Design icons: the world’s first purpose-built cruise ship


From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my Blueprint and Podcasts pages.

The world’s first purpose-built cruise ship was broadcast on 6th November 2021. You can listen to the audio here.

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The world’s first cruise ship was launched in Germany in 1900. It was the brainchild of Albert Ballin, the general director of the Hamburg-Atlantic shipping company, who had tested the waters, so to speak, with a Mediterranean cruise a few years earlier using one of his company’s large ocean liners. Very few people thought it would catch on given that this was a time when large ships were used to get you from A to B, the liners being built for speed and practicality. What Ballin came up with was a ship that looked like a private yacht with 120 luxurious cabins serving only a single First Class clientele. In 1900, the SS Prinzessin Victoria Luise was launched. It was beautiful , with a long, rakish hull ornamented with gold and with a carved figure of the Princess herself, the daughter of the Kaiser, and a lengthy bowsprit adding to the streamlined elegance. The whole thing was painted white with its two tall funnels in a soft cream. The enterprise had the support of the Kaiser, although he was supposedly put-out that this new ship was a touch longer than the royal yacht. The Kaiser’s support was significant, though, not least because Ballin was Jewish, and anti-Semitism was on the rise throughout Europe, meaning that Ballin was often excluded from Hamburg’s high society.

The ship was significant, too, because it was totally unlike the great ocean liners. It had more deck space for promenading as well as a grand ballroom and a library, and different spaces in which to eat. There was even a gymnasium. Its engines were powerful enough for cruises as far afield as the Caribbean, with organised excursions from many of the ports they visited. It was a huge success but it didn’t last. In 1906, the Victoria Luise ran aground in Jamaica, wrecking its engines. No one was hurt but the captain was so shamed by his mistake that he took his own life.

This accident changed people’s attitude to taking ships just for pleasure. It wasn’t helped when the Titanic sank in 1912, and then the Lusitania was torpedoed when the Great War broke out. When the war ended in 1918, the three largest liners of the Hamburg-Atlantic line were confiscated as part of war reparations. The magnificent SS Bismarck, for instance, became the British RMS Majestic. Ballin was devastated and when his friend, the Kaiser abdicated, Ballin took his own life. The cruise industry took time to re-establish itself, only gathering momentum when cheap air travel arrived in the late 1960s. It has grown ever since. And while some of today’s cruise ships are as bulky and graceless as factories, many of the smaller vessels follow a similar blueprint to the ship that Ballin launched, giving a hint of life on a luxurious private yacht. The SS Prinzessin Victoria Luise lives on in spirit, and Ballin is now known as the father of modern cruising

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