pro•pul•sion: the force that moves something forward

Worlds Largest Ro Ro Carrier Front

MV Tønsberg is the biggest RO/RO in the world. At 76,500 gross tons, Tønsberg can carry thousands of cars across the world in one trip.


Ships transport people and cargo from one place to another.

In many cases, it is easier and cheaper to move them in ships than by any other form of transportation. Getting a cargo of cars, for example, from Japan to New York is easiest to do by ship—a shipment of thousands of cars is too heavy to fly them in an airplane, and you can’t drive a truck or train across the ocean. A big car carrier called a “RO/RO”—short for “Roll On/Roll Off”— can take more than 5,000 automobiles in one trip.

Ships all move through the water by some form of propulsion. Today, the biggest ships are usually powered by gas turbine or diesel-electric engines, which burn hundreds of tons of fuel per day to travel across the open ocean.

Titanic Smithsonian

RMS Titanic was the biggest steam-powered ship in the world when she was launched in 1911. At cruising speed, the Titanic burned 825 tons of coal each day.


The first engine-powered ships used steam engines, which either turned large paddlewheels or a shaft and propeller (oftentimes called a “screw”). Before the invention of the steam engine, however, sailors relied on wind to move large vessels. Once mariners figured out how to harness the wind to move their ships, they built larger and larger ships with more and more sails. And, before the invention of the sailing rig, ships called galleys were rowed, with hundreds of men working in sync to row multiple decks of huge oars.

Anthony Roll 30 Galley Subtle

16th-century Mediterranean galley



Planet Solar Ship

Planet Solar Ship

Today, people are experimenting with new technology, and with old. There is a solar-powered ship going around the world right now, and in Vermont and New York, a new company called the Vermont Sail Freight Project has started a business carrying cargo under sail…just as people did for hundreds of years before the marine engine was invented. Both the sun and the wind are in plentiful supply and are not likely to pollute the environment the way fossil fuels do.

Did You Know?

Ship Worm Clam

Damage to wood by the shipworm clam was often extensive enough to sink a ship!

As a tiny larva floating in the ocean, the clam lands on the hull or piling of a ship and immediately begins to grind into the surface of the wood with its shells.

How did Christopher Columbus and other mariners protect their ships from the shipworm?

Learn more at Ship “Worm” Clam