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The Story of the


by Bob Mills

The story of the SS Great Eastern started back in the 1830’s, before the birth of the great ocean liner.

Enter Isambard Kingdom Brunel (9 April 1806 – 15 September 1859), a British engineer who best known for the creation of the Great Western Railway, a series of famous steamships, and numerous important bridges and tunnels, hence revolutionising public transport and modern day engineering.

Before Brunel designed the SS Great Eastern he had built two other steamships that revolutionized shipbuilding with their speed, power, size and construction. His first attempt was the Great Western (1838), a wooden paddle steamer that was the first steamship to make regular crossings of the Atlantic.

She was launched at Patterson & Mercer's yard in Bristol on 19 July 1837 and sailed to London later that month to be fitted out.

Her first trip to New York took just 15 days. This was a great success since a one-way trip on a ship with sails would have taken more than a month. She eventually completed 45 Atlantic voyages to New York for her owners, The Great Western Steamship Company.

The Great Britain

In 1843 Brunel followed up the Great Western with the world's first large iron steamship, the Great Britain. The initial design was for a paddle-driven ship, but Brunel gave up on that idea when he saw one of the first propeller-driven ships arrive in Britain.

The Great Britain therefore became the first screw-driven iron ship to cross the Atlantic. Displacing nearly 1930 tons when it was launched, the Great Britain was the largest ship afloat.

The Great Eastern

The Great Eastern was the third of Brunel's huge shipbuilding projects.

Brunel formed a partnership with a John Scott Russell, an experienced Naval Architect and ship builder, to build the Great Eastern at the shipbuilding yard of Messrs. Scott Russell & Co. of Millwall, London, the keel being laid down on May 1, 1854.

The Great Eastern was finally launched on January 31, 1858. She was 211metres (692 ft) long, 25metres (83 ft) wide, with a draft of 6.1metres (20 ft) unloaded and 9.1 metres (30 ft) fully laden, and displaced 32,000 tons fully loaded. She was first named the SS Leviathan at the time construction commenced, but her high building and launching costs ruined the Eastern Steam Navigation Company and so she lay unfinished for a year before being sold to the Great Eastern Ship Company and finally renamed SS Great Eastern.

Two people were killed in the difficult sideways-launch of the Great Eastern, and it became known to some as the unlucky ship. Initially, she only wanted to move some three feet and then stopped and refused to go any further. Almost three months went by until she was pushed into the sea, but on January 30, 1858 the colossus was at last afloat.

During her life she was involved in a series of accidents several of which were attributable to her large size. Nowhere in the world were there docks and harbours big enough to cope with a ship six times bigger than anything known before.

It was Brunel's final great project, and he collapsed from a stroke after being photographed on her deck, and died only ten days later, a mere four days after Great Eastern's first sea trials.

The Suez Canal had recently opened therefore the long voyage to India and Australia around the bottom of Africa was no longer necessary so it was decided to put her on the Great Britain to America run, and she was equipped accordingly. Her eleven-day maiden voyage began on June 17, 1860, with only 35 paying passengers, 8 company non-paying "dead heads" and 418 crew.

Propulsion: Four steam engines for the paddles and an additional engine for the propeller. Total power was estimated at 6 MW (million Watts) (8,000 hp), Speed: 24 kM per hour (13knots), Capacity: 4,000 passengers, Crew: 418. The hull was an all-iron construction, a double hull of 19mm (0.75 inch) wrought iron. Internally the hull was divided by two 107m (350 ft) long, 18m (60 ft) high, longitudinal bulkheads and further transverse bulkheads dividing the ship into nineteen compartments. The Great Eastern was the first ship to incorporate the double-skinned hull, a safety feature which would not be seen again in a ship for 100 years. She had sail, paddle and screw propulsion. The paddle-wheels were 17m (56 ft) in diameter and the four-bladed screw-propeller was 7.3m (24 ft) across. The power came from four steam engines for the paddles plus an additional engine for the propeller. She had six masts (said to be named after the days of a week - Monday being the fore mast and Saturday the stern mast), providing space for 1,686m2 (18,148 square feet) of sails. Setting sails when the ship was under steam (using the paddles and screw) was impractical as the hot exhaust from the five (later four) funnels would set the sails on fire.

The Great Eastern continued to be haunted with bad luck, and she never carried a full complement of passengers. Her third voyage she made in eight and a quarter days, a record for her, but not enough to receive the Blue Riband. On her fourth voyage over the Atlantic, a storm caught up with her and she broke her rudder and was totally left without any help in the storm. It lasted for three days and during that time had the ship been thrown back and forth at 45º angles. After an emergency rudder had replaced the broken one, the Great Eastern slowly approached Cork, Ireland, where the repairs took eight months and cost £60,000. In August 1862, the Great Eastern sailed with her record of paying passengers, 1,500. But the bad luck wasn’t far away. When she crossed an uncharted area, she tore up a gash in her bottom measuring 75 feet long and 4 feet wide. She stayed afloat thanks to her double bottom. The Great Eastern continued to lose money, and she was considered too uneconomical by her owners, and eventually she was taken out of service.

The Great Eastern was sold for £25,000 and converted into a cable-laying ship. The fourth funnel and some boilers were removed as well as much of the passenger accommodation to make way for open top tanks for taking up the coiled cable.

Our story now goes back to 1857 and the men behind the Atlantic Telegraph Company (including Mr. Charles T Bright) had organised some £350,000 to lay the first trans Atlantic telegraph cable between Ireland and Newfoundland. Two ships were needed to carry the length of cable - the British Admiralty offered HMS Agamemnon, one of the finest screw propelled battleships of the time while the American Government sent the steam frigate Niagara of 5,000 tons displacement.

