912. A contemporary report of Selandia’s sea trials said: "The future of the big motor ship is practically assured."

Following the official acceptance tests of Selandia, B&W and other yards were inundated with orders for similar vessels from steamship owners. B&W reported in 1912 that it had enough marine oil ship contracts on hand to keep the yard busy for another three years.

B&W was not alone in making large diesel engines. MAN, Sulzer Bros, Krupp Germania Yards, Vickers Sons & Maxim, and Carels Freres were all developing high-power two-stroke marine engines, of up to 2,000bhp/cylinder. Dr. Diesel commented: "If, as seems probable, these tests give satisfactory results, the era of very large Diesel engines has come."

The Motor Ship reported in its January 1932 issue on the Selandia’s first 20 years. The article tells how Danish shipping company East Asiatic Company became the first operator of diesel engine-powered vessels between international destinations. At that time it was very courageous to order vessels with a largely untried and revolutionary propulsion plant. But the contract between B&W and EAC included the clause that the diesel engines should be replaced by steam engines if they did not work satisfactorily. In this case, both the yard and ship owner would have taken 50% of the cost for the replacement. Once in service however, the new plant proved to be very efficient and reliable and the company’s entire fleet was diesel-powered within a few years.

The ship generated enormous interest world-wide. Sir Winston Churchill, at that time the British Minister of Naval Affairs, was very impressed and ordered a study to find out whether the engines could be used as propulsion plants for naval vessels.

Selandia was sold to Panama in 1936 and renamed Norseman, and renamed again Tornator in 1940 when she was sold to Finland. She sank in January 1942.

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