Isambard Kingdom Brunel first suggested the idea of building a giant steam-powered ship to the Eastern Steam Navigation Company. The important and profitable Far East and Australia route was dominated by the fast clipper ships which sailed via the Cape of Good Hope.
Their supremacy was assured as no steamship could carry sufficient coal on board to complete the voyage without spending valuable time in port recoaling. But a ship the size Brunel was proposing would be able to carry enough coal for the entire voyage and up to 4,000 passengers in luxury. And it would outrun the clippers.
This was no small undertaking - Brunel's estimate of the cost was £500,000 - but the Eastern Steam Navigation Company decided it was a risk worth taking. The job was put out to tender and the company accepted John Scott Russell's suspiciously low tender of £377,000 believing it had struck a bargain. In fact it was to prove the undoing of the company. Nevertheless, work began at Scott Russell's yard at Millwall in February 1854. News of the ambitious project filled the newspapers and crowds of sightseers converged on the shipyard to watch the largest ship in the world being built. The British public dubbed the new ship `The Great Eastern'.
Building began in February 1854 at John Scott Russell's shipyard at Millwall, on the Isle of Dogs. Two thousand workers were engaged on the project. The sheer size of the undertaking generated valuable publicity and the shipyard attracted sightseers in their thousands. Songs and dances were written to commemorate the building of the ship; stalls selling refreshments and souvenirs sprang up around the yard and newspaper reporters were never far away.
Brunel took a keen interest in what was to be his last great project. He meticulously checked drawings and plans, always on the lookout for ways to make improvements and avoid waste. When it came to money Scott Russell was nothing short of incompetent. Brunel supervised to make sure corners were not cut in a vain effort to reduce the escalating costs. This investment of time and energy was to take its toll on his health which quickly deteriorated.
There was no dry dock large enough in which to build a vessel the size of the Great Eastern so it was built on the shore of the Thames, parallel to the river. It would not have been possible to launch the ship in the normal way as the stern would have run aground. A sideways launch would avoid this problem but it was a method that had not been used before.
The launch date was set for November 11th, 1857 and a crowd of 10,000 assembled to witness the event. But the ship resolutely declined to move so much as one millimetre. There were further embarrassingly futile attempts which provided the Press with an excuse to destroy Brunel's reputation. It was not until the end of January of the following year that the huge vessel was persuaded to enter the water, and then only with the aid of massive hydraulic rams. The cost so far was £732,000, almost twice Scott Russell's original estimate, and the project had swallowed up much of Brunel's personal fortune.
Built on the Thames, the ship had an iron hull and two paddle wheels. The Great Eastern was extremely large and was designed to carry 4,000 passengers. Brunel was faced with a series of difficult engineering problems to overcome on this project and the strain of the work began to affect his health. While watching the Great Eastern in her trials on 5th January, 1858, Brunel suffered a seizure.
The Great Eastern was the largest steamship in the world in the second half of the 19th century. Launched in 1858, the Great Eastern was unsurpassed in length until White Star's Oceanic H in 1899 and not in displacement until Cunards Lusitania in 1906.
The ship took five years to build, had a displacement of 22,500 tons, a length of 211 metres (693 ft), a width of 37 metres (120 ft), and a depth of hull of 18 metres (58 ft).
The iron hull had both screw and paddle wheel propulsion, with auxiliary power from 5435 square metres (6500 sq. yd.) of sail on six masts. The masts were named after the days of the week (Monday, Tuesday.)
The ship had five funnels, each 100 feet high and 6 feet in diameter. The two paddle wheels were 58 feet in diameter, and the propeller 24 feet.
After fitting out, the Great Eastern was ready to begin sea trials in August 1858. Brunel visited the ship just before it sailed but suffered a stroke and was, fortunately as it turned out, unable to stay aboard for the trials. When the ship was just off Hastings a massive explosion occurred ripping through the paddle engine room and the grand saloon. Brunel's innovative construction methods - dividing the ship up into compartments with watertight bulkheads - restricted the extent of the damage.
After repairs, the ship finally made its maiden voyage in June 1860. By this time the company was on the verge of bankruptcy and could no longer afford to use the Great Eastern on the Australia run. Instead it was decided to trial the ship on the transatlantic run. But the Great Eastern was quite unsuitable for this route - it was too slow to be able to compete with the smaller, faster vessels which dominated the Atlantic.
Meanwhile the construction of the Suez Canal was about to deal the Great Eastern another serious blow. The Canal promised to cut the journey time to the Far East and Australia drastically. However, it could not accommodate a ship the size of the Great Eastern. It was a ship without a use.
In the early 1860s the Great Eastern made a futile attempt to compete on the transatlantic run. In 1861, after leaving Liverpool for New York the ship was caught in a severe storm which left it helpless for three days and nights. Seven days later it limped back to Cork where it became clear that Brunel's superb design had saved the Great Eastern from a storm which would have sunk any other vessel. Two years later a rock tore an eighty-five foot hole in its hull, but the ship remained afloat due to its inner steel skin. Two expensive repairs and the subsequent loss of earnings convinced the owners to give up the transatlantic run in 1864 and lay the ship up. The following year the company was declared bankrupt.
But fate, which had so often dealt the Great Eastern cruel blows, now came to its aid. The ship was chartered for yet another attempt to lay a transatlantic telegraph cable. The luxury passenger accommodation was ripped out and three huge cable holds constructed. Cunard seconded its most experienced captain, James Anderson, to command the Great Eastern - an indication of the significance of the venture.
The shipped laid the first commercial Trans Atlantic Cable in 1866. After two years' of laying cables the Great Eastern was refitted and chartered by the French Government to carry the anticipated large number of visitors to the Paris Exposition of 1867. Of the 4000 berths available only 191 were filled with paying passengers.
The ship was laid up again until 1869 when it returned to cable laying duties which it continued to do until 1872 when a purpose-built cable-laying ship was brought into service. The Great Eastern spent the next twelve years laid up at Milford Haven.
In 1885 the ship was leased for a year by a Mr Lewis, a draper of Liverpool. The Great Eastern steamed to Liverpool where it was moored and opened to the public as a floating amusement park,complete with restaurants, funfair and music hall. The ship was sold for scrap in 1888. The Great Eastern was to have the last laugh, though. The firm which had acquired the ship at a knock-down price foresaw no problems. The task of breaking up the largest ship in the world went on 24 hours a day for two years, consuming a total of 3.5 million man-hours