The Great Eastern Steamship

by Unknown

ARD tasks bravely done, are never wholly done in vain; but sometimes they have been carried out too soon. This was the case in the building of the Great Eastern steamship. Fifty years ago there was no place in the shipping world large enough to accommodate her properly, and Mr. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who spent hard years of toil planning her construction, was nearly half a century ahead of his fellow-men. Time has proved that his ideas were correct.

The monster ship was first thought of by him about the year 1852, for it was then that he laid his schemes before the Eastern Steam Navigation Company, and explained to them why large ships would be more profitable than small.

'When sending a vessel from London to Calcutta,' said he, 'she will go much more cheaply if she does not have to stop on the way to take in coal. Now, I propose to build ships capable of carrying enough coal to take them round the world; or at any rate to Calcutta and back.'

The Great Eastern The Great Eastern

He also made it clear that there is not so much risk with a large ship as with a small, for damage which would be enough to sink the latter would have but little effect upon the former. Mr. Brunel had already proved his skill in designing iron ships, for even at the time of which we are speaking, the Great Western was steaming between England and America, and the Great Britain had been upon the rocks on the Irish coast, suffering little damage by the collision.

His plan was to build the hull with a double skin, leaving a space of some feet between them, so that if the outside one was burst through, the water failed to get past the inner coat.

The Directors of the Company agreed with his views, and in December, 1853, work upon the Great Eastern was begun.

At Millwall, in the Isle of Dogs, in the shipyard of Messrs. Scott Russell & Co., the foundations were laid, and in a very little time, people passing up and down the river Thames were attracted by the first signs of the building of the 'big ship.' Up from the river's edge, for a distance of 330 feet, ran the two sloping 'ways' or slides, and across these were laid the cradles in which the huge baby was to lie. Each of the 'ways' was 120 feet broad, and they were separated by a distance of some 200 feet. Owing to the size of the proposed ship, it was found impossible to build her, as is usually done, with her stern toward the water. Mr. Brunel feared that it would not be safe to launch her in such a position; he decided therefore to plan the erection parallel with the stream, so that he might lower her gently into the water sideways.

Nothing that had been done before in the way of ship-building could be taken as a guide, for the increase in size made difficulties that no one had yet had to encounter. Little did those who only 'looked on' realise the thought and trouble which this new enterprise meant. Again and again the engineer had to alter his measurements, as fresh considerations arose. Among other things he was obliged to take into account the depth of the water at low tide in the river Hooghly, at Calcutta; for if the Great Eastern was built so as to sink too low in the water when fully loaded, she would never be able to enter the port of the capital of India at all.

But at last all the measurements were decided upon. The ship would be 693 feet long, 83 feet broad, and 58 feet from keel to upper deck; weighing altogether 13,000 tons. With room in its iron shell for 5000 people, the Great Eastern would be a floating town, containing more inhabitants than many flourishing communities in England. The frame, or skeleton, consisted of 'bulkheads,' or huge webs of iron stretching for 400 feet lengthwise of the ship, and crossed by similar bulkheads from side to side, placed at intervals of about 20 feet. These formed a strong framework on which to fasten the walls of the ship. There were no openings between the compartments formed by the bulkheads, except on a level with the first deck; so that if water did, by any misfortune, burst through from the bottom, it would not flood the whole ship.

The hull was completed at the end of the summer of 1857, and was ready for receiving the engines for driving the screw and the two enormous paddlewheels. The latter were between 50 and 60 feet in diameter. Then came the preparations for the launching; and little had the engineer guessed that in the short space of 240 feet, which separated his ship from the main stream of the Thames, would lie the greatest difficulties of all. The 'ways' sloped at a gradient of one foot in twelve, and had iron surfaces. The day before the launch was to take place, these were well greased. Chains were stretched from the stern and the bow to barges in the river while hydraulic jacks, for pushing the huge body from the land side, were anchored firmly to the ground. A careful estimate of how much strength would be required had been made, and additional precautions were taken to prevent the ship sliding too swiftly when once set in motion.

All arrangements being then considered complete, it was decided to attempt the launch on the 3rd of November. On that day, against Mr. Brunel's wishes, vast crowds of sightseers pushed their way into the yard, and even intruded themselves between him and his workmen, so that the signals he wished to make could not be seen. However, at about noon, the Great Eastern began to move on its journey to the river. It slipped a short distance and then stopped. The men on the barges, seeing the monster sliding towards them, deserted their posts in terror. Had they known that nearly three months were to elapse before the ship would be induced to reach the water, they would hardly have given way to such panic.

The unruly crowd went home disappointed on that November day, and Mr. Brunel's troubles were increased by the receipt of large numbers of letters advising him what to do. They mainly came from people who were quite ignorant of mechanical laws. The engineer knew that strength must prevail at last, but though he used all he could obtain at the moment, the ship only moved an inch or two at a time. At last, at the time of his greatest perplexity, Robert Stephenson visited him at Millwall, and gave kindly encouragement as well as aid. He provided greater power than Mr. Brunel had yet been able to obtain, and on January 31st, 1858, the huge vessel imperceptibly slipped the last few inches into the Thames.

But it seems sad to have to say that the Great Eastern was nearly as much trouble on the water as she had been on the land. Her designer never lived to see her face the storm and wave. Anxiety had undermined his health, and he died on September 15th, 1859, as she steered into Weymouth on her first trial journey.

The world was not ready for such big ships, and though she made several voyages to New York (where she was greeted with the flutter of flags and the welcome of cannon), the Great Eastern did not earn her wages.

After a curious existence of thirty years, during which period she changed her masters many times, doing good service, in 1865, by laying the Atlantic cable, she was sold to be broken up as little more than old iron.

Our steamships now are built even larger than Mr. Brunel's vessel, though in a slightly different way. But we have better means of constructing them, and docks large enough for their accommodation.

One of the largest ships yet launched was built for the Cunard Company a short time ago. It is 760 feet long, and 87 feet broad, and is nearly thirty times heavier than the Britannia—the Company's first ship to cross the Atlantic sixty-five years ago. Her saloons and dining-halls are fit apartments for a palace, and are built in a hull measuring sixty feet from keel to upper deck. Still larger vessels are in course of construction.

The poor Great Eastern—the leviathan of other days—has been eclipsed; but whatever admiration we may feel for the new, it must not be allowed to diminish the honour that is due to the old.