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

Mapped: Second Primary Languages Around the World

This fascinating map highlights the second most commonly spoken primary language in almost nearly every country.

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Second Languages Around the World Shareable

Mapped: Second Primary Languages Around the World

After the primary language, what second languages are used as native tongues in your country?

The answer reveals a lot about history and location. Whether through immigration, colonization, or local culture, a primary language can either spread around the world or remain rooted in place.

This map from MoveHub shows the second most commonly spoken primary language in most countries, using data from the CIA World Factbook and Wikipedia as of February 2021.

The Difference Between Primary and Secondary Languages

First, it’s important to differentiate between primary languages and secondary languages.

A primary language—also known as a first or native language—is the language we use most frequently to communicate. These are languages we are usually born with, have a lot of exposure to, and use at home.

On the other hand, a secondary language is one we learn or pick up after our primary language. In many countries, English is the most commonly learned, with close to 1 billion speakers.

But a map of common second languages can simply show just how many countries prioritize learning English, the de-facto international language in many organizations. Instead, this map highlights the movement of people by showing the second-most common primary language.

The Second Most Common Primary Languages by Country

Even when filtering by primary language use, however, English and other Indo-European languages dominate the world.

With 55 countries speaking it as the second-most common primary language, English came out on top.

Top 10 Most Popular Second Primary LanguagesNumber of Countries
English55
French14
Russian13
Spanish8
Creole8
Arabic6
Kurdish4
Portugese4
Italian3
Quechua3

The use of English as a second primary language was primarily concentrated in Western Europe, Northern Africa, and Southeast Asia and Oceania.

Similarly to second-place French with 14 countries and third-place Russian with 13 countries, English was most common in proximity to English-speaking countries or where there was a history of immigration.

Other second-most common primary languages highlighted different cultures within countries, such as China’s second-most common language Cantonese. Alternatively, they showed the primary indigenous language before colonization, such as the Quechua languages in South America.

What other interesting or surprising language patterns can you spot in the map above?

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Mapped: Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface

This detailed map looks at where humans have (and haven’t) modified Earth’s terrestrial environment. See human impact in incredible detail.

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human impact on earths surface

Mapped: Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface

With human population on Earth approaching 8 billion (we’ll likely hit that milestone in 2023), our impact on the planet is becoming harder to ignore with each passing year.

Our cities, infrastructure, agriculture, and pollution are all forms of stress we place on the natural world. This map, by David M. Theobald et al., shows just how much of the planet we’ve now modified. The researchers estimate that 14.6% or 18.5 million km² of land area has been modified – an area greater than Russia.

Defining Human Impact

Human impact on the Earth’s surface can take a number of different forms, and researchers took a nuanced approach to classifying the “modifications” we’ve made. In the end, 10 main stressors were used to create this map:

  1. Built-Up Areas: All of our cities and towns
  2. Agriculture: Areas devoted to crops and pastures
  3. Energy and extractive resources: Primarily locations where oil and gas are extracted
  4. Mines and quarries: Other ground-based natural resource extraction, excluding oil and gas
  5. Power plants: Areas where energy is produced – both renewable and non-renewable
  6. Transportation and service corridors: Primarily roads and railways
  7. Logging: This measures commodity-based forest loss (excludes factors like wildfire and urbanization)
  8. Human intrusion: Typically areas adjacent to population centers and roads that humans access
  9. Natural systems modification: Primarily modifications to water flow, including reservoir creation
  10. Pollution: Phenomenon such as acid rain and fog caused by air pollution

The classification descriptions above are simplified. See the methodology for full descriptions and calculations.

A Closer Look at Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface

To help better understand the level of impact humans can have on the planet, we’ll take a closer look three regions, and see how the situation on the ground relates to these maps.

Land Use Contrasts: Egypt

Almost all of Egypt’s population lives along the Nile and its delta, making it an interesting place to examine land use and human impact.

egypt land use impact zone

The towns and high intensity agricultural land following the river stand out clearly on the human modification map, while the nearby desert shows much less impact.

Intensive Modification: Netherlands

The Netherlands has some of the heavily modified landscapes on Earth, so the way it looks on this map will come as no surprise.

netherlands land use impact zone

The area shown above, Rotterdam’s distinctive port and surround area, renders almost entirely in colors at the top of the human modification scale.

Resource Extraction: West Virginia

It isn’t just cities and towns that show up clearly on this map, it’s also the areas we extract our raw materials from as well. This mountainous region of West Virginia, in the United States, offers a very clear visual example.

west virginia land use impact zone

The mountaintop removal method of mining—which involves blasting mountains in order to retrieve seams of bituminous coal—is common in this region, and mine sites show up clearly in the map.

You can explore the interactive version of this map yourself to view any area on the globe. What surprises you about these patterns of human impact?

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