Timeline: The World's Biggest Passenger Ships from 1831-Present
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Timeline: The World’s Biggest Passenger Ships from 1831-Present

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The World's Biggest Passenger Ships

Breaking Records: The Biggest Passenger Ships since 1831

The Titanic lives large in our minds, but it’s probably not surprising that the world record for biggest passenger ship has been broken many times since its era. In fact, today’s largest passenger ship can now hold over 6,000 people—more than double the Titanic’s capacity.

This graphic by HMY Yachts looks at which vessels held the title of the world’s largest passenger ship over time, and how these vessels have evolved since the early 19th century.

Different Types of Passenger Ships

Before diving into the ranking, it’s worth explaining what constitutes a passenger ship.

Passenger ships are vessels whose main purpose is to transport people rather than goods. In modern times, there are three types of passenger ships:

  • Cruise ships: Used for vacationing, with a priority on amenities and luxury
  • Ferries: Typically used for shorter day trips, or overnight transport
  • Ocean liners: The traditional mode of maritime transport, with a priority on speed

Traditional ocean liners are becoming obsolete, largely because of advancements in other modes of transportation such as rail, automobile, and air travel. In other words, the main priority for passenger ships has changed over the years, shifting from transportation to recreation.

Now, luxury is the central focus, meaning extravagance is part of the whole cruise ship experience. For example, the Navigator of the Seas (which was the largest passenger ship from 2002-2003) has $8.5 million worth of artwork displayed throughout the ship.

A Full Breakdown: Biggest Passenger Ships By Tonnage

Now that we’ve touched on the definition of a passenger ship and how they’ve evolved over the years, let’s take a look at some of the largest passenger ships in history.

The first vessel on the list is the SS Royal William. Built in Eastern Canada in the early 1800s, this ship was originally built for domestic travel within Canada.

In addition to being the largest passenger ship of its time, it’s often credited as being the first ship to travel across the Atlantic Ocean almost fully by steam engine. However, some sources claim the Dutch-owned vessel Curaçao completed a steam-powered journey in 1827—six years before the SS Royal William.

In 1837, The SS Royal William was dethroned by the SS Great Western, only to change hands dozens of times before 1912, when the Titanic entered the scene.

ShipTitle heldTonnageCapacity
SS Royal William1831 – 18371,370 GRT155 passengers
SS Great Western1837 – 18391,340 GRT128 passengers, 20 servants, 60 crew
SS British Queen1839 – 18401,850 GRT207 passengers
SS President1840 – 18412,366 GRT110 passengers, 44 servants
SS British Queen1841 – 18431,850 GRT207 passengers
SS Great Britain1843 – 18533,270 GRT360 passengers, 120 crew
SS Atrato1853 – 18583,466 GRT762+ passengers
SS Great Eastern1858 – 188818,915 GRT4,000 passengers, 418 crew
SS City of New York1888 – 189310,499 GRT1,740 passengers, 362 crew
RMS Campania and RMS Lucania1893 – 189712,950 GRT2,000 passengers, 424 crew
SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse1897 – 189914,349 GRT1,506 passengers, 488 crew
RMS Oceanic1899 – 190117,272 GRT1,710 passengers, 349 crew
RMS Celtic1901 – 190320,904 GRT2,857 passengers
RMS Cedric1903 – 190421,035 GRT1,223 passengers, 486 crew
RMS Baltic1904 – 190623,876 GRT2,875 passengers
SS Kaiserin Auguste Victoria1906 – 190724,581 GRT2,466 passengers
RMS Lusitania190731,550 GRT2,198 passengers, 850 crew
RMS Mauretania1907 – 191131,938 GRT2,165 passengers, 802 crew
RMS Olympic1911 – 191245,324 GRT2,435 passengers, 950 crew
RMS Titanic191246,328 GRT2,435 passengers, 892 crew
SS Imperator1913 – 191452,117 GRT4,234 passengers, 1,180 crew
SS Vaterland1914 – 192254,282 GRT1,165 passengers
RMS Majestic1922 – 193556,551 GRT2,145 passengers
SS Normandie1935 – 193679,280 GRT1,972 passengers, 1,345 crew
RMS Queen Mary193680,774 GRT2,139 passengers, 1,101 crew
SS Normandie1936 – 194683,404 GRT1,972 passengers, 1,345 crew
RMS Queen Elizabeth1946 – 197283,673 GRT2,283 passengers, 1000+ crew
SS France and SS Norway (1962-1980)1972 – 198766,343 GRT2,044 passengers, 1,253 crew
MS Sovereign of the Seas1987 – 199073,529 GT2,850 passengers
SS Norway1990 – 199576,049 GT2,565 passengers, 875 crew
Sun Princess1995 – 199677,499 GT2,010 passengers, 924 crew
Carnival Destiny1996 – 1998101,353 GT2,642 passengers, 1,150 crew
Grand Princess1998 – 1999109,000 GT2,590 passengers, 1,110 crew
Voyager of the Seas1999 – 2000137,276 GT3,138 passengers, 1,181 crew
Explorer of the Seas2000 – 2002137,308 GT3,114 passengers, 1,180 crew
Navigator of the Seas2002 – 2003139,999 GT4,000 passengers, 1,200 crew
RMS Queen Mary 22003 – 2006148,528 GT2,640 passengers, 1,256 crew
MS Freedom of the Seas2006 – 2007154,407 GT4,515 passengers, 1,300 crew
Liberty of the Seas2007 – 2009155,889 GT4,960 passengers, 1,300 crew
Oasis of the Seas2009 – 2016225,282 GT6,780 passengers, 2,165 crew
Harmony of the Seas2016 – 2018226,963 GT6,780 passengers, 2,300 crew
Symphony of the Seas2018 – present228,081 GT6,680 passengers, 2,200 crew

