SS Great Eastern: Brunel's Greatest Triumph or Folly?

The Great Eastern - Photo taken in the 1870's
The Great Eastern - Photo taken in the 1870's

The Largest Ship Ever Built By the Hand of Man

To modern sensibilities the SS Great Eastern looks like a strange hybrid. That's because she was part modern steamship, paddle steamer and sailship at the same time. She had all these means of propulsion available to her. To the eyes of the day she must have seemed strange and maybe even unsettling. Certainly, she dwarfed every other ship around her.

The Great Eastern was a formidable ship and an awesome sight.

She was an engineering marvel, and a white elephant at the same time. It took the world half a century to catch up the Brunel's vision. By then the Great Eastern had been consigned to the scrapheap, but not before she changed many ideas about modern ship building.

She was the largest ship ever built - twice the size of her nearest rival - The SS Great Britain, which was an iron-hulled sailship with steam propelled screw propulsion, and was also designed by Brunel.

Brunel in front of the launching chains for the Great Eastern. It was rumoured he smoked up to 40 cigars a day.
Brunel in front of the launching chains for the Great Eastern. It was rumoured he smoked up to 40 cigars a day.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel: Inventor and Dreamer

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born on 9 April 1806 in Portsmouth, the son of a French engineer, who fled France during the revolution. Educated in both Britain and then France, Brunel returned to his homeland to work with his father in his engineering firm.

His first big project was the Thames Tunnel from Rotherhithe to Wapping, completed in 1843. This involved using an innovative method of tunnel construction. Such innovations were to become the hallmark of his career.

It wasn't long before Brunel branched out and began work on what may people believe was his greatest achievement: The Great Western Railway, on which he was appointed Chief Engineer. This construction work, which he oversaw himself, included railway tracks, bridges, tunnels, cuttings, viaducts and stations. Many of the bridges and railway stations are still in use today. His bridges included the longest span in the world to date.

If this wasn't enough, Brunel then began building ships as well, designing the Great Western, then the Great Britain (the first iron hulled, screw propelled ship), and finally the Great Eastern.

Brunel was considered hard to work with. He had exacting standards, and would often argue the point until he won. For example, he insisted on a wide gauge for the Great Western Railway tracks, because they could take a larger load and would lead to a smoother ride for passengers. This was despite the fact that the rest of the railway system used standard gauge. He got his way. After his death the whole Great Western Railway was converted back to standard gauge. After all, it would cost less to convert the Great Western tracks back than to change all others in the UK to Brunel's gauge.

Considering his body of work, Brunel died young at the age of 53, on September 15, 1859. Many of his projects were not completed until after his death.

Building the Great Eastern
Building the Great Eastern
Construction of the Great Eastern on the side of the Thames.
Construction of the Great Eastern on the side of the Thames.
The Great Eastern is inched into the water with hydraulic rams.
The Great Eastern is inched into the water with hydraulic rams.

The Building of the Great Eastern

Brunel wrote of his experience in constructing the Great Eastern:

I have never embarked on any one thing to which I have so entirely devoted myself, and to which I have devoted so much time, thought and labour, on the success of which I have staked so much reputation...

And it was a consuming passion for him, and the Great Eastern, due to its very nature -- something that had never been attempted before, was always going to push the boundaries.

It was the first ship almost entirely constructed of iron, and was in tonnage almost six times the size of any other ship built. The Great Eastern was twice the length of its nearest rival, Brunel's Great Britain, and it would require engines the size of a house to drive the screw propulsion and paddle engines. All this, entirely constructed on the side of the Thames.

Work began in 1853 at Napier Yard in Millwall, and progressed steadily until 1856 when the first disaster occurred. Brunel's partner in the venture Scott Russell, who had hidden his financial problems declared bankruptcy, stopping construction of the ship. After a scramble for financing construction finally recommenced three months later at an increased pace.

Later in its career the Great Eastern would be called an unlucky ship, and part of the reason for this reputation was said to be the speed of construction which was so fast that more than one person was trapped between the double hulls. This has been disproved on more than one occasion, but the urban myth persists, and it was this accelerated production schedule that brought about this myth.

The trouble did not end there: By November 1857 the Great Eastern was finally ready for launch. Brunel set the date for November 7, 1857, and asked that the yard be kept clear on the day. The engineering firm, which was cash-strapped, ignored him and sold tickets to the event. The yard was overrun with onlookers and when the launch commenced there was a large bang as one of the steam winches exploded under the strain, and the launch attempt was abandoned.

It took 10 weeks to get the Great Eastern into the water. She was pushed inch by inch into the Thames with hydraulic rams. She floated for the first time on January 31, 1868. Shipbuilding technology wasn't the only area that needed to catch up with the Great Eastern.

