The steamship Great Eastern is noteworthy as it was by far the largest ship in the world, a title it would hold for decades. And Isambard Kingdom Brunel put so much effort into the ship that the stress of building it probably killed him.
After the debacle of the grounding of the Great Britain, and the related financial crisis that caused his two earlier ships to be sold, Brunel didn’t seriously think about ships for a few years. But by the early 1850s, the world of steamships again caught his interest.
A particular problem that intrigued Brunel was that coal was hard to come by in some distant parts of the British Empire, and that limited the range of steamships.
Brunel proposed to build a ship so huge it could carry enough coal to go anywhere. And, a ship that big could take enough passengers to make it profitable.
And so Brunel designed the Great Eastern. It was more than twice the length of any other ship, at nearly 700 feet long. And it could carry nearly 4,000 passengers.
The ship would have an iron double-hull to resist punctures. And steam engines that would power both a set of paddlewheels and a propeller.
Raising money for the project was a challenge, but work finally began in 1854. Numerous construction delays and problems with launching were a bad omen. Brunel, who was already ill, visited the still-unfinished ship in 1859 and a few hours later suffered a stroke and died.
The Great Eastern did eventually make crossings to New York, where more than 100,000 New Yorkers paid to tour it. Walt Whitman even mentioned the great ship in a poem.
The colossal iron ship was simply too big to operate profitably. Its size was put to use before it was taken out of service when it was used in the late 1860s to help lay the transatlantic telegraph cable. It was eventually scrapped. Decades ahead of its time, the Great Eastern never lived up to its potential.
No ship as long as the Great Eastern would be built until 1899.