San José State University
Department of Economics

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Thayer Watkins
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Isambard Kingdom Brunel and
the Great Eastern Steamship

This is the story of the Great Eastern steamship, the largest steamship of its time. It is the story of the risks that are able to destroy even a good plan and project. It is also the story of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a talented engineer and the illustrious son of an illustrious father, Marc Isambard Brunel.

Since the Great Eastern steamship turned out to be an unsuccessful project it is important to note that the background of its proponent, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, gave every reason to expect it to be a success. First the story of the father, Marc Isambard Brunel.

Marc Isambard Brunel was born in Normandy, France in 1769. When he reached maturity he served in the French navy for six years. When this term of service was completed in 1792 he returned to France to find the French Revolution raging in full fury. Because of his royalist sympathies he decided to emigrate to the United States. He reached New York in 1793 and commenced a career in New York as an architect and civil engineer. He was successful as an architect, but his most outstanding accomplishment was the design of equipment for an arsenal and cannon factory. This project required his invention of new devices.

After six years in New York Marc Isambard Brunel decided to emigrate to England. He sailed in 1799 with plans for new equipment to manufacture the block and tackle equipment (multiple pulleys) used on ships to manipulate sails. It took until 1803 to get approval from the British government and begin construction at the Portsmouth dockyard.

Marc Isambard Brunel also invented new machines for the processes involved in the construction of ships and by 1812 he had been commissioned by the British government to build sawmills at Woolrich and Chatham. His mind was exceeding productive. During the period from 1812 he interested himself in a wide variety of endeavors. These included:

Some of these pursuits resulted in patents. Yet despite his fertile intellect, or perhaps because of it, he found himself in such financial difficulties that in 1822 he was incarcerated for nonpayment of his debts. Actually his financial troubles stemmed from two major setbacks: 1. A fire which destroyed some of his facilities, 2. The government refusing to make payment for a consignment of military boots manufactured by a Brunel enterprise. A war Britain had been engaged in, ended sooner than people expected and the government knew it would not need the boots. Brunel's friends secured a government grant of five thousand pounds for Brunel to use to pay his debts and gain his freedom. Before he went to prison he started designing bridges and when he was released he gained the commission to construct some of those bridges. He conceived a plan to excavate a tunnel under the Thames and in 1824 a company was formed to carry out this project. It took until 1843 to complete that tunnel. Marc Isambard Brunel died in 1849.

His son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was born in 1806. His middle name Kingdom was his mother's maiden name. When he reached the age of 14 he was sent to France to study engineering. There probably were several factors behind the elder Brunel sending his son to France for his education. Probably foremost was that in the period before the Industrial Revolution France exceded England in science and engineering. Undoubtebly the French background of the Brunel family was another factor.

The son joined the father's engineering firm in 1823, about the time the Thames tunnel project was being prepared. The son, Isambard Kingdom, became the lead engineer for the project at the early age of 19. He continued as the Thames Tunnel engineer until 1828. The son then went on to design bridges.

In 1833 Isambard Kingdom Brunel at the relatively young age of 27 was appointed chief engineer for the Great Western Railway. A major part of his responsibility was the design and supervision of the construction of railway bridges. He achieved fame for his expertise in bridge design.

He could not limit his vision to railways. By 1835 he was conceiving of an extension of the Great Western Railway connecting with a steamship which would journey to New York. The ship was to be called The Great Western. His company accepted the project and Brunel designed and supervised the construction of The Great Western in 1838. It was the largest steamship of its time and the first to make regularly scheduled journeys across the Atlantic. The Great Western was a great success.

Brunel's next ship, The Great Britain was roughly twice the scale of The Great Western. Brunel intuitively understood the economy of scale in ships. If the scale of a ship is increased by a factor of two so it is twice as long, twice as wide and twice as deep then the volume increases by a factor of eight but the surface area increases only by a factor of four. The construction cost is closely linked to the surface area because it is the area that determines the amount of construction material for the hull. The The Great Western was constructed of wood but Brunel chose to use iron for the hull of The Great Britain. For a ship the size of The Great Britain it was not practical to use wood. If the same material is used for the double scale ship the cost per unit volume decreases by 50 percent. With Brunel using a more expensive material for the double scale ship the net result was that the cost per unit of volume decrease but not by as much as 50 percent.

The The Great Britain used a screw propellor for propulsion. It was the first ship to do so. The Great Britain was a great success.

It appeared that Brunel's ship based upon the same economy of scale principle would also be a great success. But there appeared to be something operating analogous to the Peter Principle ("People rise to the level of their incompetence.")

In the 1850's Isambard Kingdom Brunel was acknowledged to be Britain's greatest engineer. He had achieved fame and fortune in designing and supervising the construction of tunnel, bridges and other structures for railroads. When he had become tired of railroads and was seeking new engineering realms to conquer he designed shipping docks and piers. He then rose to the peak of naval engineering when designed the two largest ships of their time, The Great Western (1837) and The Great Britain (1843). These ships were powered by a combination steam and sail. The Great Western was constructed of wood and was of conventional design. For his second ship, The Great Britain, he went to iron for structure and a special design to take advantage of the greater strength of iron. The Great Britain was 322 feet long and 50 feet wide when conventional wooden ships were no more than 150 feet long. The Great Britain went into service for the run between Great Britain and Australia and was a great financial success.

