Isambard Kingdom Brunel was always at the front when it came to cutting edge technology and the Great Eastern was no exception. Brunel had already designed the Great Western which was the first wooden paddle steamer to cross the Atlantic, and he had also already designed the Great Britain, which was the first iron ocean liner. But Brunel didn’t stop designing there, he pursued more innovative designs.
Brunel wanted to build an iron steam ship that could travel to Australia to capitalise on the gold rush, but there was no source of coal discovered at this time in Australia, so it would have to be a non-stop round trip of 32,000km. Brunel estimated the ship would require eleven thousand tons of coal to complete such a journey, the ship would need to be huge – nothing on this scale had ever been attempted before. Work begun but costs were soon cut, instead of constructing one large slipway, two smaller slipways measuring 120ft wide were constructed, this decision was a huge risk.
As the Great Eastern was designed to be two hundred meters long and the Thames was only three hundred meters wide the ship had to be launched sideways, this was a relatively new and tricky technique, but on this occasion it was the only way. On the 3 November 1857 the ship was ready to be launched, thousands of onlookers gathered for the event of the year but unfortunately for man of the moment Brunel, it was a grand failure, the ship simply wouldn’t move, and after several more attempts which resulted in failure, Brunel and his Great Eastern were becoming a laughing stock. Muddy conditions and human error caused one slipway to be steeper than the other therefore the ships weight wasn’t evenly distributed, making it almost impossible to move.
Finally on the 31 January 1858 after three months of pulling and pushing, the Great Eastern was successfully launched, it was an amazing feat, weighing twelve thousand tons the Great Eastern was floating in the Thames. But the dream for Australia was over – the gold rush had ended and more importantly a local source of coal had been discovered. The Great Eastern did however make several journeys to America and back, and then captained by Sir James Anderson went on to lay transatlantic telegraph cables, and finally made its way to Liverpool where in 1890 the mighty ship was broken up for scrap.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel died on the 15 September 1859, the engineer best known for designing bridges, railways, boats and tunnels won’t be forgotten, with his iconic top hat and cigar in mouth, Brunel revolutionised engineering as we know it today.
Source and pictures – Channel 4, Time Team Special Brunel’s Last Launch