Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Great Steamships

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Isambard Kingdom Brunel, The Great Victorian Engineer

Photographic portrait of isambard Kingdom Brunel
Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Getty Images

The great Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel has been called the man who invented the modern world. His achievements included building innovative bridges and tunnels. He built British railways with an astonishing sense of detail. When he was involved with a project, it seemed nothing escaped his attention.

During his illustrious career he built three steamships. Though ships were not the main focus of his career, he brought to the projects his usual obsession with innovation. And the three ships he constructed each represented a substantial advance in the technology of steamships.

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The Great Western Was Brunel's First Innovative Steamship

Lithograph of the SS Great Western
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The great ships built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel were not the main focus of his illustrious career. Indeed, most of his accomplishments were on land, including the building of Britain’s Great Western Railway and dozens of bridges and tunnels associated with it.

Yet Brunel's efforts at ship building pushed steamship technology forward from the late 1830s to the late 1850s. And one of his ships, the ill-fated Great Eastern, probably cost the great engineer his life.

While working on the Great Western Railway in 1836, Brunel made a comment, apparently in jest, about extending the railroad by starting a steamship company and going all the way to America. He began to think seriously about his humorous idea and designed a grand steamship, the Great Western.

The Great Western entered service in early 1838. It was a technological marvel, and was also called a "floating palace."

At 212 feet long, it was the largest steamship in the world. Though built of wood, it contained a powerful steam engine, and it was designed specifically to cross the rough North Atlantic.

When the Great Western departed Britain for its first voyage it almost met disaster when a fire broke out in the engine room. The fire was extinguished, but not before Isambard Brunel was seriously injured and had to be taken ashore.

Despite that inauspicious beginning, the ship did have a successful career crossing the Atlantic, making dozens of crossings over the next few years.

The company which operated the ship, however, had a number of financial problems and folded. The Great Western was sold, sailed back and forth to the West Indies for a time, became a troopship during the Crimean War, and was broken up in 1856.

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The Great Britain, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Great Propeller-Driven Steamship

Color lithograph of Brunel's SS Great Britain
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Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s second great steamship, the Great Britain, was launched in July 1843 to great fanfare. The launching was attended by Prince Albert, husband to Queen Victoria, and the ship was lauded as a technological marvel.

The Great Britain was advanced in two major ways: the ship was built with an iron hull, and instead of the paddle wheels found on all other steamships, the ship was pushed through the water by a propeller. Either one of these advances would have made the Great Britain noteworthy.

On its maiden voyage from Liverpool, the Great Britain reached New York in 14 days, which was very good time (though just short of a record already set by a steamship of the new Cunard Line). But the ship had problems. Passengers complained of seasickness, as the ship was unstable in the rolling North Atlantic.

And the ship had other problems. Its iron hull may have thrown off the captain’s magnetic compass, and a bizarre navigational error led the ship to run aground on the coast of Ireland in late 1846. The Great Britain was stuck for months, and for a time it seemed it would never sail again.

The great ship was finally dragged into deeper water and floated free nearly a year later. But by that time the company operating the ship was in severe financial trouble. The Great Britain was sold, after making only eight Atlantic crossings.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel believed that propeller-driven ships were the way of the future. And while he was correct, the Great Britain was eventually converted to a sailing ship, and spent years taking immigrants to Australia.

The ship was sold for salvage and wound up in South America. After being taken back to England, it was restored and the Great Britain is on display as a tourist attraction.

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The Great Eastern, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Massive Steamship

Color print of Brunel's SS Great Eastern.
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The steamship Great Eastern is noteworthy as it was by far the largest ship in the world, a title it would hold for decades. And Isambard Kingdom Brunel put so much effort into the ship that the stress of building it probably killed him.

After the debacle of the grounding of the Great Britain, and the related financial crisis that caused his two earlier ships to be sold, Brunel didn’t seriously think about ships for a few years. But by the early 1850s, the world of steamships again caught his interest.

A particular problem that intrigued Brunel was that coal was hard to come by in some distant parts of the British Empire, and that limited the range of steamships.

Brunel proposed to build a ship so huge it could carry enough coal to go anywhere. And, a ship that big could take enough passengers to make it profitable.

And so Brunel designed the Great Eastern. It was more than twice the length of any other ship, at nearly 700 feet long. And it could carry nearly 4,000 passengers.

The ship would have an iron double-hull to resist punctures. And steam engines that would power both a set of paddlewheels and a propeller.

Raising money for the project was a challenge, but work finally began in 1854. Numerous construction delays and problems with launching were a bad omen. Brunel, who was already ill, visited the still-unfinished ship in 1859 and a few hours later suffered a stroke and died.

The Great Eastern did eventually make crossings to New York, where more than 100,000 New Yorkers paid to tour it. Walt Whitman even mentioned the great ship in a poem, "Year of Meteors."

The colossal iron ship was simply too big to operate profitably. Its size was put to use before it was taken out of service when it was used in the late 1860s to help lay the transatlantic telegraph cable.

The Great Eastern's enormous size had finally found a suitable purpose. The vast lengths of cable could be spooled by workers into the vast hold of the ship, and as the ship traveled westward from Ireland to Nova Scotia the cable was played out behind it.

Despite its usefulness in laying the underwater telegraph cable, the Great Eastern was eventually scrapped. Decades ahead of its time, the the colossal ship never lived up to its potential.

No ship as long as the Great Eastern would be built until 1899.