Brunel Launches the SS Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Known for laying the first successful transatlantic cable and for being the largest ship in the world until 1899 with the appearance of the Oceanic, the Great Eastern was a significant engineering feat. It was, however, also an economic failure, whose concept would not be realized for another forty years.

Summary of Event

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born into a prominent engineering tradition. His father, Sir Marc Brunel Brunel, Sir Marc , enjoyed good standing among British engineers. The elder Brunel was best known for the construction of the Thames Tunnel, which was also the younger Brunel’s first major project as an assistant to his father. Following an education in English and French engineering schools, Isambard Brunel accepted a job with the city of Bristol to supervise and maintain the city dockyards. He increased the port’s efficiency by removing or redesigning older docks and demonstrated his engineering skill by overseeing the construction of the massive Monkwearmoth Docks. Brunel, Isambard Kingdom Great Eastern, SS Shipbuilding;Great Britain [kw]Brunel Launches the SS Great Eastern (Jan. 31, 1858) [kw]Launches the SS Great Eastern, Brunel (Jan. 31, 1858) [kw]SS Great Eastern, Brunel Launches the (Jan. 31, 1858) [kw]Great Eastern, Brunel Launches the SS (Jan. 31, 1858) Brunel, Isambard Kingdom Great Eastern, SS Shipbuilding;Great Britain [g]Great Britain;Jan. 31, 1858: Brunel Launches the SS Great Eastern[3210] [c]Transportation;Jan. 31, 1858: Brunel Launches the SS Great Eastern[3210] [c]Engineering;Jan. 31, 1858: Brunel Launches the SS Great Eastern[3210] [c]Science and technology;Jan. 31, 1858: Brunel Launches the SS Great Eastern[3210] [c]Trade and commerce;Jan. 31, 1858: Brunel Launches the SS Great Eastern[3210] Russell, John Scott Field, Cyrus West

Brunel’s next achievement was on land, when he accepted a job with the Great Western Railway Company to construct a rail line from London to Bristol. Brunel’s railroad, which cut across several barriers, featured two viaducts, a major bridge, and a lengthy tunnel, capped by an elaborate station of Brunel’s design.

Having established a rail connection from London to Bristol, Brunel now persuaded the railway company to extend its reach to sea. Brunel produced a design for a massive ship that would be the largest in the world. At 236 feet, the propeller-driven Great Western was 25 feet longer than the next-largest ship. The vessel made its first trip to New York in 1838 and made more than sixty voyages during the next eight years. Buoyed by the economic success of the ship, the Great Western Railway Company hired Brunel to construct an even larger ship, the Great Britain. This vessel served primarily as a passenger ship, capable of carrying 250 passengers when it began service in 1845.

Convinced that larger ships provided greater economic benefits, Brunel convinced the Eastern Steam Navigation Company to let him take the large-ship concept to its limits. Brunel conceived a ship capable of sailing nonstop from London to Australia, a route serviced by slower sailing ships. Brunel’s new ship, the Great Eastern, would move paying passengers and cargo on the London-Australia route both faster and cheaper by combining passenger berths and cargo space into the same massive hull. The design for the Great Eastern showed a ship 692 feet long, 83 feet wide, and with a displacement of 22,500 tons; in all dimensions it was more than twice as large as the biggest ships in the world at the time. It was so large that England would not produce ships of a similar size and displacement until the Oceanic in 1899 and the sister ships Lusitania and Mauretania in 1906.

Contemporary Currier & Ives print of the Great Eastern.

The Great Eastern would have a top speed of fourteen knots, provided by a mixed propulsion system of two propellers (powered by six boilers generating 1,600 horsepower), two paddle wheels (four boilers generated 1,000 horsepower), and four masts with 6,500 square feet of sail. Five massive funnels, each more than one hundred feet high, ran down the ship’s centerline. The Great Eastern could carry 5,000 tons of cargo, along with 4,000 fee-paying passengers.

To counter fears that such a huge vessel could not possibly float, Brunel emphasized the safety features of his design, which called for a double-hull construction, with an outer hull protecting the inner hull in case of collisions or groundings. Instead of a vast open interior, the Great Eastern boasted fifteen watertight internal bulkheads designed to contain flooding. A longitudinal bulkhead ran down the middle of the engine rooms, designed to contain flooding to one side of the ship so that the other engines and boilers could continue to operate. Although intended to provide enough power to move the massive craft, Brunel also advertised the mixed power plant as a safety feature; if one mode of power failed, the ship had two more to rely upon.

