Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sunday's Seven Wonders - SS Great Eastern

Having completed the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, I am moving on to the 7 Wonders of the Industrial World.


(Photo copyright Arny Grimbear)

The SS Great Eastern was an iron sailing steam ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. She was the largest ship ever built at the time of her 1858 launch, and had the capacity to carry 4,000 passengers around the world without refueling. Her length was 692 feet and her gross tonnage was 18,915. Brunel knew her affectionately as the "Great Babe." He died in 1859 shortly after the SS's ill-fated maiden voyage.

(Isambard Kingdom Brunel against the launching chains of the Great Eastern in 1857)

The Great Eastern's maiden voyage began on September 9, 1859 as the ship passed down the Thames and had just passed into the English Channel when there was a huge explosion. The forward deck blew apart with enough force to throw one of the four funnels into the air, which was followed by a rush of escaping steam. The captain - Scott Russell - and two engineers went below and ordered the steam to be blown off and the engine speed reduced. Five stokers died from being scalded by superheated steam, while four or five others were badly injured and one had leaped overboard and had been lost. The accident was discovered to have been caused by a feedwater heater's steam exhaust having been closed, while the explosion's power had been concentrated by the ship's extremely strong bulkheads.

(SS Great Eastern with its four funnels)

In 1857, during the planning of the Suez Canal, it was thought the Great Eastern would not be able to traverse it, since she had a draft of 28 feet and it was expected that the canal would be excavated to a depth of 26 feet. In the event, when the canal was opened to shipping in 1869 the Great Eastern was no longer in passenger service.

When the SS Great Eastern retired from passenger/cargo transports, it was refitted to carry coiled cable. In this new role, the Great Eastern was responsible for laying 2,600 statute miles of the 1865 transatlantic telegraph cable. From 1866 to 1878 the ship laid over 26,000 nautical miles of submarine telegraph cable.

(The SS Great Eastern, July 1866)

In 1880 at the end of her cable laying career, the Great Eastern was refitted once again as a liner but these efforts failed. She was used as a showboat, a floating palace/concert hall and gymnasium. By the time she was sold piecemeal at auction in 1888 she had become an embarrassment. She was broken up for scrap at Rock Ferry on the River Mersey by Henry Bath & Son Ltd in 1889–1890 —it took 18 months to take her apart.

1 comment:

Julia Smith said...

I just love that photo of Brunel - he could have stepped out of the production of 'Little Dorrit', concluding tonight on PBS.