Little is known of the origins of water transportation. As long ago as 3000 B.C. the Egyptians were already employing large cargo boats. The first great system of transportation by sailing vessels, that of the Phoenicians, connected the caravan routes with seaports, chiefly those in the Mediterranean area. Goods of high value and little bulk, such as gems, spices, perfumes, and fine handiwork, made up the cargoes; to King Solomon came "ships of Tarshish bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks" (2 Chron. 9.21). As metropolitan centers developed, the transportation of grain became important. In addition to the network of paved roads they built throughout their vast empire, the Romans made much use of ships.
In the late Middle Ages, leadership in transportation by sea passed to Spain and Portugal. Maritime transportation between Europe and North America in the Age of Discovery began the English dominance of the seas that lasted until World War I. The forests of New England encouraged the building of wooden sailing vessels, and American schooners and clippers came to carry a large share of the world's shipping, until they were supplanted by steel-hulled steamships in the late 19th cent. Diesel power soon replaced steam, and in the mid-20th cent. the first nuclear powered vessels were launched. Inland water transportation grew with the extensive canal construction of the 16th and 17th cent.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.