Not Logged In, Login,

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

‘A Century of Tankers’ The Tanker Story

From sail to steam, from wood to iron and steel, from barrels to bulk

The story of the tanker - from humble beginnings in the days of sail to modern leviathans each capable of carrying half a million tonnes of oil - is one dominated by sheer scale.  A new book launched yesterday traces the development of the tanker industry from its origins when oil was carried in barrels along with general cargo in the 1860s to the era of modern environmentally friendly tankers some capable of carrying over half a million tonnes of oil.

The book entitled ‘A Century of Tankers’ is published by INTERTANKO (The International Association of Independent Tanker Owners).   The Chairman of INTERTANKO, Lars Carlsson, commenting said: “It was INTERTANKO’s wish to provide a book with an appeal to a wider audience than the maritime section alone. And the result, I believe, is a valuable contribution to the documentation of maritime history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and illustrates how the world’s economy prospered through the availability of oil, and the vital role of the tanker in transporting this essential commodity”.

The author of ‘A Century of Tankers’ is John Newton, who undertook some 18 months of research.  Many well informed industry persons have contributed to this book and without them, it would not have been as valuable a document as it is believed to be.  John, a keen master yachtsman, has worked for the past 30 years in the public affairs and insurance sectors of the shipping industry.

The driving forces behind the evolution of tankers were the demand for oil and the ever-growing competition between oil companies striving for a greater share of the market for kerosene and other refined products.

Among the many notable vessels featured in ‘A Century of Tankers’ are Gluckauf built in 1886, generally regarded as the forerunner of the modern oil tanker;  Murex built in 1892, the first ship allowed to carry oil in bulk through the Suez Canal following new regulations issued by the Suez Canal Authorities;.  The T-2 tanker, the workhorse of World War Two which also provided the nucleus of the post-war tanker fleets.

The 1950s saw the first tankers to exceed 100,000 dwt which marked the introduction and development of American mass production and welding techniques to the formal Naval Kure shipyard in Japan. 

One of the significant influences on tanker size was the closure of the Suez Canal between 1967 and 1975 which brought about a prolonged diversion of tankers around the Cape of Good Hope. This reinforced the trend towards bigger and bigger ships to realise the benefits of the economy of scale as large volumes of Middle east oil were transported around the Cape of Good Hope to the US and Europe.  By 1968 a Japanese shipyard delivered a ship of 326,848 dwt.

During the century there were huge fluctuations in the price of oil and by 2000 the price reached $29 per barrel, which was 53% higher than the average real price for the century of $19 per barrel.  Interestingly, the price of oil in 1859 was $16, adjusted for current values, this is equivalent to $307 per barrel today.

The growth in tanker size and numbers is also well documented. At the start of the century there were just under 150 ocean-going tankers. By the late 1990’s this had risen to almost 3,500 ships. During the same period the size of the average tanker grew from about 5,000 dwt in 1900 to 100,000 dwt in 1979, after which it declined slowly before levelling out at around 88,000 dwt in 2000.

Developments in tanker shipping are described against the backdrop of world events – the rise of the Middle East as the major oil producing area, the economic boom of the 1960’s which led to over optimistic tanker ordering and subsequent surplus of tonnage, political events in the Middle East and the formation of OPEC.

The influences of legislation and regulation on the tanker industry is also reviewed as are environmental and safety issues arising from high profile incidents such as Torrey Canyon, Amoco Cadiz and Exxon Valdez.

Developments in construction methods are documented including the Isherwood longitudinal framing system system’ which with the construction of Paul Paix in 1908 marked the beginning of a new era of safer and stronger tanker construction. The introduction of double hulls and the implementation of a raft of other safety measures and practices by the industry during the 1990s have undoubtedly had a beneficial effect and brought further improvements to the tanker safety record. 

 ‘A Century of Tankers’ describes the growth of the tanker industry set against the background of the rapidly evolving oil industry and the political and economic events which have shaped its progress since the first American oil boom in the early 1860s. 

The modern industrialised world cannot function without the cargoes of crude oil, refined petroleum products, petrochemicals, liquefied gases and other bulk liquids these tankers carry.  The oil fuels economies, provides power for businesses and homes and keeps transport - from cars to airplanes - on the move.

On its long voyage the tanker has generated a series of contrasting images.  The story of the tanker is complex and fascinating, reflecting not only the unpredictable nature of the industry but also the changing perceptions and expectations of the world which the tanker helps to fuel.

Copies are available from INTERTANKO at USD 45.


Peter Swift, INTERTANKO : e-mail:

Sally Woulfe, INTERTANKO e-mail:

Telephone: +44 20 7623 4311

Editors note:

Review copies are available on request.  Please contact Sally Woulfe e-mail: