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.
Gratitude is extended to the New York Public Library Digital Collections for use of the painting of the Great Western.