Brunel's Great Eastern


There's a new series on BBC2 called Seven Wonders of the Industrial World, in which the engineering marvels of the 19th Century are documented. Last week's episode was particularly interesting as it was about an engineering feat that doesn't survive today: Isambard Kingdom Brunel's huge ship, the 'Great Eastern'.

It's probably fair to say that the general consenus on hearing Brunel's proposal for the Great Eastern was that he had finally lost his marbles (or ball bearings). The plans were for a truly colossal ship: 700 ft long, carrying 4,000 passengers, and requiring 200 stokers to fuel the engines. It was to be made of iron, and though Brunel had already successfully designed an iron ship--the SS Great Britain--it was still a technology in its infancy. People thought that it would sink, snap in two when it hit the first big wave, or otherwise prove a total disaster, but Brunel had such confidence in himself that he managed to persuade the Eastern Steam Navigation Company to finance the project.

The design was really a work of genius. It had a double iron hull, so that even if the outer hull was pierced, the inner would allow the ship to maintain buoyancy. Apparently, during one voyage, the ship received a gash 85 feet long in the hull, and the passengers never even noticed. A hole one third of the size sunk the Titanic. It had both a screw propeller (again, a relatively new innovation), and a paddle wheel, and gigantic steam engines to power both. The size of the ship meant that it would be possible to sail from Britain to Australia without refuelling.

The programme was a clever mix of drama and documentary, with the dialogue taken from diaries and other historical documents, and there was sparing but very effective use of CGI to reconstruct the ship. You have to hand it to the Victorians; these wonders of engineering were developed with a mixture of very clever science and practical experience, as well as sheer herculean physical work. The depiction of the riveters (or "bashers" as they were known) took my breath away. A small child working in the 3 foot gap between the hulls heated the rivets red hot, threw it to another small child, who held it in the rivet hole while adult bashers on the outside whacked it with a big hammer. I shudder to think what modern Health and Safety Inspectors would make of those working practices. There were about 3 million rivets, and I'm amazed that there weren't more deaths or mutilations. When the ship was eventually scrapped, there was a story that two bodies--one an adult, and the other a child--were discovered walled up between the hulls. The story was that they were bashers who got trapped, and that their deaths put a curse on the ship.

Certainly, the 'Great Eastern' was never a commercial success. She only made nine Atlantic crossings, before being converted to lay the first Transatlantic telegraph cables. However, the design itself was a triumph. She sailed smoothly and beautifully, cutting through stormy weather as if it was a gentle breeze. Brunel wasn't right about everything, though. He and the shipwright Scott Russell had an acrimonious battle about how the ship should be launched. Russell maintained that it should be launched free down the slipway in the conventional manner, while Brunel was adamant that the best method was to winch it down sideways on huge chains. Brunel wouldn't back down, and in the end it took three months to get the damn thing in the water.

There's more information and some pictures here, which are well worth a look. It's such a shame that the ship was scrapped--I would love to see the engines working.