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The Great Eastern: Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s unfortunate ship

Posted in Boats, Engineering, Sea, Ships on Monday, 28 February 2011

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This edited article about the Great Eastern originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 909 published on 23 June 1979.

In 1859, Brunel launched the Great Eastern on the Thames. It was the biggest ship the world had yet seen, having two systems of propulsion in its paddle wheels and screw propellers, not to mention the acres of sail that graced its six masts. It also had a double bottom and a tubular steel deck. It was probably one of the strongest ships ever built.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the Great Eastern

Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the Great Eastern

Right from the start, however, the Great Eastern seemed doomed to failure. She stuck halfway down her launching ramp, and it took three months to free her. Meanwhile the company that built her had gone into liquidation.

On 17th June, 1860, the Great Eastern set out on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic, a route for which she proved unsuited. But some money had to be made out of such a disastrous venture and she began to be used for cable laying operations. It was here that she achieved her only real success, when she laid the first transatlantic cable, linking two continents by telegraph.

She was later broken up and the pieces fetched £60,000.

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