Longitudinal section of the Great Eastern.
Longitudinal section of the Great Eastern.
The Great Eastern in New York
The Great Eastern in New York
A rare photograph of the interior. The Great Eastern was   built for luxury, and would have rivalled the Mauretania or Titanic in its appointments.
A rare photograph of the interior. The Great Eastern was built for luxury, and would have rivalled the Mauretania or Titanic in its appointments.

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

The Great Eastern was then moved to Deptford for fitting out. In November of 1858 the Great Ship Company was formed to undergo completion of the ship when the Eastern Steam Navigation Company, the original financiers, collapsed due to debts.

Sea trials were finally ready to commence, and were planned to take place on September 7, 1859. On September 5, 1859 Brunel collapsed on the deck of the Great Eastern after having a stroke. The sea trials were postponed by two days while Brunel remained in his sickbed. In doing so he missed the explosion that killed 5 of the crew and injured 2 others during the maiden voyage. Brunel died 10 days after his stroke, and never sailed on the finished ship.

The Great Eastern then went into service on the Southampton-New York run. During her years on this run she never carried a full compliment of passengers, and never made a profit. She had a reputation for being unstable, and passengers complained of the damage to clothing from the smoke from the funnels, which were positioned close to the deck.

The Great Eastern may have been the biggest ship on the ocean, but she had one great flaw. She was unable to turn a profit.

In 1864 the Great Eastern was sold and would begin the major work of her career.

Later Career - The Transatlantic Cable

In 1864 the Great Eastern was sold to the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company for £25,000. The company was very fortunate to be able to purchase her, as she was the only ship large enough to accommodate all the cable required to cross the Atlantic.

The Great Eastern had much of her interior and some of her machinery removed for her new role, and commenced work, setting out from Ireland in July 1865. Her mission was to lay 2,600 miles of the 1865 transatlantic telegraph cable. After that feat, under Captain Robert Halpin, from 1866 to 1878 the ship laid over 26,000 nautical miles of submarine telegraph cable including from Brest, France to Saint Pierre and Miquelon in 1869, and from Aden to Bombay in 1869 and 1870.

The Great Eastern's career ended in 1889. Her cable laying career came to an end when ships designed for the purpose were launched. There was even a brief return to the passenger service which she had been built for carrying Jules Verne, among others, to the Great Exhibition in France. In her time in France she doubled as a floating advertising board. It wasn't enough to save her.

She was towed to Rock Ferry on the River Mersey and broken up for scrap metal. It took 18 months to pull her apart...and the largest ship the world had ever seen was no more.

A booklet for the great ship.
A booklet for the great ship.
In her last days as a floating advertisement board.
In her last days as a floating advertisement board.
SS Great Eastern, beached and waiting for the scrappers in Birkenhead
SS Great Eastern, beached and waiting for the scrappers in Birkenhead

Did You Know...

  • The Great Eastern was the first ship to have a double-skinned hull, which was based on Brunel's bridge building experiences. It was the last ship to have this design feature for 100 years.
  • Her maximum speed was 13 knots.

  • Two people were killed when the winches exploded during her launch.
  • Her double hull came in very handy when The Great Eastern discovered the Great Eastern Rock off Long Island, New York, by colliding with it in 1862. The gash was twice as long as that which sunk the Titanic. Instead of sinking the Great Eastern limped back to port. It took 5 months to repair her and return her to service.

  • The Great Eastern was probably the inspiration for Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He had travelled on the ship to France, and was fascinated by her.

Triumph or Folly?

Brunel was a man ahead of his time. His engineering visions changed the face of the modern world. In the case of the SS Great Eastern, man was not ready for his vision and would not be for another half century, because the ship did not fit into the commercial reality of the time.

Most changes take place in increments; they take place in a very similar fashion to how Darwin described in his "Theory of Evolution". If you look at how products come onto the market you will see, for the most part, small changes that have been built on top of one another. More innovative products, which are mutations and stand out like a sore thumb are either astounding successes or dismal failures. There seems to be no in-between.

In the case of the Great Eastern the real reason for its commercial failure was the lack of market. It was designed to carry 4,000 passengers. It didn't ever carry that amount of people. Why? The market wasn't there, and wouldn't be there until almost 50 years later when immigration was opened up in the United States.

Also, the Great Eastern was a prototype in many ways. The support systems simply did not exist for a prototype like this ship. What I'm talking about here is technical support, ready made parts, and skilled tradesmen able to drop in and fix systems. These factors alone made the ship not economically viable. Even the technology to launch the ship lagged behind the construction of the ship itself.

The ship was too far ahead of its time.

