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Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Great Eastern (his third ship-building project) began life in 1858 as the Leviathan. Designed to carry 4,000 passengers, the Leviathan was 692 feet long, 85 feet wide and had a displacement of 32,000 tons. No larger ship would be built for fifty years.

The ship was laid down at shipyard of John Scott Russell and on and adjoining one at Millwall on the Isle of Dogs in December 1853. Because of its large size, the Leviathan was the first ship to be built and launched broadside (parallel) to the river Thames rather than the traditional method with the stern (rear) facing the water. A stern-first launch would have been impossible because the stern would have run aground. It had been suggested that the ship should be built in a dock which could be flooded for the launch.

During its construction, the ship towered over the skyline of East London and the controversey over its size ensured great public interest in the project and a steady stream of sight-seers to Millwall to watch the huge technical marvel being built. The project ran out of money and, to raise cash, tickets were sold to the launch of the Leviathan into the Thames, not lengthwise as was traditional, but broadside - a launch which was a disaterous failure. Now considered as pre-eminent amongst British engineers, writers of the time were scathing about Brunel;-

. . . multitudes of mechanics and labourers, breaking ponderous engines, rending enormous cables, crushing solid masses of timber, bursting strong iron vessels, forcing up the soil, tearing up the very bed of the river, expending vast sums of money, impoverishing shareholders, ruining the vessel herself, spreading terror around, imperiling life-keeping this up day after day, week after week, and even month after month, and all in order merely to lower a ship from the shore to the river!

  - Mechanics' Magazine, Tuesday, December 15th, 1857

Brunel had chosen to use iron rails on the slipways for the vast ship, supported on two huge wooden cradles which were erected fore and aft before the keel was laid down, rather than the traditional slipways of greased wood. At the attempted launch, the ship proved too heavy aft and it is said that Brunel had two or three hundred tons of water placed at the forward end to alleviate the problem.

The slipways on which the ship was to be launched can still be seen descending into the river Thames from Millwall on the Isle of Dogs where the vast ship towered above the skyline during its construction.

The real reason (of the failure) we fear, will be found in the fact that the iron bars of the cradles, and the railway metals of the ways, are both considerably rusted, and that this resistance, added to the immense friction always caused by running iron on iron, offers such a bar to the further progress of the vessel and will require half the hydraulic presses in the kingdom to overcome.

  - The Times, Thursday, December 17th, 1857

At the time that the keel was laid down, the Leviathan was estimated to cost �377,000 (a sum smaller than Brunel's original estimate). By the time the ship was launched into the Thames, the costs had almost doubled to �732,000.

As well as the hull and superstructure, all of the equipment for the ship had to be built and isntalled; engines to power the paddles and screw, six steam boilers, six masts, five funnels, and all the associated machinery. Designed to carry four thousand passengers, the staterooms and public areas were furnished and decorated to the standards of a luxury hotel. Towards thew end of its fitting out, 2,000 workers were employed on the construction of Leviathan.

Equipped with paddles, screws and six masts, the Leviathan operated as a passenger ship on the Australia and Far East route and her name was changed to the Great Eastern but operated at a loss.

Equipped with two paddles amidships, the Great Eastern was very maneouverable; with one paddle turning forwards and the other aft, the ship could turn almost within her own length.

She made nine trans-Atlantic voyages but was docked by 1864.

In 1862, the Great Eastern struck an uncharted rock in Long Island Sound, tearing a gash 83 feet long and 9 feet wide in the hull.

Brunel had designed the ship with a double hull and bulkheads creating almost 50 water-tight compartments; the inner hull held and allowed the ship tosteam in to New York Harbour safely.

The giant ship was consigned to a salavge dock where she was noticed by an engineer working for Greenwich based cable manufacturing company Glass Elliot. She was the only vessel which could carry the huge lengths of cable, each over a thousand miles long, required to lay a trans-Atlantic cable and on April 4th, 1864, Glass Elliot of Greenwich came to an arrangement with the ship's owners, the Great Eastern Steamship Company, to purchase the Great Eastern as a cable ship for only a tenth of its construction costs.

The Great Eastern's great size helped overcome some of the problems of rough seas or bad weather while her maneouverability was a boon to the cable layers when soundings indicated obstructions on the sea bed.

Refitted with three huge holds to carry the cable, the ship was used to lay the successful trans-Atlantic cable in 1866 with James Anderson as her captain.

Docked at Liverpool in 1872, the Great Eastern rusted away, serving as an advertising hoarding until she was scrapped in 1888. The only part of the ship to survive now serves as a flag-pole at the ground of Liverpool football club.

The building of iron ships was a new technology and, welding not being available, the iron plates were rivetted. About 3-million rivets were used in the construction of the Great Eastern; a team of rivetters could fit between 100 and 140 rivets in a 10-hour day!

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1858.Jan.31Brunel\'s ship the Leviathan (later named Great Eastern) floated onto the Thames by the tide 3 months after its launch was first attempted
1864.Jan.14The Great Eastern is put up for sale
1864.Apr.04Agreement reached to use the Great Eastern as a cable-laying ship
1866.Jul.13The Great Eastern starts to lay the first working trans-Atlantic telegraph cable
1866.Jul.27The Great Eastern finishes laying the first working trans-Atlantic telegraph cable
1872The redundant Great Eastern is docked at liverpool to rust
1888.AugBrunel\\\'s Great Eastern is sold for scrap
1889.Jan.01Work starts dismantling Brunel\\\'s Great Eastern on a beach near Liverpool
It took two years to dismantle the ship

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