Great Eastern

Great Eastern was a huge steamship launched in 1858, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The ship was so big it wasn’t fit for purpose.

Great Eastern was both Brunel's crowning glory and ultimate downfall. In this film, hear the story of a ship so innovative that the world wasn't ready for it.

At the time of the Great Eastern's launch she was the largest ship in the world. Sadly no dock or harbour in the world at the time was big enough to cope with her and she never became the great passenger ship she was intended to be.

Was Great Eastern the first ship Brunel designed?

No. Great Eastern was the third of his huge shipbuilding projects. The first was a wooden paddle steamer called Great Western. It was the first steamship to make regular crossings of the Atlantic Ocean. The second was Great Britain, the first large iron steamship and the first big ship to use a screw propeller.

Were there any problems using steam to power ships?

One of the biggest problems when steam power was first introduced was that it was difficult for ships to carry enough coal to reach their destinations. Brunel believed he could solve the problem by building a ship so enormous that it would be able to carry enough coal in its ten huge coalbunkers for a voyage to India or Australia without stopping at coaling stations on the way.

When was the Great Eastern built and launched?

Work started in 1854 and, despite many problems, she was finally afloat in January 1858. After being fitted out at Deptford, the ship was ready for its trials on 5 September 1859. Brunel made a final inspection visit, but shortly after coming on board he collapsed with a stroke.

Two days later, Great Eastern set off on her trial trip. Enormous crowds gathered to watch her steam down the Thames towards the sea and the event was widely celebrated in the press.

On 9 September 1859, Great Eastern was passing Hastings during her sea trials when a heater attached to the paddle engine boilers exploded. The hot steam killed six firemen and the grand saloon was devastated.

The explosion would have sunk a lesser ship, but Great Eastern survived. Brunel's new construction methods – dividing the ship up into compartments with watertight bulkheads – limited the extent of the damage. However, the bad news hastened the death of Brunel, who passed away on 15 September.

Was the ship a success?

Although the design of the Great Eastern was brilliant, the story of the ship is a sad one, because no dock or harbour could cope with her enormity.

Also, the ship never sailed on the long routes that Brunel had planned. The opening of the Suez Canal meant that the long sea route to India around the bottom of Africa fell out of use. Instead, the Great Eastern was used to cross the Atlantic to America a much shorter voyage.

What happened to the Great Eastern?

In 1864, she was sold for a fraction of her cost to a cable laying company. She was used to lay the first telegraph cable to America, and finally broken up in 1888. The ship was built so strongly that it took 200 men two years to take it to pieces.

Discover more about Isambard Kingdom Brunel

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