Source: "The Prinz Albert" (1897) painted by Antonio Jacobsen (1850-1921).
Clipper ships were so named because they were fast sailors, a term
derived from to "clip", that is getting as much propulsion
as possible from the available wind. They represented the the utmost
evolution and refinement in the design of sail ships. The name was adopted
to mean fast ship by the 1830s. For a seagoing, cargo-carrying vessel,
the clipper ship was quite fast; speeds have been recorded up to 20
nautical mph but with limited cargo carrying capacity (long and thin
design with large sail surface). Because of this advantage they were
able to fill a valuable niche of "express" cargo and passenger services,
much similar to what long distance air liners assumed from the 1960s.
They usually carried crews of about 25 to 50 sailors. Their impact on
trade was very significant, as prior to their introduction, it could
take between 12 and 15 months to sail from South Asia to England. By
1850, this journey was halved. For instance the clipper ship "Oriental"
was able to sail from Hong Kong to London in 97 days that year. The
absolute one day distance record made by a clipper involved 436 nautical
Clipper ships were fast but no specific rig type was standard. By
1845, the term was used in conjunction with a name indicating the cargo
carried or area served by a fast-sailing vessel and a specific rig type
was usually indicated. For instance, the California clipper,
the China clipper and the tea clipper which were all ship-rigged
vessels with sharp bows and were designed for speed. As hinted, it is
the growth of the China trade in the second half of the 19th century
that created the strongest impetus for the usage of clippers. Tea, was
a particularly time sensitive commodity since its quality deteriorated
with time and thus commercially benefited from fast clipper services.
The clipper era ended when reduced freight rates made possible the
introduction of steamships that offered the double benefit of faster
speeds as well as using direct paths. The economies of scale they
conferred undermined the competitiveness of sail ships over
increasingly longer distances. The opining of the Suez Canal in
1869 also favored the usage of steamships in the long distance trade
between Europe and Asia by reducing travel distances and destroying
the niche advantage that clipper ships had over such distances.