The invention and development of the steam engine transformed many aspects of life in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Using a steam engine to power a boat was an obvious thing to do, but turning the idea into reality proved as tricky at the beginning of the 1800s as delivering on the, also apparently simple, idea of heavier than air flight was at the beginning of the 1900s.
The man who led the way in Britain, and in Europe, was Henry Bell of Helensburgh. He was a man whose complex character did not always serve him well, but he will forever be remembered by history as the first man outside the USA to successfully power a boat by steam. His revealed his success to the world in August 1812 when he placed advertisements in local newspapers for a passenger only service between Glasgow, Greenock and Helensburgh in his steamboat Comet. Bell's success was almost immediately replicated, and improved upon, by many others, and the result was a revolution in transport technology which in terms of the suddenness of its arrival and the scale of its implications has echoes in the Internet revolution in the modern era.
P.R.G. Ransom's "Bell's Comet" is timed to coincide with the bicentenary of Bell's success. The author has done a superb job presenting the story of a sometimes complex historical revolution in an interesting and well written manner that at the same time conveys the technical issues encountered by the early pioneers of steam powered boats and ships. This is not an easy circle to square, and the author's success means that "Bell's Comet" is as accessible for general readers as it is for those with a particular interest in the subject matter. One of the interesting, and perhaps unexpected, things to emerge is the extent to which things got done without ever being properly recorded, with the result that there are, and in all probability will always remain, some gaps in the story. Here the author has taken a common sense approach which greatly aids readability: identifying gaps in knowledge without dwelling on them unduly, identifying areas of controversy among experts, and setting out his own views on what probably happened where we do not actually know.