Jul 19, 2011

Seven Wonders of the Industrial World - Part I
The SS Great Eastern

SS Great Eastern (originally called Leviathan) was an iron sailing steam ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and built by J Scott Russell & Co. at Millwall on the River Thames, London. She was by far the largest ship ever built at the time of her 1858 launch, and had the capacity to carry 4,000 passengers around the world without refuelling.

Great Eastern's keel was laid down on 1 May 1854. The hull was an all-iron construction, a double hull of wrought iron plates with ribs every 1.8 m (6 ft). Internally, the hull was divided by two 107 m (350 ft) long, 18 m (60 ft) high, longitudinal bulkheads and further transverse bulkheads dividing the ship into nineteen compartments. Great Eastern was the first ship to incorporate the double-skinned hull, a feature which would not be seen again in a ship for 100 years, but which is now compulsory for reasons of safety.

She had sail, paddle and screw propulsion. The paddle-wheels were 17 m (56 ft) in diameter and the four-bladed screw-propeller was 7.3 m (24 ft) across. The power came from four steam engines for the paddles and an additional engine for the propeller. Total power was estimated at 6 MW (8,000 hp).

She also had six masts providing space for 1,686 square metres (18,150 sq ft) of sails, rigged similar to a topsail schooner. Setting sails turned out to be unusable at the same time as the paddles and screw were under steam, because the hot exhaust from the five (later four) funnels would set them on fire.

The site of the launch is still visible on the Isle of Dogs. Part of the slipway has been preserved on the waterfront, while at low tide, more of the slipway can be seen on the Thames foreshore. The remains of the slipways, and other structures associated with the launch of the SS Great Eastern, have recently been surveyed by the Thames Discovery Programme, a community project recording the archaeology of the Thames intertidal zone in London.

With both paddlewheels and propellers she was fast, her maximum speed was 24 km/h (13 knots), and manoeuvrable as well as large. Watertight bulkheads were designed to make her unsinkable. When she sailed in 1859, she was all of these things. She was also too far ahead of her time. People were not travelling frequently enough to pay for her ongoing upkeep, and the American Civil War killed US traffic.

She bankrupted a series of owners and was unable to draw enough passengers to cover her massive running costs. Technical issues such as a boiler explosion on an early voyage did not help, and just as she began to turn a profit the captain struck an undersea rock, doing massive damage to the hull and incurring huge repair costs. Rumours began to surface that the ship was cursed.

In 1864, the Great Eastern was sold for a fraction of its cost to a cable laying company. The time that the ship spent laying cables for the new telegraph system was its most successful. It was used to lay the first telegraph cable to America.

With the transatlantic cable laid and specialist vessels taking over that role, the owners needed to find a new role for the Great Ship. The SS Great Eastern was for a time used as a floating exhibition, a passenger liner and other roles, and failed to turn a profit in any of them.

All attempts to find a purpose for Brunel's masterpiece failed and in 1889 she was sold for scrap, ironically the only time she was sold for a profit during her existence. She was so large, and of such sturdy construction, that it took three years to completely dismantle her. Sir Daniel Gooch wrote 'Poor old ship: you deserved a better fate'.

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