We'll start by first defining what a ship is as people often confuse this type of vessel with a boat. The official definition is a large watercraft that travels the world's oceans and other waterways, carrying passengers or goods, or to support specialised missions such as defence, research and fishing. Historically, it has been a sailing vessel with at least three square-rigged masts and a full bowsprit. They are distinguished from boats based on size, shape, load capacity and tradition.
Ships have been an important part of human evolution as they have contributed to our migration and commerce. We've decided to start our history lesson in the 14th century.
14th through to the 18th centuries
Up until the Renaissance, technological navigation stayed rather primitive, but this didn't hold back some civilisations from becoming sea powers. The Byzantine navy and the Vikings are a couple of examples. The design of ships started to change towards the end of the 14th century with ships such as the carrack using towers on the bow and stern. This hampered the ships stability and by the 15th century, the caravel had been designed by the Portuguese. It was based on the Arabic qarib and was able to sail closer to the wind and became more widely used. Gradually, the towers were replaced by the foreastle and sterncastle. This also allowed for another innovation, the freeing port and associated artillery. In the 16th century, these structures became widespread on galleons. Galleons included multiple decks and a versatility that allowed them to be used either as trading or war ships.
Ships in Asia were developing much the same way as in Europe. During the 15th century, China's Ming Dynasty gathered together one of the largest and most powerful naval fleets. Whereas in Japan, one of the world's first iron ships was also developed. During this time there was an increase in foreign commerce with more and more ships sailing to and coming from Arabia, India, Venetia, Persia, Egypt, Portugal and even China. Cloth and spices were traded for gold, wax and ivory.
More and more ocean vessels were being used for exploring as well as trade. After Columbus, European exploration increased and a number of new trade routes were developed. It was proved that access to the Indian Ocean was possible and explorations were soon followed by France, England and the Netherlands. Portuguese and Spanish trade routes into the Pacific Ocean were explored. Australia was reached in 1606 and New Zealand in 1642. Dutch and Spanish explorers explored the coasts of Australia, while British explored James Cook mapped much of Polynesia in the 18th century.
From the 18th century it was more a case of specialisation and modernisation
During the first half of the 18th century, a new vessel was developed by the French Navy. Known as a ship of the line it featured 74 guns, and quickly became the backbone of all European fighting fleets. The ships were more than 50 metres long and their construction required 25 kilometres of rope and 2,800 oak trees. The ships were able to carry a crew of around 800 sailors and soldiers.
Clippers became the fastest sailing ships in the 19th century. However, their routes fell into commercial disuse when steam ships were introduced. They had better fuel efficiency. The 19th century also saw the opening of the Suez and Panama Canals.
The design of ships stayed much the same until the end of the 19th century which saw the industrial revolution and the introduction of new mechanical methods of propulsion. It also became possible to construct ships from metal. Ships started to be built for new functions such as rescue, research and firefighting.
Ships in the present day
By 2007, the world's fleet was made up of more than 34,000 commercial vessels with gross tonnage of more than 1,000 tons. These ships were able to carry more than 7.5 billion tons of cargo. 39% of the ships were tankers, 26% bulk carriers, 17% container ships and 15% were other types, in terms of tonnage.
In 2002, warship numbers were in the thousands, not counting the smaller vessels such as patrol boats. The US accounted for the biggest percentage, followed by Russia, the UK and then China.
The size of the world's fishing fleets is a little more difficult to quantify. Fishing vessels can be found in most coastal villages around the world. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated there were 4 million fishing vessels operating worldwide in 2004.