What is the legacy of the Great Eastern?

The Great Eastern was the safest ship on the seas. When you hear the term 'unsinkable' bandied around with ships such as the Titanic, and even the Cunards Mauritania and Lusitania they don't hold a candle to the Great Eastern. Builders of ships, instead, in trying to get an economic edge, scaled back most of the features that the Great Eastern had. The Titanic would have been inconvenienced but not sunk if she'd had the Great Eastern's double hull.

Today, the safety features that Brunel insisted on incorporating in the Great Eastern are mandatory in ship construction.

Without the Great Eastern the Atlantic Telegraph Cable would never have been laid. It was the only ship in the world large enough to carry the length of cable and its engines the only ones big enough to ensure the ship could stay all those months at sea. The value of this service cannot be understated, and the difference it made to the world's communications was invaluable.

The greatest and most profound legacy of the Great Eastern was that in building it, Brunel proved it could be done. If anyone had asked before whether or not such a big ship could be built they would have been laughed at and ridiculed. In this way alone Brunel triumphed. By the time big ships were necessary there was no question about whether or not they could be built.

Brunel's folly was in not realising that there had to be a market for an invention, but that was also one of his strengths as his career attested over and over again. The Great Eastern was a triumph in engineering, and his methods of construction paved the way for modern shipping innovation. Overall it was a triumph, but one that would only be reaped by future generations.

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Comments 25 comments

alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

A well-written Hub-page! Brunel may have been brilliant, but he didn't know how to pace himself and had too many fingers in too many 'pies' at the same time. Not knowing his limitations probably took years off his life.

As to his engineering projects, little is still around to show for his time in civil, mechanical and nautical engineering. He was knocked sideways in his bid to standardise on 7' gauge on the railways and the GWR finished up having to relay all its network. George and Robert Stephenson, on the other hand, who won the argument for the 4'-8" gauge didn't dwell on their victory. They carried on as before. Robert Stephenson, far from being a 'bitter rival' to Brunel as many thought he was, was friendly with the engineer and Brunel 'tipped his hat' to the younger Stephenson, who also counted Richard Trevithick amongst his friends (he rescued him from an ignominious end in South America, paying for his passage home). The key was 'Know your limitations'. The Stephensons, who stuck to civil and mechanical engineering were largely self-educated and always underestimated, and never had the 'royal ear' or the silken tongue of the basically academic Isambard K Brunel or his father Marc.


Hovalis profile image

Hovalis 4 years ago from Australia Author

It's been one of those great stories of history mostly forgotten. Thanks for reading; I'm glad you liked it. :-)


Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii

Fascinating. I love history and ships, but I was not familier with the Great Eastern. Thanks!


Hovalis profile image

Hovalis 5 years ago from Australia Author

The Titanic did have a double bottom, and most ships of that age did. The difference between the Titanic and the Great Eastern is that she also had double sides. When the hole was ripped in her side by the Great Eastern Rock it ripped a huge hole in the outer skin, but it did not penetrate the inner skin of the ship. That is the biggest difference in their construction. The other big difference is that the interior compartments went all the way to the upper deck, and were fully sealed with no interior doors between them. Needless to say, this made getting around the ship extremely difficult. This was part of the reason for the commercial failure of the Great Eastern. This is part of the reason why this feature was one of the first to go. Watertight doors took care of this later on.

A piece of trivia for you, the first ship to exceed the Great Eastern in length (but not gross tonnage) was White Star's Oceanic in 1899.


AJ 5 years ago

Great article!

One point to address, however: Titanic DID have a double bottom but, sadly, due to the way she struck the berg and the fact that her steel rivets used to build her contained too much slag - thus making her seams vulnerable - it wasn't able to save her. Current marine forensic evidence points to compromises in the double bottom precipitated by the collision that allowed water to penetrate as far back as into her forward boiler room - number 6. The Olympic class liners, of which Titanic was no. two of three, were constructed with 16 watertight compartments and were considered the apex of maritime engineering for the early 20th Century. Great Eastern's revolutionary design and engineering no doubt paved the way for the legendary four-stackers!


James Griffin 5 years ago

'The Life of Capt Robert Halpin' (from dee-jay.ie) BRILLIANT!!!


Hovalis profile image

Hovalis 6 years ago from Australia Author

Thanks for the tip!