Althought The Great Britain was considered to have been the largest ship built up to that time there were larger ships built in the Chinese Empire in the early 15th century. The treasure ships of Zheng He were 440 feet long and there were over three hundred of them. The fleet carried a crew of 37 thousand. China was close to five hundred years ahead of the West in the early 1400's. At about 500 BCE China was a millenium or two ahead of the West and the Middle East in technology. The Empire put scholar-bureaucrats in charge of the society and China stagnated.

Brunel decided to redouble the scale for his third ship. It was to be 692 feet long, 120 feet wide and 58 feet deep. It was to be constructed of steel and iron and steam powered but would have six masts for sails. Brunel wanted his ship to be powered by three sets of steam engines; one set for the screw propellor at the stern and two sets for side paddle wheels.

Brunel began the serious work for his Great Ship project in 1852. He chose the name Leviathan for the ship and it was christen so, but the public would not have it named anything except The Great Eastern. Brunel contacted John Scott Russell (of soliton fame) who was the leading naval architect of the time. The collaboration of Brunel and Russell was initially quite fruitful but later became troubled.

At Russell's suggestion the ship design was presented to the Great Eastern Steam Company. The company responded favorably to the proposal and this led to the formation of a company to undertake the building of the Great Ship. Soon the ship was known as The Great Eastern Directors for the company were found and shares of stock in the company were sold.

The company solicited bids for the construction of the ship. Brunel estimated that the cost would be in the neighborhood of £500,000. John Scott Russell's bid was the lowest. Russell proposed to build the ship for £377,000, of which £275,200 would be for the hull, £60,000 would be for the engine to drive the screw propellor and £42,000 would be for the boilers and engines for the two paddle wheels.

What the board of directors of the company did not realize when it accepted Russell's low bid was that Russell was unrealistically optimistic and that once it accepted his bid and committed itself it would not be able to enforce the contract with Russell to get the ship built at his low price.

Russell was not financially secure, particularly after a calamitous fire destroyed his ship yard. This meant that Russell needed prepayments to finance the ship's construction whereas the company was presuming that the payments would be made on the basis of work completed. The other factor that made the enforcement of the low bid cost impossible was that Brunel, as chief engineer of the project, insisted upon complete control of the project. This meant that elements of the construction process had to be Brunel's decision. This led Russell to argue that the provisions of the contract were being violated because of changes in the construction process.

One of the most important of these construction decisions was the matter of how the ship hull was to be launched. The Great Eastern was more than twice as long as the previously largest ship and more than four times as long as the typical ship of the time. No existing dry docks could accommodate her construction. Brunel chose to have the ship hull built parallel to the Thames River where it would be launched by sliding its 12,000 ton weight sideways 200 feet. Brunel insisted upon a controlled launch rather than a free launch in which the hull would slide under the effect of gravity. This would prove to be easier to plan than to execute.

Russell's impecuniousness and the company's unwillingness to accommodate his financial needs led him to pursue financial solutions that not only put him at financial risk but threaten not only his solvency but the completion of the ship. Russell mortgaged his shipyard to get funds to meet his operating costs, but this mortgage committed him to payments which if not met would lead to the confiscation of properties which were required to complete the hull of the ship.

John Scott Russell's forte was applied science rather than organizational and financial administration. For example, one of the issues was the inadequate safeguarding of supplies at his construction site. There was an enormous amount of iron unaccounted for and probably lost to pilfering. This loss increased Russell's costs substantially and contributed to his financial difficulties.

At one point Russell, in financial desperation, undertook the building of severl smaller ships for other clients. The construction of these ships precluded making progress on the construction of the great ship for Brunel.

At the point at which Brunel lost confidence in Russell only one fourth of the construction had been completed yet Russell had received more in payments than his contract called for the completion of the entire hull.

When Russell was on the verge of bankruptcy Brunel's company took possession of the shipyard and the hull on the basis of Russell having breached his contract. This was to prevent the mortgage company of Russell from executing such a takeover. In the negotiations between Brunel and the mortgage company Brunel committed the company to a September 1856 launch date for the hull. There were penalties for not executing the launching by the agreed upon date. It turned out that it was not possible to meet the September deadline. A launching in early November 1856 appeared to be feasible. The launching could only be achieved on the date of high tide for the month. Unfortunately the controlled launching turned out to be so difficult that the actual launch was achieved only on January 31, 1857. The launch had been attempted on November 3, 1856, attempted again on December 2 and again at the high tide of the New Year.

The difficulty with the launch was that tug boats in the Thames were pull by means of chains on the 12,000 ton hull while hydraulic rams pushed from the land side. The chains failed under the stress.

