Who invented the First Ship? (Invention Timeline Explained)

It seems strange to think there was a time when the concept of a ship was challenging to grasp. People had to learn how to be more efficient when trying to travel through bodies of water. If you want to learn more about the inventors of the first ship, keep reading to find out!

Who invented the first ship?

The first ship is thought to be developed by the ancient Egyptians as a means of traveling through the Nile river and the Mediterranean sea. It was a necessary invention, as it blew open the doors for trade with neighboring cities.

The first ship’s key contributors (and evolution)

  • Ancient Egyptians
    The innovators

    Invented the first ship of course! Never underestimate human ingenuity.

  • Phoenicians
    Mediterranean neighbors

    Ambitious neighbors known to take long sea voyages thanks to the invention.

  • Austronecians
    The open ocean sailors

    Attributed to be the first sailors to conquer the open sea, leading to the Austronecian expansion.

  • Nederlanders
    The earliest known boat

    While not necessarily a ship in the level of the ancient Egyptians, the fact that it was found 8000 years ago is mind boggling.

When was the first ship invented?

It might be a little hard to believe, but the first ship was known to be invented about 6000 (!) years ago. That places it firmly around 4000 BC. Even early civilizations were known for ingenuity and the desire to keep improving their living situation.

Brief history of early ships

Considering how challenging it is to imagine a world without ships, there’s no denying that even early civilizations needed a means to travel through large bodies of water. The ancient Egyptians were known to have started the trend, but the Phoenicians were quick to adapt to a seafaring life.

The Phoenicians were known not to stray too far from the coast, but they weren’t afraid to spend long voyages on the sea. With the help of Egyptian inventions, the Phoenicians started to build bigger and better ships for trade. Large merchant ships were sailing the seas around 1200 BC, with Egypt not far behind.

You’ve probably noticed how there’s a huge gap between the time Egypt developed the first ship to when larger merchant vessels were developed. The first ship design was so valuable that there wasn’t any need to make big changes.

That said, aside from trading with merchant ships, the new seafaring vessel was also used as an instrument of war. Whenever fighting would break out, adding naval warfare to the mix gave the early Egyptians a significant advantage. When the Phoenicians developed larger ships, it was also used as fighting vessels. Needless to say, trade was the most significant reason why large boats were developed in the first place.

The first ship’s timeline

  1. 8200-7600 BC
    The first boat’s discovery

    Found in the Netherlands, the first boat is the Pesse Canoe.

  2. 4000 BC
    The first ship’s invention

    Based on paintings, Egypt’s first ship was invented around 4000 BC.

  3. 1200 BC
    Large merchant ships

    The Phoenicians took things a step further, developing larger ships for merchant trade.

  4. 1281
    The Mongol invasion of Japan

    The Japanese were known to have used various defensive naval techniques against the Mongolian invasion. The Phoenicians helped pave the way for modern warships.

  5. 15th Century
    The invention of the iron-clads

    The very first iron ship was developed by the Japanese during the warring states period.

  6. 1492
    The year Columbus set sail

    While a polarizing and controversial figure to be sure, Columbus was certainly ambitious. His famous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean can fill a book’s worth of facts!

  7. 1712
    The steam engine

    The development of the steam engine was the beginning of the golden age for ship building!

  8. 19th Century
    The Industrial Revolution

    Technological advancements and propulsion methods pave the way for modern ship-building techniques.

  9. 1993
    Crossing the ocean in the smallest boat

    For a fun little finale, we have Hugo Vihlen crossing the Atlantic Ocean on his tiny boat, “Father’s Day.”

Where was the first ship invented?

It’s likely that the first ship was created along the Nile river in Egypt, as it’s precisely where the Egyptians intended to use their vessels. Based on early paintings, the design of the ship was based on the unique structure of the Nile river.

Why are ships important?

  • Opens up sea travel

    Hard to imagine how life can be without the option to travel through the water. Most things that have to do with trade gets its start through sea travel.

  • Vastly improves trading

    While people might choose to walk to their trade destination, it’s not easy when there’s a body of water in the way.

  • Helping civilizations as a whole

    With trade opening up thanks to sea travel, a civilization can grow, much like the Egyptians and Phoenicians did.

  • The discovery of new places around the world

    Without ships, trailblazers such as Ferdinand Magellan and Christopher Columbus would never have been able to make such tremendous discoveries.

  • The reason we know the earth isn’t flat

    While there have been some ancient experiments to show the world is curved, Magellan sailing around the world is definitive proof!

  • Fostering peace as a result

    Healthy and boisterous trade routes means less chance of conflict — progress for all!

Ships by the numbers

  • 4000 BCWhen the first ship was invented
  • 6,650 KMThe length of the Nile River
  • 30The number of oars present in ancient Egyptian ships
  • 500The number of oars (!) present in the larger Egyptian ships known to carry obelisks
  • 3The number of years it took for the Phoenicians to travel around Africa (!)
  • 52,310Curious about the huge number? That’s about as much as the Titanic weighs in number of tons. A heavy beauty, to be sure.
  • 882.75Since we’re talking about the Titanic, that’s the number of feet in length.
  • 400The feet in length of the iceberg that sank the Titanic. Can’t talk about the Titanic without the equally famous iceberg, after all.
  • 5,412The passenger capacity (a comfortable fit) for the largest cruise ship to date — the Oasis.

5 facts about ships

  • A journey of 120,000 years

    There’s current evidence showcasing that the earliest ship might have come from 120,000 years ago! However, the lack of overall evidence means the ancient Egyptians still hold the distinction.

  • A simple build

    The Egyptians built the first ship with the help of planks, sewn together and having the cracks filled by reeds. 

  • The wheel or the boat?

    Strangely enough, the invention of the wheel came after the invention of the boat! The wheel was invented around 3500 BC.

  • Ramming speed

    Eventually, boats were designed with a ram, which was usually a pointed wooden structure at the front of the ship. It allowed the sailors to ram other vessels as a form of naval warfare. 

  • A Nile-long river

    The first boat was narrow and long; a perfect fit for navigation through the Nile.

FAQ about the evolution of ships

  • How did the first ship navigate through the Nile?

    The first ship was able to navigate through the Nile with the help of both the wind and oars. Navigating the Nile wasn’t an easy challenge, so the early Egyptians needed the help of the sail as well as their oars to get the job done.

  • Are there any records of ships earlier than the ancient Egyptians?

    The interesting answer is yes! There are some records of earlier sea vessels, but they aren’t definitive enough to be considered the first ship.

  • Why was there a need to build boats in the first place?

    People are always looking to make things easier. In this case, it’s all about bolstering trade, and the potential of more efficient travel through the Nile was too tempting to ignore.

  • What’s the oldest ship that’s still used today?

    That distinction would go to the USS Constitution. Also known as Old Ironsides, it’s the oldest known ship of any kind that’s still afloat.

  • Who designed and developed the steamboat?

    There are two people credited for the steamship. The first is John Filch, who created and demonstrated a working concept of the steamboat. It was Robert Fulton who eventually developed the first fully-working steamboat.

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