History records that several attempts were made by the two ships to lay the cable but, it was not until August 1858, that a cable was finally completed between the old world and the new. The great task was accomplished and all doubts silenced by the achievement. Congratulations were heard on all sides.

Meanwhile the electricians were engaged on work that can only be called a tragedy. The total resistance of the conductor was known to be high and it was assumed that currents of high intensity must be used for transmitting signals. Accordingly pressures of up to 2,000 volts were applied. These proved too much for the cable’s insulation and after several days spent in abortive efforts to get messages through the signal strength gradually failed.

Finally, a complete change of method was made - a few cells replacing the large number and a reflecting galvanometer was used to receive the signals. On the 13th August the first signal came through. Three days later the Queen exchanged greetings by cable with the American President but it took over 30 hours to transmit the 150 words they contained.

In fact, electrically, the cable was dying. At the end of two months it was dead and nothing the electricians could do would revive it. Thus did failure, due to wrong theory, follow hard on the heels of success. For several years after the burial of the first Atlantic cable, public interest in the project waned. But all was not lost - following success in laying undersea cables in other parts of the world - particularly around Malta and India, British financiers subscribed £600,000 for the laying of a new trans-Atlantic cable and the Great Eastern was chartered to do the job. It was big enough to carry enough cable for the entire job making laying much simpler.

A cable of improved design was ordered from The Telegraph Maintenance and Construction Company and the Great Eastern was readied to do the laying. As this enormous vessel could easily carry the whole of the cable, the operations of laying would be much simplified. The ship was fitted with three tanks (as shown in diagram) and the cable was coiled into these tanks as fast as it was delivered from the factory.

The Great Eastern sailed from Valentia Harbour on June 23rd, 1865, paying out as she went. Eighty-four miles out a “fault” revealed itself. Several miles of cable had to be picked up to reach the fault to allow repair. The same occurred at the 716th mile and again at the 1,186th mile. During the third picking-up the cable parted and the ship had to put back several miles to fish for the broken end using grapnels. However, although the cable was hooked on several occasions, the ropes were not equal to the task and broke. Finally, after marking the spot with buoys, the expedition returned home.

The position was now a very serious one for the company. Including the first cable, 4,000 miles of cable, representing in all an expenditure of a million pounds, lay uselessly at the bottom of the Atlantic. One fact that gave the company encouragement was the seaworthiness of the Great Eastern shown in a memorandum drawn up by engineers and scientific men aboard her which stated “from her size and constant steadiness, and from the control over her by the joint use of paddles and screw, renders it safe to lay an Atlantic cable in any weather”.

To raise the money to resume operations, the Atlantic telegraph Company needed to merge with a new company, The Anglo-American Telegraph Company and this brought an injection of capital, much from two gentlemen who had made their money from the railway boom in Great Britain.

The Great Eastern set sail again from Valentia on July 13th, 1866 with not only the entire new cable on board but also the unlaid balance of the 1865 cable. The plan was to lay the new cable then try to recover the 1965 cable and complete its laying. A steam winch and heavy duty “fishing tackle” was on board to raise the broken cable.

Only one hitch occurred on the entire crossing laying the new cable and the ship was stopped before any damage occurred to the cable. On 28th July 1866 the cable was landed and, for the first time, satisfactory telegraphic communication across the Atlantic was established.

It was now a matter of finding and finishing the 1865 cable. The Great Eastern, in company with steamships Medway and Albany, dragged the sea bottom for thirteen days and, after hooking and losing the cable a number of times, finally succeeded in getting it safely aboard the big ship. tests proved it was in perfect condition. Imagine the reaction of the electrician in the Irish telegraph station when, early on Sunday morning, the tiny dot of light from the mirror galvanometer started to move with the message: ”Ship to shore: I have much pleasure in speaking to you through the 1865 cable; just going to make splice.”

A few days later the American end of the 1865 cable came ashore in Newfoundland completing a “second string” in the bow of trans-Atlantic communications. Just as well as both cables failed at different times soon after being laid and while one was being repaired, the other “carried on”. For the next few years the Great Eastern went on to successfully lay many more submarine cables in many parts of the world but she never returned to her original purpose of passenger liner.

Towards the End. By 1872 the Great Eastern had been made obsolete by purpose-built cable-laying ships such as the new Faraday (owned by Siemens Brothers Ltd). She spent the next 12 years laid up at Milford Haven on the south-west coast of Wales.

Eventually, in 1885, the unwanted hulk was hired by Lewis's department store in Liverpool. The store wanted to use her as a music hall, fun fair and a giant advertising billboard. The tired old screw engines were coaxed into powering the ship to the River Mersey, where it was opened to the public at a shilling (5 pence) a head.

After exhibition trips to Dublin and the River Clyde, which did not make much money at all, the Great Eastern returned to the River Mersey in 1888.

Breaking up The long process of breaking her up by hand was begun on the River Mersey in 1889. The Great Eastern was built so strongly that it took 200 men two years to take her to pieces, consuming a total of 3.5 million man-hours.

During the breaking up of the Great Eastern, it was rumoured that a skeleton was found inside the double hull. The rumour indicated that when workers broke into a compartment in the inner shell on the port side they did find a skeleton. The idea of one or more skeletons sealed inside the hull harkens back to the construction of the Great Eastern, when it was discovered that two of the riveters, a worker and his apprentice, had mysteriously vanished. It was believed that they had been sealed on the inside by accident.

A sad end for a great ship that played a major part in the history of world communications.


Telegraphy and Telephony by Archibald Williams, Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd, London. 1928.
SS Great Eastern - Wikipedia website- the free encyclopedia files
National Maritime Museum (UK) website at
Portcities website (UK) (no longer available)
New universal Encyclopedia, Vol. 5.

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