Jim Rees 6 years ago

For more on the Great eastern's cable-laying days see: 'The Life of Captain Rpbert Halpin' at dee-jay.ie


Hovalis profile image

Hovalis 7 years ago from Australia Author

He was, indeed. Thanks for reading!


lillly 7 years ago

Brunel Is Really Smart


Hovalis profile image

Hovalis 8 years ago from Australia Author

That is interesting. I had an inkling that Kingdom came from his mother's side, but couldn't for the life of me remember how Isambard came about. Sounds like you know a great deal about Brunel. He's a very, very interesting man, and one I am going to find more about when I have the chance. Thanks for reading!


chabrenas profile image

chabrenas 8 years ago from middle of France

A well-researched account. Here's the background to the name:

Brunel's father, Marc Isambard Brunel, was a Frenchman who met and married Sophia Kingdom, whose surname was given to him as his middle name. Marc Brunel came to England and undertook several major engineering projects - he started the Rotherhithe Tunnel, and Isambard took over the project.

Scott Russell was a rogue, but that's another story.


Hovalis profile image

Hovalis 8 years ago from Australia Author

The comment must have disappeared. I never got it, maybe HubPages was playing up when you posted it. :-(

Thanks. I'm glad you liked the article. :-)


Zsuzsy Bee profile image

Zsuzsy Bee 8 years ago from Ontario/Canada

Hovalis! I'm not sure where my comment went to. I remember reading this great hub of yours just after you published it.

I just love historicaly based hubs. Super article.

regards Zsuzsy


Hovalis profile image

Hovalis 8 years ago from Australia Author

Thank you Peter, that means a lot coming from you. The Great Eastern didn't get the place in history that it really deserved, that's for sure.


Peter M. Lopez profile image

Peter M. Lopez 8 years ago from Sweetwater, TX

Wow. I had never heard of the SS Great Eastern or of its role in the Transatlantic Cable. This is truly a great hub.


Hovalis profile image

Hovalis 8 years ago from Australia Author

Brunel was a great man, and he had a great mind. He built on the Great Western Railway Line the world's longest bridge spans. Some of those bridges are still in use today. Something I didn't put in the hub was that he designed the double-hull on the Great Eastern based on his bridge building experiences.

If I recall correctly Isambard and Kingdom were family names...although off the top of my head I can't recall the details. I always wondered if they called him Issie for short. ;-)


Lissie profile image

Lissie 8 years ago from New Zealand

Brunel is great - his name has always stuck with me - I mean what were his parents thinking! From memory he did some impressive bridges in the UK too?


Hovalis profile image

Hovalis 8 years ago from Australia Author

Thanks Helpdeskian, I'm glad you liked it. :-)

Helena, from what I've read, yeah, 40 cigars a day. It's no wonder he had a stroke. I often wonder if the Great Eastern was forgotten because its era came and went before huge liners became a big thing. It is amazing how much innovation happened back in the 1800's that we just take for granted today.


helenathegreat profile image

helenathegreat 8 years ago from Manhattan

Excellent photos! This is a great hub about something I never even knew existed. Imagine all the incredible things that have been that most of us will never know about...

Also... 40 cigars a day!?! Yipes!


helpdeskian profile image

helpdeskian 8 years ago from Pennsylvania

this is a great post! very informative.


Hovalis profile image

Hovalis 8 years ago from Australia Author

I have this real soft spot for the steam ship era. I have plenty of books on the subject to draw from, thankfully. I am going to put together a few more hubs on other steam ships, and a few other historical subjects as I get the research together.

Thanks!


MrMarmalade profile image

MrMarmalade 8 years ago from Sydney

A magic hub, I love ships and trains.

Well put together, I will look forward to your continuance


Hovalis profile image

Hovalis 8 years ago from Australia Author

Thanks! I have a fascination with the steamship era, but most books are written about later in the era, around the turn of the 20th century when sail ships began to be replaced by pure steam powered ships. Most give a passing mention to the Great Eastern, but not nearly enough information on the ship itself.They didn't have modern slipways like were used later, and that was part of the problem. The Great Britain, the largest ship before the Great Eastern was built in drydock which meant she was floated out. They had another problem there, though, because she was built up river and had to go through a lock to get to her fitting out station. The lock was too small and they had to rearrange part of the capstones to get her through. That's the problem when you try something noone's done before!

Brumel visionary, really. What he saw wouldn't become reality for decades. One thing I didn't put in was that he was also the inventor of the prefabricated building -- he designed hospitals for the Crimean War. Florence Nightingale praised them for saving many lives. I think that's a whole other hub, though, and I'd need to do a lot of research to find out more about it.


AuraGem profile image

AuraGem 8 years ago from Victoria, Australia

What an utterly fascinating hub! I love this kind of information that always seems to get lost in the mists of time! It is so good to drag out a large reminder. What really shocked me was the fact this ship took 10 weeks to launch! Incredible! And I had no idea about its connection with the Trans Atlantic Cable. This ship certainly needs more prominent recognition!

Fantastic hub!

Smiles and Light

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