The Great Eastern

Isambard Kingdom Brunel standing in front of the chains of the Great EasternIsambard Kingdom Brunel standing in front of the chains of the Great Eastern The Great Eastern was a huge steam ship launched in 1858. It was designed by the brilliant engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He was famous for his work on railways but was very interested in using steam to power iron ships.

Was the Great Eastern the first ship Brunel designed?

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

Did shipbuilders know how to build ships from iron?

No, at the time, iron was still quite a new material for shipbuilding. Tens of thousands of metal workers were needed to work on the new type of ships. Workers called riveters built the hull of the ships from iron plates fixed to a frame. They used special tools to help bend the metal into shape and drill the iron plates.

It was hard and slow work. One team could only fit 100–140 rivets a day even though they worked for ten hours. About three million rivets were used during the building of the Great Eastern.

Were there any problems using steam to power ships?

Coiling the cable in the large tanks at the works at GreenwichCoiling the cable in the large tanks at the works at Greenwich by Dudley, R [artist]; McCulloch [engraver]; Day & Son [engravers] 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. There might not be enough places on the ship's route where they could pick up extra coal. Sometimes the coal took up so much space that there was hardly any room left for a cargo!

It was because of this that the early steamships still had masts and sails. (The Great Eastern had six masts.) This meant that the ship could sail on even if all the coal ran out.

Brunel believed that 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. The ship would be able to return home even if there was no coal at its destination. The enormous ship would be designed to carry 4000 passengers, or 10,000 soldiers if used to carry troops.

Where was the Great Eastern built?

The ship was built at the London yard of John Scott Russell and Company in Millwall. John Scott Russell was an expert on the effect of waves on ships. He and Brunel had already worked well together on the design of two other ships.

While it was Brunel who had the idea of building such an enormous ship, it was Scott Russell who decided what shape the ship should be.

When was the ship built and launched?

Interior of one of the tanks on board the Great Eastern, cable passing outInterior of one of the tanks on board the Great Eastern, cable passing out by R Dudley [artist]; McCulloch [engraver]; Day & Son [engravers] Work started on the ship, which at first was going to be called the Leviathan, in 1854. There were many problems in building the ship and in trying to launch it, and the ship, now renamed the Great Eastern was not finally afloat until January 1858.

However, the strains of the construction and launch proved too much financially for John Scott Russell who was soon bankrupt. At the same time, Brunel's health was failing. The project had swallowed up a lot of his own money.

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 the Great Eastern set off on her trial trip. She was cheered on her way by enormous crowds as she travelled down river towards the sea. The public impact of the launching of the Great Eastern was enormous and the event was widely celebrated in the press.

On 9 September 1859 the Great Eastern was passing Hastings during her sea trials when a heater attached to the paddle engine boilers exploded. Six firemen were scalded to death by the hot steam and the grand saloon was devastated. The explosion would have sunk a lesser ship, but the 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, in some ways the story of the ship is a sad one. Nowhere in the world were there docks and harbours big enough to cope with a ship six times bigger than anything known before.

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 (Southampton–New York), a much shorter voyage. The Great Eastern set off on her maiden voyage on 17 June 1860, with 43 passengers and 418 crew. However, although it was very safe, passengers were put off by the rolling of the ship in the Atlantic storms.

How does the story of the Great Eastern end?

In 1864, the Great Eastern was sold for a fraction of its cost to a cable laying company. The time that the ship spent laying cables for the new telegraph system was its most successful. It was used to lay the first telegraph cable to America. Sir Daniel Gooch, the engineer in charge wrote in his diary:

We have achieved our great object and laid our cable from shore to shore, along which the lightning may now flash messages of peace and goodwill between two kindred nations.
July 26 1886

The Great Eastern was finally broken up in 1888. The ship was built so strongly that it took 200 men two years to take it to pieces. Sir Daniel Gooch wrote 'Poor old ship: you deserved a better fate'.