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Mankind first took to the sea in ships over five thousand years ago, during the Bronze Age. In Ancient Egypt, sailing vessels of up to eighty feet long were built from 3000BC. Initially used on the Nile to transport men and goods, they soon ventured out along the coasts of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Later the Phoenicians, Greeks, Chinese and Romans built ships too, at first for trade, and later for war. All of these craft needed to be steered.

The method used in the Ancient World was to mount either one or two large flat oars to the side of the ship, close to the stern, where their leverage in the water would generate the most turn. The blade of the oar rested in the sea, edge on to the flow of the water, with a horizontal shaft that led up to the deck. By twisting the oar, a helmsman could turn the ship in either direction. As ships remained relatively small, a steering oar operated by one or more helmsmen was all that was required for over four thousand years. The Vikings used steering oars for their epic journeys, as did the ships shown in the Bayeux tapestry bringing the Norman invaders over the Channel.

Towards the end of the twelfth century a new design of ship began to dominate the seas of northern Europe. The Baltic Cog was a much larger vessel, with a rounded bow and powered by large areas of sail. They had both a greater carrying capacity, and were more weatherly than the ships that had gone before, but they were also much too big to be steered using the traditional oar. The solution to this problem was a new innovation called a rudder, which was hung on the sternpost. The helmsman steered the ship using a long lever, called a tiller, fitted to the rudder head. This arrangement was to serve ships for the next few centuries, and is still the most popular way of handling small boats today.

By the end of the fifteenth century, ships, and in particular warships, began to grow ever bigger. Large superstructures, called castles, where added to the ends of the ship, to give a height advantage in battle - the naming of the front part of a ship the “forecastle” dates from this time. All this presented a problem for the helmsman. The tiller came into the vessel along the lower deck, a place now buried deep within the ship. But the helmsman needed to be up in the open, where he could see the sails, and receive instructions from the ship’s officers. The solution to this problem was to install a device called a whipstaff. This was a long pole that led down through a slot in the deck to connect with the end of the tiller. In this rather awkward fashion most major warships were steered right up to the start of the eighteenth century.

But ships continued to grow in size, needing ever larger rudders to exert a greater force. The only solution for a ship with a whipstaff, was to add ever more helmsmen to do this physically demanding work. When this became impractical, a new method had to be devised. The whipstaff was replaced with a rope and pulley system. This rope was led up on deck, where it was wrapped multiple times around a drum. The helmsman turned the drum using a large wheel attached to one end, winding in one end of the rope, while at the same time releasing the strain on the other end. Far beneath his feet, this caused the tiller to swing, and the ship to turn. The ship’s wheel was born.

When iron replaced oak, and steam replaced sail, ships of previously unimaginable size became possible. Brunel’s Great Eastern, for example, laid down in 1854, was over three times bigger than the next largest ship afloat. No helmsman could directly control the huge rudder of such a leviathan using only his physical strength. Powered steering engines were introduced to move the rudder. The change also allowed the helmsman to be moved to a better location. While he had been physically moving the rudder, he had to be placed in the stern, directly above it. This meant that his view ahead had always been obscured, first by sails and rigging, later by funnels belching out coal smoke. He now was placed in a new structure called a bridge, positioned ahead of the funnels, with a good view forward, where he has remained to this day.

Now many large modern vessels have done away with their ship’s wheels, using a simple joystick to manoeuvre with. But the role of those ancient helmsmen are not wholly forgotten. As most of them were right-handed, steering oars were mounted to the right-hand side of the ship. As a result that side was named the “steer board” side. In time this was simplified to starboard.

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