Brunel solicited bids from shipyards, estimating that the ship could cost about £500,000 to construct. The shipyard of John Scott Russell Russell, John Scott submitted the lowest bid, only £370,000. Brunel’s investors accepted that bid despite Brunel’s concerns that Russell had grossly underbid the project. Brunel was right; actual costs reached £750,000 by the time Great Eastern was completed, and critics accused Russell of mismanaging company funds and even outright embezzlement. Moreover, when construction began in 1854, Russell played to the media, and the ship attracted tourists from whom Russell charged a small fee.

When the ship was ready for launching in November, 1857, Russell sold ten thousand tickets for the event, despite Brunel’s misgivings. Again, Brunel was right. Russell had not provided sufficient hydraulic power to move the Great Eastern out of the dock, and instead of sliding into the water, the ship remained immobile. Attempts to force the ship down the slipway killed three dockyard workers. Russell Russell, John Scott used the media to blame Brunel, and Brunel got the ridicule and scorn of the British public. At his own expense, Brunel hired equipment to launch the ship on January 31, 1858. By September the final fittings were in place, and Great Eastern began sea trials. During the trials, however, an engine exploded, requiring eight months of repairs. Four days after the explosion, Brunel, burdened by the stress of the project, suffered a stroke and died.

Finally ready for sea in 1860, Great Eastern no longer had a purpose. The only way the owners could recover their huge investment was to increase passenger and freight prices, and not enough passengers or shippers paid the fees necessary to keep the ship in business. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 drastically cut the cost of shipping to Australia, further depriving the Great Eastern of potential customers. Worst of all, Great Eastern itself could not fit through the Suez Canal. Its great size, once thought to be its great asset, had become its greatest flaw.

The ship also developed an unlucky reputation after receiving damage in a storm in 1861 and after striking a rock off Long Island in 1862 (the ship survived thanks to its double-hull construction). There were also recurrent rumors that the ship was haunted by workers killed during construction. After only ten trips across the Atlantic, the Great Eastern Shipping Company declared bankruptcy, and put Great Eastern up for sale. The ship enjoyed a brief renaissance when Cyrus West Field Field, Cyrus West adapted the ship to lay the transatlantic cable Steamships;and transatlantic cable[Transatlantic cable] Transatlantic cable Steamships;and transatlantic cable[Transatlantic cable] in 1865, and eventually Great Eastern laid four other cables in other regions of the world. After that, the Great Eastern remained a ship without a purpose, serving as a floating hotel during the 1867 Paris Exposition, laid up from 1869 to 1872, and as a tourist attraction in Liverpool from 1886 to 1888 before its final voyage to a Birkenhead scrap yard in 1889.


The concept of the Great Eastern was not wrongheaded but simply too early. By the beginning of the twentieth century, shippers recognized the value of large-volume shipping, and a large market existed for transoceanic travel. However, neither of these economic and transportation demands existed in 1858, and Brunel’s grand creation proved to be not a great transport but a great engineering feat. Although the Great Eastern ended its life first as a workhorse laying cable, then as a tourist attraction and a source for scrap metal, its innovative design, a double hull with watertight compartments, remains a standard shipbuilding feature.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beaver, Patrick. The Big Ship: Brunel’s “Great Eastern,” a Pictorial History. London: Hugh Evelyn, 1969. Although not the best-written description of the Great Eastern, this work does contain probably the best illustrations, engineering sketches, and newspaper accounts of the ship’s history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buchanan, R. Angus. Brunel: The Life and Times of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. New York: Hambledon and London, 2002. A full biography of Brunel, examining his many engineering triumphs as well as his failure with the Great Eastern.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Emmerson, John S. The Greatest Iron Ship: S. S. “Great Eastern.” North Pomfret, Vt.: David & Charles, 1980. The only late twentieth century study of significance on the construction and operation of the Great Eastern.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. John Scott Russell: A Great Victorian Engineer and Naval Architect. London: Murray, 1977. The only major biography of the person responsible for the actual construction of the Great Eastern.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fox, Stephen. The Ocean Railway: Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Samuel Cunard, and the Great Atlantic Steamships. London: HarperCollins, 2003. A detailed history of the great ocean liners of the nineteenth century, using primary sources such as records, diary entries, and other writings to reflect the contemporary experience of traveling on this “kind of third human environment.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hearn, Chester G. Circuits in the Sea: The Men, the Ships, and the Atlantic Cable. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004. A history of the eleven-year effort to successfully lay a transatlantic cable, including Brunel’s participation in the process. Describes the ships used, technology involved, and the initial failures of the venture.

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Categories: History