Today in Transportation History – 1793: Propelling History Forward

Josef Ressel, an inventor who helped pioneer key advances in ship propellers, was born in the town of Chrudim in Bohemia (at the time under the rule of the Austrian branch of the royal House of Habsburg and now part of the Czech Republic). Ressel studied at various institutions, including an artillery school in the Bohemian city of České Budĕjovice. During his time at that school, he became highly proficient in such subjects as mathematics and technical drawing that would later serve him well in his more innovative pursuits.

Ressel eventually earned a living as a forester for the Austrian Empire, which had replaced the Habsburg Monarchy as the governing authority for that region of Europe. As a forester, Ressel helped ensure that there was an ample supply of quality wood for the Austrian Navy to use in building its ships. His efforts on behalf of the navy inspired him to start thinking seriously and creatively about sea navigation and how the performance of vessels could be improved.

Ultimately, Ressel devised a type of screw-propeller that allowed steamships to travel with even greater success both out on the open ocean and on inland rivers. While Ressel wasn’t the first person to invent a propeller for maritime transportation, he came up with one that was unprecedented in its ability to operate underwater and keep a ship moving forward efficiently. Ressel, who died in 1857 at the age of 64, invented an array of other devices ranging from a press-roller for wine and oil to an air-cooled steam engine; he is now best remembered, however, for the screw-propeller that he dreamed up and developed while tending to the Austrian Empire’s forests.

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