The third of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's great shipbuilding masterpieces, the others being the Great Western and Great Britain, was a ship far in advance of its day. Laid down in 1854 and launched in 1858, at a time when the largest ships afloat were under 5,000 tons, the Great Eastern had a designed tonnage of 18,914.
Brunel designed her to carry 4,000 passengers (or 10,000 soldiers if used as a troopship) as well as 6,000 tons of cargo to India or Australia without recoaling. An oscillating engine drove a pair of paddle wheels and a horizontal direct-acting engine drove a propeller. With a length of 211 metres (692 ft) and a beam of 25 metres (82 ft), she had a top speed of 15 knots. She was the first ship to incorporate an engine for her steering gear, and was also the first to be fitted with a cellular double bottom. This, and her very strong construction, was demonstrated when she escaped with minor damage after running onto a rock.
Construction difficulties and launching delays ruined Brunel's collaborator John Scott Russell (1808–82), in whose yard the ship was built, and caused a breakdown in Brunel's own health from which he died before the Great Eastern was able to make her maiden trip. Although Brunel designed her for the Australia or India run, because of the large numbers of settlers or soldiers going to these countries, she was mistakenly used on the transatlantic run where she proved a failure. She was later converted to a cable carrier and employed in laying four cables across the Atlantic and one from Aden to Bombay, before she was finally beached at New Ferry, Cheshire, in 1888 for breaking up.
Subjects: Maritime History.