Statement of National Importance
The national importance of the monument is demonstrated in the following way(s) (see Designations Policy and Selection Guidance, Annex 1, para 17):
a. The monument is of national importance because it makes a significant contribution to our understanding or appreciation of the past or has the potential to do so as the remains of Europe's first commercial steamship.
b. The monument retains structural, architectural, decorative or other physical attributes which make a significant contribution to our understanding of the past. In particular, elements of the paddle steamer's engine and propulsion systems survive and these are rare early examples.
c. The monument is a rare example of a pre-1820s steamship in UK waters.
d. The monument is a particularly good example of an early paddle steamer and is therefore an important representative of this monument type.
e. The monument has research potential which could significantly contribute to our understanding or appreciation of the past in particular to enhance our knowledge of the design and construction of early steam-powered ships, more specifically, of the survival and condition of such sites around the coast of Scotland and the operation of Comet during its time in service.
g. The monument has significant associations with historical figures and events. In particular, there are strong links with important Scottish engineers, shipbuilders and entrepreneurs during the Industrial and Transport Revolutions. These included John Robertson and David Napier, both engineers and John Wood, a shipwright. Napier is credited with building the first steam carriage that carried passengers for hire on common roads. John Wood is credited with building the Margery which is generally accepted as the first passenger paddle steamer to work on the River Thames. The most famous association with Comet is its owner, Henry Bell, a noted entrepreneur from Helensburgh.
Assessment of Cultural Significance
This statement of national importance has been informed by the following assessment of cultural significance:
Intrinsic characteristics (how the remains of a site or place contribute to our knowledge of the past)
Comet was built in Port Glasgow by John Wood & Sons of Port Glasgow in 1811-12 to carry passengers between Port Glasgow and Helensburgh. Comet was built of wood as all ships were at the time. Comet's owner, Henry Bell, records that Comet was 40 feet long, with a 10½ foot beam with small projections on either side to cover the paddles. Comet had a cargo capacity of 25 tons (Ransom 2012). The name 'Comet' is a direct reference to the Great Comet of 1811, a celestial event in which a comet passed by the earth and was visible to the naked eye for 260 days. Comet was launched on 18 July 1812; the first commercial paddle steamer in Europe.
Comet was operational for eight years on the Clyde, then the Forth and from September 1819, on a new Glasgow to Fort William service. For the more open waters of the west coast, Bell required a larger, more powerful vessel so Comet was lengthened to 73 feet 10 inches and a new 14hp engine was installed (Dalton 2020). The original engine was sold for further use on land and is now preserved within the Science Museum in London. There is relatively little detailed documentation of the Comet's 1819 replacement engine, boiler and associated machinery. There is, therefore, high potential to gain a better understanding of this machinery from the remains.
Following the wrecking of Comet there was salvage activity in the succeeding five days. Attempts were made to salvage the engine at this time but these were not successful. Some small items were recovered, for instance the ship's bell and compass, which are now in the Riverside Museum, Glasgow. There is no record of any further salvage after 1820 and important features appear to survive including parts of the propulsion machinery such as the remains of a single-cylinder side-lever steam engine, a paddle shaft, piping and other, as yet unidentified, components that may relate to parts of the boiler. These features appear to be in a relatively good condition for an early 19th century shipwreck and therefore provide a rich source of archaeological and technological information for Comet. The site was discovered by Dalriada Dive Club and recent investigations (Wessex Archaeology 2023) suggest high potential for other, as yet undiscovered, archaeological material to located on the site, buried within seabed sediments or obscured by kelp growth. As such the site retains significant potential to enhance our knowledge of the design and construction of early steam-powered ships, and the operation of Comet during its time in service.
Contextual characteristics (how a site or place relates to its surroundings and/or to our existing knowledge of the past)
During the 18th century steam-powered machinery was introduced and deployed in mines, mills and on farms as part of the Industrial Revolution. Early steam engines were static and were incorporated into the fabric of the building in which they were located. By the late 18th century steam engines had developed to the point that they were free-standing. Several attempts were made during the late 17th and early 18th centuries to use the technology to power vessels. Prior to this, vessels relied on wind, water and human or animal power as the chief source of propulsion.
