Disaster for Brunel on great day of Great Eastern launch

ISAMBARD Kingdom Brunel is acknowledged as one of the greatest engineers of the 19th century, best known for building the magnificent Great Eastern steamship at London’s Millwall Docks. It was the discovery of gold in Australia in 1851 and the expansion of the British Empire that had created a need for a ship which would open up the world for the British.

By Sheeza Anjum

ISAMBARD Kingdom Brunel is acknowledged as one of the greatest engineers of the 19th century, best known for building the magnificent Great Eastern steamship at London's Millwall Docks.

His other achievements include the Thames Tunnel at Wapping-the world's first runnel under a river-and creating the Great Western Railway.

It was the discovery of gold in Australia in 1851 and the expansion of the British Empire that had created a need for a ship which would open up the world for the British.


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So in 1856, John Scott Russell and Brunel designed and built the largest ship the world had ever seen, which could carry up to 4,000 passengers and crew and journey half-way across the globe without refuelling.

Thousands of spectators from all classes turned up at Millwall Docks to see the first attempt to launch the Great Eastern in 1857.

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But disaster struck as they tried to launch the ship sideways into the Thames. The huge structure had only moved four feet when an accident on one of the great chain drums killed a workman and injured five others.

Brunel did not attempt another launch until a year later. The ship was finally launched in 1858 and embarked on its first journey to Weymouth in 1859.

But a few days into the journey in the English Channel, a heater attached to the paddle engine boilers exploded, killing five stokers, as the Great Eastern was passing the Sussex coast at Hastings during her sea trials.

This took a deep strain on Brunel, who was already suffering from a stroke. He died six days after the incident.

The Great Eastern was acknowledged as an invention ahead of her time. Despite her failures, the ship continued to be admired decades after her launch.

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