SS Great Britain launched by Brunel

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SS Great Britain launched by Brunel

Bristol, Bristol The 19th of July 1843 AD

The greatest of the Victorian engineers who re-shaped the world in an era of enormous technological change, Isambard Kingdom Brunel left his mark in civil engineering, most notably the Clifton Suspension Bridge , engineered by him when he was in his twenties, railways, with the Great Western Railway , and shipping, where he built three great ships. His SS Great Britain, while not the masterpiece that the Great Eastern would prove at the end of Brunel’s life, was probably the most epoch making.

The Great Western Steamship Company of Bristol commissioned the ship, and for the great undertaking Brunel worked with three other giants of Victorian engineering: Guppy, Patterson, and Claxton. The ship they designed was a good 100 feet longer than anything else on the water at that time, and most importantly was fashioned from wrought iron, the first of the great iron ships, and the fore-runner of the dreadnoughts that for a time would continue British domination of the waves.

Originally designed as a paddle steamer, the SS Great Britain was changed to utilise the new propeller drive technology. Because of the unprecedented scale of the ship a dry dock had to be specially altered to accommodate her hull.

Though the ship was innovative and capable of great speed, crossing the Atlantic in just 14 days on her maiden voyage that started on July 26 1845 from Liverpool to New York, the SS Great Britain led a far from charmed life, indeed the ship seemed almost cursed from the outset.

During the launching ceremony the first bottle of champagne missed, as the ship was already moving away from the platform. Once on the water she was found to be too big to sail up the Avon on her way to be fitted with engines and to have her interior completed in London , and at the first attempt became jammed. Such difficulties delayed the start of her working life, and just a year and a half into her career she ran aground in Dundrum Bay off the Irish coast, the cost of salvage and re-floating the vessel bankrupting the Great Western Steamship Company.

As the transatlantic luxury crossing trade had proved a failure, with far fewer passengers than had been calculated, her new owners refitted her as an emigrant ship, taking more than 15,000 Britons to Australia in this phase of her life. In the Crimean War the ship was employed by the government to transport troops, and then the decline continued as she was superseded by new arrivals, becoming a coal transporter. When the ship ran aground in the Falkland Islands she was sold as a storage hulk, and rotted near Port Stanley until 1970.

Happily, after more than 30 years of restoration work, this great symbol of Victorian ingenuity and ambition has been made into a magnificent museum piece, on display to the public in her original home of Bristol. Here, to prevent her iron hull decaying, the below-the-waterline parts of the vessel are kept sealed from the moist atmosphere beneath a ‘glass sea’. Since July 2005 visitors have then been able to see this superb craft once more.

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