A propeller is a type of fan that transmits power by converting rotational motion into thrust. A pressure difference is produced between the forward and rear surfaces of the airfoil-shaped blade, and a fluid (such as air or water) is accelerated behind the blade. Propeller dynamics can be modelled by both Bernoulli's principle and Newton's third law. A marine propeller is sometimes colloquially known as a screw propeller or screw.
The principle employed in using a screw propeller is used in sculling. It is part of the skill of propelling a Venetian gondola but was used in a less refined way in other parts of Europe and probably elsewhere. For example, propelling a canoe with a single paddle using a "pitch stroke" or side slipping a canoe with a "scull" involves a similar technique. In China, sculling, called "lu", was also used by the 3rd century AD.
In sculling, a single blade is moved through an arc, from side to side taking care to keep presenting the blade to the water at the effective angle. The innovation introduced with the screw propeller was the extension of that arc through more than 360° by attaching the blade to a rotating shaft. Propellers can have a single blade, but in practice there are nearly always more than one so as to balance the forces involved.
The origin of the screw propeller starts with Archimedes, who used a screw to lift water for irrigation and bailing boats, so famously that it became known as Archimedes' screw. It was probably an application of spiral movement in space (spirals were a special study of Archimedes) to a hollow segmented water-wheel used for irrigation by Egyptians for centuries. Leonardo da Vinci adopted the principle to drive his theoretical helicopter, sketches of which involved a large canvas screw overhead.
In 1784, J. P. Paucton proposed a gyrocopter-like aircraft using similar screws for both lift and propulsion. At about the same time, James Watt proposed using screws to propel boats, although he did not use them for his steam engines. This was not his own invention, though; Toogood and Hays had patented it a century earlier, and it had become a common use as a means of propelling boats since that time.
By 1827, Czech-Austrian inventor Josef Ressel had invented a screw propeller which had multiple blades fastened around a conical base. He had tested his propeller in February 1826 on a small ship that was manually driven. He was successful in using his bronze screw propeller on an adapted steamboat (1829). His ship "Civetta" with 48 gross register tons, reached a speed of about six knots (11 km/h). This was the first ship successfully driven by an Archimedes screw-type propeller. After a new steam engine had an accident (cracked pipe weld) his experiments were banned by the Austro-Hungarian police as dangerous. Josef Ressel was at the time a forestry inspector for the Austrian Empire. But before this he received an Austro-Hungarian patent (license) for his propeller (1827). He died in 1857. This new method of propulsion was an improvement over the paddlewheel as it was not so affected by either ship motions or changes in draft as the vessel burned coal.
John Patch, a mariner in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia developed a two-bladed, fan-shaped propeller in 1832 and publicly demonstrated it in 1833, propelling a row boat across Yarmouth Harbour and a small coastal schooner at Saint John, New Brunswick, but his patent application in the United States was rejected until 1849 because he was not an American citizen.His efficient design drew praise in American scientific circles but by this time there were multiple competing versions of the marine propeller.