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The 'Great Eastern' as a passenger liner

Isambard Kingdom Brunel and steamships
Design of the 'Great Eastern'
Building the 'Great Eastern'
Launch and sea trials of the 'Great Eastern'
Maiden voyage of the 'Great Eastern'
Voyages across the storm-lashed Atlantic
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Design of the Great Eastern

Non-stop to the East

Lower sectional plan of Great Eastern.
View full size imageThe Great Eastern's 10 huge coal bunkers can be seen on this plan.

Brunel's steamship was designed for the passenger and mail service linking Britain with India, China, and Australia. Brunel wanted to build a ship that was so big that it would be able to carry enough coal for a voyage to India or Australia without having to stop at coaling stations on the way.

Longitudinal profile of the Great Eastern
View full size imageLongitudinal profile of the Great Eastern.
The Great Eastern was to be six times larger than any previous ship. She was nearly 213 m (700 ft) long and 25 m (82 ft) wide and would be able to carry 4000 passengers (or 10,000 soldiers as a troopship) and 6000 tons of cargo.

Steam and wind power

The Great Eastern Steam Ship designed by I.K. Brunel.
View full size imageThe Great Eastern, designed by I.K. Brunel.
The vessel was to be powered by:

  • a pair of paddle wheels
  • a screw propeller
  • six sails.

These would give her a speed of 14 knots. The ship had a gross tonnage of 22,000 tons and a depth of hull of 18 m (58 ft).

Great Eastern.
View full size imageEmbroidered representation of the Great Eastern, c. 1858.

The Great Eastern was nowhere near as big as the next generation of liners. The Titanic, for example, weighed more than 46,000 tons. But at the time of the Great Eastern's launch in 1858 the largest ships were less than 5000 tons.

It was 1899 before a longer ship (the White Star's Oceanic H at 211 metres (705 feet)) and 1907 before a heavier vessel (Cunard's Lusitania at 31,550 tons) than the Great Eastern was launched.

John Scott Russell

John Scott Russell
View full size imageJohn Scott Russell.
Brunel's estimate of the cost was £500,000 (nearly £25 million in today's money). The Eastern Steam Navigation Company put the job out to tender.

They accepted the suspiciously low figure of £377,000 (over £19 million in today's money), from the Millwall shipbuilder John Scott Russell. They thought they had struck a bargain, but eventually it was to ruin the company.

The First Launch, 3 November 1857.
View full size imageBrunel and Scott Russell at the first Launch of the Great Eastern on 3 November 1857.

Although Brunel had the idea of building such an enormous ship, it was Scott Russell who decided what shape the ship should be. He used his knowledge of waves to help him do this.

Brunel and Scott Russell had already worked well together on the design of two other vessels.

The Great Eastern was to be built at Scott Russell's yard at Millwall on the Thames.



Travelling in luxury

Family saloon of Great Eastern.
View full size imageThe family saloon on board the Great Eastern.
The Great Eastern's first-class cabins and public rooms were to be fitted out to the standards of the luxury hotels of the day. The grand and family saloons were splendid areas. They would have:

  • thick carpets
  • cloth of gold wall hangings
  • furniture covered with velvet.

The Grand Saloon.
View full size imageThe Grand Saloon.

The octagonal, or eight-sided, cases in the centre of the grand saloon, with their mirrored panels, had a practical purpose.

They covered the pipes that went from the boiler rooms below to the funnels. 


Position of sternpost screw, Great Eastern.
View full size imageThe sternpost screw, 1857.

Brunel and Scott Russell's new steamship would have a screw propeller as the main propulsion.

The position of the sternpost screw is shown in this photograph, taken during the construction of the Great Eastern at Millwall.

Building of the Great Eastern.
View full size imageOne of the Great Eastern's enormous paddle wheels under construction in 1857.

The screw propeller was supported by 17 m (56 ft) diameter side paddle wheels for use in shallow coastal waters.

This photograph shows one of the paddle wheels being constructed.



Sail power

The Great Eastern named: The Leviathan.
View full size imageThe Great Eastern under sail.
One of the main problems with steam power was that it was difficult for ships to carry enough coal to reach their destinations. It was because of this that the early steamships still had masts and sails.

Brunel, however, made the Great Eastern so large that it could carry enough coal for a passage to Australia. Nevertheless, the Great Eastern still had six masts (named Monday to Saturday) with sails covering an area of 5435 square metres (6500 square yards). The addition of sails meant that the ship could carry on even if the enormous coal reserves ran out.

The engines

The Screw Engines.
View full size imageThe screw engines.
The six boilers were capable of producing 1600 horsepower. The ship had five large funnels, each of which was 31 m (100 ft) high and almost 2 m (6 ft) in diameter.

The screw engines were built by James Watt & Co. at Birmingham. The complete unit weighed 500 tons and drove a 36-ton cast iron propeller via a shaft 46 m (150 ft) long and weighing 60 tons.

The Paddle Engines.
View full size imageThe paddle engines.

The engines used to drive the 17 m (56 ft) diameter paddle wheels were also on a huge scale.

They were so big that new furnaces and machinery had to be installed in the Millwall yards just to build the ship!

Fitted out
Screw propeller

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