Welcome to the final post in our Steel Wonders of the World Series. This time, we’re shining the spotlight on the first and the biggest – almost entirely – steel ship ever built at that time: The S.S Great Eastern, which was finally launched on January 31, 1858.
The largest moving man-made structure of its time
Designed by the greatest engineer of the Victorian age, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, here are the S.S Great Eastern’s key statistics:
- Designed to carry 4,000 passengers
- 211 metres long
- Double hull of 19mm wrought iron in steel plates of 0.86m with ribs every 1.8m.
- A total of 30,000 steel plates were used, weighing six tons each.
- Constructed using over 8,600 tons of iron
- Total gross tonnage was 18,915 tons
- Sail, paddle and screw propulsion as well as four steam engines
- Paddle wheels were 17m in diameter
- Six masts with space for 1,685 square metres of sails
- Four-blade screw-propeller was 7.3m across with its own engine.
- Total power was estimated at 6MW (or 8000 horsepower)
- Maximum speed was 24km/h or 13 knots
The quest for a self-fuelled ship
The design of the S.S. Great Eastern followed the success of Brunel’s steam powered paddleships that had successfully crossed the Atlantic and revolutionised travel between the UK and North America. Brunel now wanted to build a steel ship that could make it as far as Australia and potentially circumnavigate the globe without the need for refuelling. In fact, the reason for building a ship of such a size wasn’t for its cargo or passenger carrying capacity – the primary purpose of the size was to carry its own fuel. A ship that didn’t need to stop for refuelling was going to require 15,000 tons of coal to keep four steam engines powered.
A beacon of the industrial age
While the ship was designed by the Victorian era’s celebrity engineer Isambard Brunel, the ship was built by experienced naval architect and ship builder John Scott Russell on the River Thames. At the end of the 19th Century, the southern bank of the River Thames in London was the engine room of the global maritime industry. The site of the S.S Great Eastern’s launch is still visible on the Isle of Dogs, with part of the slipway preserved and even more of the original slipway still visible at low tide.
She never fulfilled her promise
As was common during the industrial age, Brunel died young. In 1959, at the age of 53 – just days before the S.S Great Eastern made her first voyage to New York, he suffered a stroke and died 10 days later.
And while the Great Eastern never made that voyage to Australia, she made several trips across the Atlantic and achieved great success as a cable-laying ship. The Great Eastern laid 4,200 kilometres of the 1865-1866 transatlantic telegraph cable. Despite numerous attempts in her later years, the Great Eastern never became a commercial success and the ship ended her days in Liverpool where she managed to achieve her final industry first – being one of the first ships to be demolished by the new steel wrecking ball.
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