175 years ago today, 19 July 1873, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s great ship, the SS Great Britain, was launched. The Great Britain was Brunel’s second ship, innovative in a number of ways. She was the first ship to be propelled by a screw, and the first ocean-going iron ship. Amongst Brunel’s Special Collections are artefacts relating to Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s ship-building career.
She served as a passenger ship to Australia and later as a freight vessel; her working life ended in 1933, and in 1970 she was salvaged and brought home from the Falkland Islands to Bristol, where she had been built. After expert conservation, SS Great Britain is now open to visitors.
Within Special Collections is a piece of rust-stained wood thought to be a fragment of the original timber, taken from SS Great Britain at Bristol.
SS Great Eastern, begun in 1854 as a passenger liner, was the biggest ship there had ever been, and her building and launch presented a number of engineering problems for Brunel and his colleagues to solve. After suffering a number of mishaps and contributing to the bankruptcies of more than one company, Great Eastern was converted into a cable-laying ship.
A previous attempt had been made to join England and North America by cable, but the cable had failed after connection. Great Eastern, the only vessel available that had the capacity to carry the whole of the transatlantic cable, laid the successful cable in 1866. This enabled almost instant communication between Europe and the USA, with far-reaching economic and political effects.
Amongst the artefacts held at Brunel is a short section of cable thought to be from the remnants of this cable, the first of several laid by SS Great Eastern.
Other collections relating to Isambard Kingdom Brunel include the Blount Archive and a collection of photographs of the SS Great Eastern.
References and further reading:
(all websites accessed 16 July 2018)
Emmerson, George S., The Greatest Iron Ship: SS Great Eastern (London: David & Charles, 1981)