Certification of Engineers


While the evolution of the static steam engine that provided power for great leaps in industry ashore in the 18th century to its subsequent later efficient use in transforming sea transportation of people and goods is fascinating, it is only peripheral to this piece. However, a few salient points need making.

In spite of experimentation early in the 19th century, it was not until the compound engine became efficient enough to transport not only its own weight and that of its fuel (that was not a consideration in sail, apart from extra canvass and cordage aboard) and carry cargo profitably, that steam power became a serious rival to sail. This only really began in the 1860s and even then, was patchy. Wrapped up with iron production, steamships were almost exclusively built in the heavy industrialised areas such as the Clyde (which incidentally did not have much of a traditional wooden shipbuilding industry). And, it was not until the triple expansion engine came into being in the 1880s (along with steel as a replacement for wrought iron in cylinders) that steam was really in the ascendancy. However, as already stated in the section on certification of seamen officers, iron and steel, along with other technical improvements, kept sailing vessels competitive in some trades for a surprisingly long time.

So, a scheme of certification for engineers as of 1862 can be seen as being, if not visionary, a sensible action. It was, however, rather a long time in coming if one considers the conclusions of a number of House of Commons Select Committees of the 1840s into serious accidents and losses of steamships. Also, as with seamen, certification in the colonies began for engineers with the passing of The Merchant Shipping (Colonial) Act, 1869.


When put alongside seamen’s applications, there were real differences though. Firstly, it is important to realise the scale of operation, as compared with the certification of seamen officers, as this has a direct effect on making searches. While not directly comparable, in the first seventeen years there were approximately 20,000 foreign-going masters’ certificates of competency issued; but approximately only 11,000 of both 2nd and 1st class engineers’ certificates of competency issued. While this is easily explainable by the limits of technology, if anything this disparity grows as time goes on. This then could be regarded as surprising, as in the 20th century there were generally more engineering officers employed in running vessels than seamen officers: especially in large vessels where there could literally be dozens of engineers, but only a handful of seamen.

The answer is that an unknown but great number of engineers, either did not hold certificates at all (in all likelihood far more prevalent in the 19th century), or were ‘under’ certificated. I know that the former definitely still happened in the 1920s and the latter in the 1960s. Recourse to the original amending legislation of 1862 makes this all too understandable though. Foreign-going steamships of over one hundred nominal horse power were required to have one engineer possessing a 1st class certificate of competency or service and another with a 2nd class certificate of competency or service. Foreign-going and home-trade steamships carrying passengers of lesser engine capacity were required to have one engineer only with a 2nd class certificate of competency or service. My understanding is that this aspect was never updated and many companies merely adhered to the minimum requirements. And, as the penalty for infringing these regulations was a maximum fine of fifty pounds for each offence (which was identical to employing unqualified seamen officers), this was hardly a deterrent considering the sums involved in the shipping business (even in the 1850s and 1860s).

There were some updates however. In time an extra grade of ‘extra engineer’ was instituted. And, when diesel engines finally became more popular in British vessels ‘motor vessel’ tickets came into force.

In finishing the historical aspects, I would like to point out one other similarity with the system for seamen and one difference. Not only were the standards of examination not uniform, but in engineering circles it was claimed that bribery could be employed in order to gain certification at Falmouth at one time. Also, in the earlier decades at least there was no formal training for aspiring marine engineers, overwhelmingly application forms show apprenticeships ashore: sometimes in trades where it is difficult to imagine transferable skills.


Again much of this section was gained from study of the original legislation and records. Similarly, an excellent account of the technical evolution of steam-powered merchant shipping can be gained from Robert Gardiner (Editor): The Advent of Steam: The Merchant Steamship before 1900 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1993). Additionally, an older publication, K.T. Rowland: Steam at Sea: A History of Steam Navigation (Newton Abbott: David & Charles, 1970) gives a longer and wider overview of this subject and includes warship propulsion.  



Go to the Certification of Seamen Officers

Go to the Central Index Register c.1919-1941

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