By the time of the launching of the hull the cost had reached £732,000. There was another important cost and that was the destruction of Brunel's health. Brunel was only in his early fifties but his health had deteriorated under the stress of 18 hour days to the point he could no long go on.

It was only the hull which was launched. The hull then had to be towed to another site where it was to be outfitted with equipment. After The Great Eastern was outfitted the maiden voyage was scheduled for September 7, 1858. Brunel was ready to join that maiden voyage when, September 5th, he suffered at severe stroke that incapicitated him. He died ten days later. He was only 53 years old.

Even Brunel's last days were marred by another disaster for The Great Eastern. On the return from her maiden voyage one of the steam jackets for a funnel exploded. The valves on water jackets of two funnels associated with the paddle wheel steam engines had been mistakenly closed. Fortunately the error was discovered and a second explosion avoided. Twelve crewmen were injured in the explosion, five of them fatally.

In January of 1860 the captain of the Great Eastern, a man who had been personally chosen by Brunel, was drowned along with three other crew members when the small boat they were riding in capsized in a storm while trying to reach the Great Eastern.

Whenever a tragedy occurred for The Great Eastern a story resurfaced that explained it as a resulted of the ship being haunted. The Great Eastern had two hulls separated by a distance of almost three feet. The riveters often worked in that space and the story went that a riveter and his boy helper had been accidently enclosed while working in that space and their ghosts were haunting the ship. In the nineteenth century tales of the natural were an important aspect of life. But so many unfortunate things happened to The Great Eastern that it was easy to believe that the ship was jinxed.

The Great Eastern had not made the journey to Australia which she was built for. Since the loss of the ship captain and financial difficulties made it unlikely that that journey would be undertaken in the near future the owners converted her to a luxury liner for trips across the Atlantic to New York. The first trip could hardly have been a profitable voyage since she carried only 38 passengers but a crew of 418. The Great Eastern was designed to carry 4000 passengers. This first passage was uneventful and she was celebrated when she arrived in New York.

In September the great ship was ready for another trans-Atlantic crossing and this time she carried 400 passengers. This time however the voyage was anything but uneventful. The ship ran into a hurricane. The large waves were causing the ship to lean and this submerged the paddle wheel on one side. That paddle wheel had to be shut down, but this deprived the ship of a major portion of her propulsion and hampered her maneuverability. The Great Eastern could not be turned into the wind and one paddle wheel was broken off of the ship by a great wave. Additionally the ship's rudder was damaged to the point of being useless for steering. Worse yet the rudder was being battered by the screw propellor and so the screw propellor had to be turned off. The great ship was helpless at sea in a hurricane.

After the crew managed at great personal risk to chain the rudder to immobilize it the screw propellor could again operate and propel the ship. The ship made it back to Britain, but the cost of repairing the damage was £60,000.

The repaired Great Eastern returned to trans-Atlantic passages. In August of 1862 she was carrying 1500 passengers when she again ran into a violent storm. Off Long Island the ship passed over a submerged rock that cut a gash in the bottom of the outer hull 85 feet long and 5 feet wide. The inner hull was not damaged but the repair of the bottom of such a large ship was no easy matter.

During a period in which the ship was being repaired the workmen heard what sounded like a knocking coming from inside the hull. The workmen thought it was the ghosts of the trapped riveters and refused to continue the repairs. An investigation found that the knocking was just the result of a loose chain. The repairs were finished in December of 1862, but at a cost of £70,000.

The Great Eastern made a few more trips across the Atlantic but lost £20,000. The sip owners reviewed the situation and decided to sell the Great Eastern at auction. The ship which had cost close to £1 million to build brought a price of only £25,000.

The new owners decided to convert the ship into an oceanic cable layer. They leased her to the Atlantic Telegraph Co. for £50,000 and in July of 1865 the Great Eastern, after refitting, began to lay cable from Ireland to Newfoundland.

After laying a thousand miles of cable, worth £700,000, the cable end was lost in about six thousand feet of water and could not be recovered. Despite this failure the cable company tried again in July of 1866 with stronger cable and this time they were successful. On top of this success the ship was taken back to where the first cable was lost and the old cable was retrieved.

For three years the Great Eastern successfully laid cable in various parts of the world's oceans. But newer ships specifically designed for laying cable were entering the field and the Great Eastern became obsolete as a cable layer. She could not go back to carrying cargo and passengers. The Suez Canal was completed by this time and the Great Eastern was too wide to use the Canal. The Great Eastern was stored for twelve years while the owners tried to find a new use for her. They gave up and in 1885 they auctioned her off once again. This time she brought £26,000 whose business was hauling coal. That buyer did not put her into service hauling coal, but instead leased her to someone who converted her into a place for manufacturers to exhibit their products. After that lease expired there was nothing to do but to auction her off for scrap.

She brought £16,000 in the auction. The Great Eastern of course contained far more than £16,000 worth of metal but it was so expensive to dismantle her that the buyers lost money even at a price of £16,000. It took 200 men working around the clock for two years to demolish her. Thus ended Isambard Kingdom Brunel's great ship.

(To be continued.)


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