Book Review 385: S.S. Great Eastern

ship

S.S. GREAT EASTERN: The Greatest Iron Ship, by George S. Emmerson. 182 pages, illustrated. David & Charles

Great hardly begins to characterize the ship that was originally to have been named Leviathan. In burthen, she was as big as a World War II aircraft carrier, though not so long. She was too big — no ship as big was built again for 50 years — but she was exactly the right size.

If ever life played a joke on technology, it was with the Great Eastern. The first captain of this huge ship proved unable to manage a dinghy while going to board her and was drowned. It cost more to launch her than the original estimate to build and launch her.

George Emmerson’s biography — claimed to be the first — reveals a more interesting story than the common image, which is of a jinx ship, built too big by self-deluded technocrats.

It turns out, the most interesting part is not the ship — though she is full of interest — but the finances.

I.K. Brunel’s design pushed to the limit of 1850s materials and understanding but was successful. It was capitalism that failed.

The projectors did not have enough capital, but worse yet, some of them had more or less secret designs to have the ship fail: think of “The Producers” set in a shipyard. Add to that financial shenanigans that today are, at least nominally, reprehended, and even without her repeated bad luck, Great Eastern was sailing for trouble.

To begin with, her size. The problem to be solved was similar to the problem of a trip to Mars and back today: how to get to Australia in good time, and back.

Steam, rather than sail, but there were scarcely any coaling stations in the Southern Hemisphere, so the ship had to carry fuel for a round trip. That accounts for her size. (Intermediate between the big steam ship and the Mars trip was the problem of airplane flights between England and Australia; the answer had to be flying boats because there were no landing fields.)

The ship had to be iron (this was before the advent of cheap steel) so Brunel designed a bridge that would float. He added features that are still not common in ships: complete compartmentation and a double bottom. The ship was almost impossible to sink, which — jinx alert — was proved when she ripped her hull on a poorly charted reef outside New York Harbor.

A similar accident sank the Titanic. One difference was that Brunel designed a genuine two-hulled-ship, with coal bunkers inboard of the inner hull. Titanic was, in theory, double-hulled, but the space between the hulls was not left void but used for coal. When it came time to close off the openings, coal dust in the rails for the sliding doors made that impossible.

Financial misadventures, including one of the unregulated market’s frequent crashes, meant that S.S. Great Eastern was not used to carry passengers and freight to Australia. Instead, she was sent between England and America, where she was too big to compete with smaller ships.

And here she did prove sinkable. A poorly thought-out heat exchanger (not Brunel’s design) blew out, setting off a series of failures that left the ship wallowing in a storm. The company’s chief engineer was aboard but incompetent.

Luckily, an American engineer sailing as a passenger stepped in with a jury repair of the broken rudder and saved the ship.

There are numerous other fascinating anecdotes in Emmerson’s short book, many reflecting poorly on Victorian manners and morals, but for this review one more will suffice.

When it came time to lay an Atlantic telegraph cable, the Great Eastern proved just right for the task, but some of her owners had interests in competing cables and apparently put saboteurs aboard to ruin the cable by spiking it with wires to cause shorts underwater.

When one thinks of the competing private firms offering to send travelers into space, it might be worth remembering that.

COMMENTS