The Sailing Ship Effect

Nov 24, 2021
In the 50 years after the introduction of the steam ship, sailing ships made more improvements than they had in the previous 300 years.

The term "Sailing Ship Effect" applies to situations in which an old technology is revitalized, experiencing a "last gasp" when faced with the risk of being replaced by a newer technology. – W.H. Ward

The best sailing ships were produced after the steam ship was introduced.

  • Competition makes us better. Incumbent firms are forced to compete as best they can with their existing competitive advantage.
  • Some innovation can be transferred to incumbents. Sailing ships adopted iron hulls after steam ships to improve their ability to navigate in high winds.
  • New technology opens up new use cases and incumbents try to enter those spaces.

It's not just sailing ships.

  • Gas lamps improved their efficiency five-fold in the years after Edison's lightbulb was introduced.
  • Vacuum tubes dramatically increased their price performance ratio even after the transistor gained adoption.
A vacuum tube ad from Popular Electronics
  • Smartphone cameras vs. Digital Cameras. Digital cameras vs. analog cameras.
  • Fuel efficiency of gas cars vs. electric cars.
  • Hard drives vs. solid state drives.

When you expand to software, there's countless more examples. The most important lesson here is that despite the rapid increase in innovation, the Sailing Ship Effect didn't save the sailing industry.

Subscribe for daily posts on startups & engineering.