The Great Eastern

It was the largest ship of its era. So massive it was renamed the Leviathan for its 1858 launch. Though the vessel was a failure at the Far East passenger trade that it was designed for, it later achieved great success as it laid the first fully effective underwater Atlantic cable while operating under its proper name, The Great Eastern.

By 1852 Isambard Kingdom Brunel was already a well-known British engineer with a list of successful projects to his credit: Several bridges with innovative features, the building of Britain's new Great Western Railway, and also the construction of two ships: the Great Western and the Great Britain. These last two projects, both passenger ships, had been undertaken to take advantage of the growing trade between Britain and North America. With their success, Brunel wondered if there might be a need for a passenger ship designed to handle traffic to the Far East, visiting ports in China and Australia.

Such a ship, he reasoned, would need to be huge. Large enough that could travel around the world without fueling. Such a big ship would also benefit from the so called "economy of scale." For example, it might not need a much larger crew than a smaller ship, but it would be able to carry many more passengers and cargo, which would translate into more profit.

Seven Quick Facts
-Length: 692 feet (211m)
-Beam: 83 feet (25m)
-Design: Iron hull powered by sails, steam paddles and steam propeller.
-Construction dates: 1854 - 1859
-Designer: Isambard Kingdom Brunel
-Function: Passenger ship later converted to laying submerged telegraph cable.
-Other: Designed for 4,000 passengers and 400 crew.

With this in mind, Brunel sketched out a picture of such a ship in his notebook with the caption "Say 600 feet x 65 feet x 30 feet."

A ship of such dimensions not be easy to build, however. It would be, by volume, more than four times as large as any ship currently in service at the time. Still, Brunel liked a challenge and he gave the design to John Scott Russell, a navel engineer he respected, who had already constructed several ships designed by Brunel.

Scott calculated such a ship would have a displacement of about 20,000 tons and would need at least 8,500 horsepower to achieve a speed of 14 knots (about 16 mph). One novel feature that the ship was designed with was multiple means of propulsion. It would have masts and sails to take advantage of the wind and both side paddles wheels and a screw (what most people today would probably refer to as a propeller) which would be powered by steam engines.

Eastern Steam Navigation

Brunel and Scott approached the Eastern Steam Navigation Company about their idea. Eastern Steam wanted to get into the Far East trade but had lost an important contract from British General Post Office to transport mail to the East Asia. The only way they might be able to make a profit without it was by utilizing such an efficient ship as Brunel was proposing.

In July of 1852, the company reviewed the proposal and decided to build the ship, putting Brunel in charge as the chief engineer. Brunel then started looking for vendors to build the major components of his design: the hull, paddle engines and screw engines.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Brunel's estimate for the cost of building the ship came to 500,000. Scott's company, however, put in a bid of only 377,200 to successfully win the contract. Brunel trusted Scott's engineering competency and did not question the bid. Scott, however, was a better engineer than businessman and his low figure was to cause serious problems with finishing the ship's construction.


Assembly began in the spring of 1854 on a leased plot of land next to Scott's shipyard in Millwall, London. Nothing as big as this ship had ever been built before and the problems of how to erect it were significant. No dry dock was nearly big enough to hold it. It was finally decided to build it lengthwise next to the river with the idea of sliding sideways into the water when the time came.

Brunel's innovative design included a double, iron-skinned hull, so that if the outer hull got a hole in it, the inner hull would still keep the water out. Such a design was unheard of at the time, but now is required of all modern ships.

Everything about the ship was big. Its crew complement would be 400 and it could carry 4,000 passengers (Twice that of other ships operating in the same era). The paddle wheels on the sides of the ship were immense - 54 feet (17m) in diameter. The propeller was also enormous, being 24 feet across (7.3m). The vessel also had a record five smoke funnels for the engines and six masts for sails.

The work progressed, but by the beginning of 1856 it became clear that Scott's company was in financial trouble. Eventually his bankers agreed to turn the ship over to Eastern Navigation and lease his yard to them so that they could complete the ship themselves. A year of work went by and under pressure to get the ship out of the yard and into the water, Brunel reluctantly agreed to try and launch the vessel on November 3rd of 1857.