The Titanic was one of three ships in the Olympic-class line. Of the three, two of them sank—the Titanic in 1912, and the HMHS Britannic in 1916, during World War I. Some historians believe these ships sank as a result of their faulty bulkhead design.

Fast forward to today, and the Symphony of the Seas is now the world’s largest passenger ship. While it boasts 228,081 in gross tonnage, it uses 25% less fuel than its sister ships (which are slightly smaller).

COVID-19’s Impact on Cruise Ships

2020 was a tough year for the cruise ship industry, as travel restrictions and onboard outbreaks halted the $150 billion industry. As a result, some operations were forced to downsize—for instance, the notable cruise operation Carnival removed 13 ships from its fleet in July 2020.

That being said, restrictions are slowly beginning to loosen, and industry experts remain hopeful that things will look different in 2021 as more people begin to come back on board.

“[There] is quite a bit of pent-up demand and we’re already seeing strong interest in 2021 and 2022 across the board, with Europe, the Mediterranean, and Alaska all seeing significant interest next year.”
-Josh Leibowitz, president of luxury cruise line Seabourn

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Misc

Visualizing the Odds of Dying from Various Accidents

This infographic shows you the odds of dying from a variety of accidents, including car crashes, bee stings, and more.

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Infographic: The Odds of Dying from Various Accidents

Fatal accidents account for a significant number of deaths in the U.S. every year. For example, nearly 43,000 Americans died in traffic accidents in 2021.

Without the right context, however, it can be difficult to properly interpret these figures.

To help you understand your chances, we’ve compiled data from the National Safety Council, and visualized the lifetime odds of dying from various accidents.

Data and Methodology

The lifetime odds presented in this graphic were estimated by dividing the one-year odds of dying by the life expectancy of a person born in 2020 (77 years).

Additionally, these numbers are based on data from the U.S., and likely differ in other countries.

Type of AccidentLifetime odds of dying (1 in #)
Motor vehicle accident101
Complications of medical and surgical care798
Alcohol poisoning1,606
Accidental building fire1,825
Choking on food2,745
Drowning in swimming pool5,782
Sunstroke6,368
Accidental firearm discharge7,998
Drowning10,386
Airplane accident11,756
Bee or wasp sting57,825
Dog attack69,016
Lightning strike138,849

For comparison’s sake, the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot are 1 in 292,000,000. In other words, you are 4000x more likely to die by a lightning strike over your lifetime than to win the Powerball lottery.

Continue reading below for further context on some of these accidents.

Motor Vehicle Accidents

Motor vehicle accidents are a leading cause of accidental deaths in the U.S., with a 1 in 101 chance of dying. This is quite a common way of dying, especially when compared to something like bee stings (1 in 57,825).

Unfortunately, a major cause of vehicle deaths is impaired driving. The CDC reports that 32 Americans are killed every day in crashes involving alcohol, which equates to one death every 45 minutes.

For further context, consider this: 30% of all traffic-related deaths in 2020 involved alcohol-impaired drivers.

Drowning

The odds of drowning in a swimming pool (1 in 5,782) are significantly higher than those of drowning in general (1 in 10,386). According to the CDC, there are 4,000 fatal drownings every year, which works out to 11 deaths per day.

Drowning also happens to be a leading cause of death for children. It is the leading cause for kids aged 1-4, and second highest cause for kids aged 5-14.

A rather surprising fact about drowning is that 80% of fatalities are male. This has been attributed to higher rates of alcohol use and risk-taking behaviors.

Accidental Firearm Discharge

Lastly, let’s look at accidental firearm deaths, which have lifetime odds of 1 in 7,998. That’s higher than the odds of drowning (general), as well as dying in an airplane accident.

This shouldn’t come as a major surprise, since the U.S. has the highest rates of gun ownership in the world. More importantly, these odds highlight the importance of properly securing one’s firearms, as well as learning safe handling practices.

As a percentage of total gun-related deaths (45,222 in 2020), accidental shootings represent a tiny 1%. The two leading causes are suicide (54%) and homicide (43%).

Interested in learning more about death? Revisit one of our most popular posts of all time: Visualizing the History of Pandemics.

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