The Ancient Egyptians were first to carve detailed ship models that have survived to date. It was a common aspect of the Egyptian funeral practice to include highly accurate and detailed, painted, sycamore wood models of a ship and crew, intended to transport the soul of the deceased to the afterlife.
These models, which may be almost 5000 years old, are truly remarkable in their state of preservation. Since the models usually show the crew in their respective places they have been useful in understanding the actual duties of the crew members, what they wore, and how the ship would have been steered. The British Museum, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and many other museums worldwide, display extensive public collections of these ritual boats.
Some of the oldest surviving European ship models have been those of early craft such as galleys, galleons, and possibly carracks, dating from the 12th through the 15th centuries and found occasionally mounted in churches, where they were used in ceremonies to bless ships and those who sailed in them.
Until the early 18th century, virtually all European small craft and many larger vessels were built without formal plans being drawn. Shipwrights would construct models to show prospective customers how the full size ship would appear and to illustrate advanced building techniques.
Ship models constructed for the Royal Navy were referred to as Admiralty models and were principally constructed during the 18th and 19th centuries to depict proposed warship design.Although many of these models did not illustrate the actual timbering or framing, they did show the form of the hull and usually had great detail of the deck furnishings, masts, spars, and general configuration. Some of these grand models were decorated with carvings of great beauty and were evidently constructed by teams of artisans.
Admiralty models served to educate civilians who were involved in the financing or some other aspect of the ship, to avoid construction errors that might have evolved as the ship itself took form.
During the Napoleonic wars French and English seamen who were taken prisoner were confined, sometimes for many years, and in their boredom sought relief by building ship models from scraps of wood and bone. This evolved into something of an art form and the models were sold to the public, which responded by supplying the prisoners with ivory so that the models would be more decorative. For the most part, the models had carved wooden hulls with rigging made from human hair, horsehair, silk, or whatever other fine material could be obtained. Bone or ivory would be used for masts and spars, and as a thin veneer over the hull.
A consequence of Britain's naval supremacy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was wide public interest in ships and ship models. Numerous fairly crude models were built as children's toys leading to the creation of functional, as opposed to decorative, ship models. Britain also led the world in model ship sailing clubs - in 1838 the Serpentine Sailing Society was started in Hyde Park, followed by the first London Model Yacht Club in 1845. By the 1880s there were three model sailing clubs sharing the Kensington Gardens Round Pond alone.
By the early 20th century German manufacturers were producing tinplate models of all types of transport. However, steam-powered and clockwork tinplate boats that could actually sail were difficult and expensive to produce because they required watertight soldered joints. The British toy manufacturers decided to concentrate on a range of simple robust toy boats. Pond yachts which could float on ponds and lakes were popular with children in the 1920s and 1930s. At the same time Sutcliffe Pressings, Leeds began making wooden and tin boats fitted with small methylated spirit lamps which, when fired, boiled up water in the copper tubing which was expelled under force causing the boat to move. Hornby introduced a range of clockwork tin boats, including speedboats and cabin cruisers in the 1930s. Thin, workable sheets of iron could be coated with tin to prevent rusting, then mass-produced as parts of ship model kits. The process was pioneered by French ship model manufacturer Radiguet, which produced a line of zinc boats with pressurised steam engines, wooden decking and brass fittings. The speed of production for tinplate vessels enabled one 1909 manufacturer to produce ship models of speedboats that had competed that year in Monaco.
Ship modelling in the United States experienced a boom in the 1930's when Popular Science magazine published an extended series of articles and plans for famous ships by modeller and former Navy officer E. Armitage McCann.
The increased use of plastics for toys meant that boats could be made which had a longer sailing life. Tri-ang produced a successful range of large scale plastic clockwork civilian boats in the 1950s and 1960s.