The Eastern Navigation Company sold 3,000 tickets to people who wanted to see this enormous ship slide into the river that day. They were disappointed. The steam winches that were supposed to drag the ship into the water were not up to the task of moving the vessel which was 692 feet (211m) long and 83 feet (25m) wide. Brunel tried again several more times before successfully launching her on January 31st of 1858.

By then the cost of building the ship and launching her had brought Eastern Navigation to the brink of bankruptcy. In order to finish the ship's interior it was decided to create a new company, the Great Ship Company, which bought the ship from Eastern Navigation. Ironically, despite earlier problems, Scott Russell's company was allowed to bid for and win this part of the contract, too. Work started in January of 1859 and finished in August.

The Great Eastern under construction in 1858.

Maiden Voyage Explosion

The maiden voyage of the vessel, which started on September 6th of 1859, was marked by an unfortunate incident. As the Great Eastern moved into the English Channel, a huge explosion rocked the vessel and one of the funnels was blown off. Six men were killed and nearly as many were seriously injured. The explosion was caused when feed water pipes for the boilers which ran around the funnel to cool it and pre-heat the water had been accidentally closed off. As the funnel warmed the water in the pipes eventually it turned to steam, expanded, and the pipes, not designed to hold back that kind of pressure, gave way.

The ship was not in danger of sinking, however, and the voyage continued to Weymouth, where repairs were made.

Burnel, for health reasons, was not aboard the ship when it made its maiden voyage. A heavy smoker, he suffered a stroke in 1859 and died just before the ship made its first trans-Atlantic trip.

Though the ship was designed for voyages to the Far East, it turned out that there was never the amount of traffic going in that direction to support its operation. Instead, from 1860 through 1863, she was put into trans-atlantic service between England and the United States. However, the competition was so stiff the Great Ship Company never became profitable and they decided to sell the ship in 1864.

Several attempts were made to sell the ship before it was bought by the newly-formed Great Eastern Steamship Company. Instead of putting the ship back into passenger service, however, the owners had another idea. They chartered it to Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company and retro-fitted it to lay undersea telegraph cables. It was in this new role that the Great Eastern would have its most outstanding successes.

Laying the Atlantic Cable

In 1837 electrical telegraphs had been developed independently in both Europe and in North America. Within two decades both continents were crisscrossed by wires connecting almost all major cities, allowing same day communications between almost any urban location on those continents. Communications between Europe and North America, however, were still limited by the length of time it took a ship carrying a message to cross the seas: At least 10 days.

Some of the cable laying machinary on the deck.

The first attempt to lay a telegraph cable across the Atlantic was completed in 1858. Unfortunately because of poor quality materials, the cable stopped functioning after three weeks. However, this did prove that such a plan was viable and in a new effort, using the refitted Great Eastern was started.

To this end one of the funnels was removed along with some boilers. Many of the staterooms were also gutted and large open topped tanks, designed to hold 2,300 nautical miles of coiled cable, were installed.

In July of 1865, Great Eastern left Valentia Island, Ireland, headed for Canada. All went well for 1,200 miles, when suddenly the cable snapped and the end dropped into the sea. Many attempts were made to use grappling hooks to capture it again, but they all failed.

An attempt to lay another cable was made in 1866. This time the Great Eastern set the cable without incident and on July 27th, 1866, arrived at the tiny fishing village in Newfoundland called Heart's Content. The ship managed to lay an average of 120 miles of cable a day.

Immediately after laying the new cable the ship went back to sea and made another attempt at recovering the cable lost in 1865. This time the crew was successful in recovering it. On board the Great Eastern, the old cable was spliced with a new one. Then the ship headed back to Hearts Content laying the 2nd cable. By September 8th a second cable was finished, ensuring that from that day forward the North American and European continents would be linked by telegraph.

The ship continued laying submerged cables until 1870. Attempts after that were made to put her back into passenger service, but this failed. For a few years she was used as a showboat, a floating concert hall and gymnasium, but eventually in 1888 she was scrapped. A sad end for a noble ship with a design that was far ahead of its time.

The Great Eastern beached prior to being scrapped.

Copyright Lee Krystek 2016. All Rights Reserved.