The earliest recorded proposals were in 1690, by Denis Papin, a Frenchman living in London who is credited with inventing a 'steam digester' (the first pressure cooker). The first successful attempt to build a steamboat was by the Marquis de Jouffroy D'Abbans in 1783. His creation Pyroscaphe successfully sailed on the River Saône, however, this was not followed up due to lack of funds and the French Revolution. Further attempts to produce a viable steamboat were made in the late 18th century, notably by Symington, Miller and Taylor. These experiments appear to have been successful but were abandoned after James Watt threatened to sue over the use of 'his' technology.
Advances in the use of steam power were being made also in the United States during this period. Notable pioneers in this field were John Fitch, James Rumsey and later, Robert Fulton. John Fitch succeeded in producing a viable paddle steamer in 1790 with the intention to transport passengers between Philadelphia and Trenton, New Jersey. The venture failed as it did not attract enough passengers. James Rumsey worked in both the United States and England on his ideas, supported by Benjamin Franklin. However, Rumsey died unexpectedly in 1792 and his designs were never fully realized.
Advances continued in the field of steam propulsion into the early 19th century when Lord Dundas, Governor of the Proprietors of the Forth and Clyde Navigation (now the Forth and Clyde Canal) commissioned William Symington to build a steam-propelled towboat for the canal in 1801. Charlotte Dundas was successful l but short-lived due to fears that the backwash from the boat would damage the canal.
The most influential steamboat pioneer was Robert Fulton, an American who studied canal building in Britain before moving to France where he helped build a submarine. From there, Fulton in partnership with Robert Livingston (Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States to France) began working on designs for a paddle steamer that would ply the Hudson River between New York and Albany. Initial trials on the River Seine in France in 1802 proved successful and once back in America he launched Clermont (August 1807). This was the world's first commercial passenger steamer, and it appears that Henry Bell was not only aware of these developments but was in contact with Robert Fulton. Bell's experiments and trials to build his own paddle steamer began in 1809 and three years later, Comet was launched. By 1819 there were 25 steamships on the Clyde.
The National Record of the Historic Environment indicates that around 70 paddle steamers were lost in waters around Scotland during the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of these losses occurred around the Firths of Forth and Clyde and the Rhins of Galloway. Comet was wrecked in the fast tides of the Dorus Mor a short distance from the entrance to the Crinan Canal. Comet forms part of a very small group of known pre-1840 paddle steamer wrecks in Scotland. More widely, there are very few examples of pre-1820 steam ships known in the UK. There is the potential, therefore, to study the site against remains of Abbey (built 1822 Canmore ID222301) and PS Irishman (built 1834 Canmore ID114861) and other UK wide examples. Such studies would add to our knowledge of the early development of paddle steamers and, more specifically, of the survival and condition of such sites around the coast of Scotland.
Associative characteristics (how a site or place relates to people, events, and/or historic and social movements)
The history of Comet is well documented and there are strong links with important Scottish engineers, shipbuilders and entrepreneurs during the Industrial and Transport Revolutions. These included John Robertson and David Napier, both engineers and John Wood, a shipwright. Napier is credited with building the first steam carriage that carried passengers for hire on common roads. John Wood is credited with building the Margery which is generally accepted as the first passenger paddle steamer to work on the River Thames.
The most famous association with Comet is its owner, Henry Bell, a noted entrepreneur from Helensburgh. Bell was well known and regarded at the time and was referred to by Thomas Telford as 'the ingenious and enterprising Mr Henry Bell'. Bell's vision and drive have left a lasting legacy and a 1962 replica of his ground-breaking paddle steamer can still be seen on display at Port Glasgow. Comet's original engine is on display in the 'Making the Modern World' Gallery in the Science Museum, Kensington while the ship's bell and compass are displayed in the Riverside Museum in Glasgow. Contemporary documents of the work of Henry Bell, as well as plans and drawings of vessel, its engines and machinery are held variously by the National Maritime Museum and National Library of Scotland. This rich archive of evidence highlights that the story of Comet and Henry Bell resonates as an important chapter in the rich industrial and transport history of Scotland.