Throughout human history, different cultures have used boats for transportation, commerce, and warfare. Explore a few examples of the different boats we've used.

Roman Galley

An 18th-century engraving of a Roman warship © Stapleton Collection/CORBIS
The Mediterranean region was one of the first centers of sea commerce as Greek, and then Roman, “galleys” traveled between ports in Europe, Africa, and Asia. The ships were propelled at high speeds by dozens of oarsmen working in unison. With these ships, sails were a secondary form of power. Galleys were used to transport people and goods and were an important instrument of war. In this illustration, the Roman warship pictured has a corvus mounted to its bow. This crane-like machine  was used to damage enemy ships or to lock them to the Roman ship so that Roman soldiers could board them and engage in hand-to-hand combat.

Viking Fleet

A painting by Edward Moran © Bettmann/CORBIS
This painting depicts a Viking fleet in rough seas. Viking “longships” set sail from Scandinavian ports in the Norwegian and Baltic seas beginning late in the 8th century. Among the best sailors of their time, Viking crews plied the North Atlantic and traveled south on major waterways like the Volga River. Archaeological evidence indicates that during several centuries of navigation, the Vikings reached destinations like Greenland and Iceland to the west and distant ports like Nekor (in modern-day Morocco), Constantinople (now Istanbul), and Baghdad to the east and south. The Vikings are thought to have been the first group to actively fish the North Atlantic for cod and Viking ships may have landed in North America hundreds of years before other European explorers like Columbus.

Canoe and Schooner

A dugout canoe and a schooner © Museum of History and Industry/CORBIS
In this 1900 photograph taken off  Washington's coast, Native American whalers paddle their dugout canoe in the foreground while a large schooner passes in the background. Canoes have been used for millennia by many different cultures and continue to be used today. These versatile watercraft are stable in a variety of water conditions and easily transported over land from one body of water to the next. But massive sailing ships like the one seen in the distance are much better suited to long voyages and for the transport of large cargoes.

Silver Fleet

A squadron from the Dutch West India Company © Bettmann/CORBIS
Massive galleons like those depicted here traveled from Europe to the Americas in search of treasure. They often returned to their native countries loaded with silver, gold, sugar, valuable tropical woods, and rare furs. Competing for the new land resources, several European nations staked their claims to colonies in the New World and sometimes fought over control of specific regions. In this engraving, an armada from the Dutch West India Company of Holland captures a Spanish silver fleet off the coast of Havana, Cuba, in 1628.

RMS Queen Mary

A poster for the Queen Mary © K.J. Historical/Corbis
Sailing ships connected the world. But it was steam that took transportation to another level – allowing ships with mechanical engines to move faster and carry heavier loads. The first “steamers” to run regularly scheduled service across the Atlantic made the passage in about 15 days, compared with the two-months required by sailing vessels. From the middle of the 19th century until the late 1960s (when airliners became popular), ocean liners were the primary means of long-distance transportation. The RMS Queen Mary (pictured here) operated from 1936 to 1967. A precursor to today’s enormous cruise ships, the 1,019-foot Queen Mary featured two indoor swimming pools, beauty salons, libraries, nurseries, a music studio, a lecture hall, telephone connectivity to anywhere in the world, outdoor paddle tennis courts, and dog kennels.

Submarines

An 1859 illustration of the Philips’ submarine © CORBIS
The idea of an underwater boat has a long history. According to Greek historian Thucydides, divers cleared submerged obstructions during a siege of Syracuse about 400 BCE and legends tell of Alexander the Great using a “diving bell,” a submersible vessel containing air, about 50 years later. By the early 1700s, numerous submarines had been patented in Europe. A hand-powered military submarine named Turtle was even used in the American Revolutionary War. As mechanical know-how increased, numerous new submarines were designed (including the 1859 craft pictured here). Submarine technology has enjoyed great advances over the last 150 years and now highly engineered underwater vessels have reached the oceans’  greatest depths – the Pacific’s Mariana Trench.

Container Ships

A Korean container ship in Santos, Brazil © Matt Mawson/Corbis
In today’s interconnected world, goods of all types are transported around the world by air, land, and sea. Modern container ships are used for the heaviest loads, carrying manufactured goods, heavy machinery, and vehicles between ports around the world. These massive cargo ships, many more than 1,200 feet long and 150 feet wide, have a load capacity greater than one billion tons. Containers are stacked on the ships’ decks and are loaded and unloaded by giant cranes at harbors in coastal cities.