Aboard the ship that launched a thousand ocean liners

Road Trip 2011: In Bristol, England, the SS Great Britain is a reminder of a transformational age when, for the first time, sailing across oceans became an attractive thing for the rich to do. And those seeking their fortunes as well.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
3 min read

This is the SS Great Britain, the world's first great ocean liner. When it launched in 1843, it changed the way transatlantic ships were seen, as well as how fast they crossed. It is now on display in Bristol, England. Kathleen Craig

BRISTOL, England--Imagine being a wealthy traveler in the early 1840s and thinking about whether to buy a ticket aboard the brand-new SS Great Britain, an iron-hull giant of an ocean liner. It promised a speedy crossing from the U.K. to New York, but to your skeptical eyes, it probably also promised a speedy split in half and an agonizing drowning on the high seas.

That was the dynamic that awaited Isambard Kingdom Brunel's great new ship when it was launched in 1843 by England's Prince Albert. Brunel, a famous engineer responsible for, among other things, the Great Western Railway, several iconic bridges, other ships, and more, and who is said to be today considered the second-most important Briton (after Winston Churchill), saw his new ship as the answer for wealthy travelers wishing to cross the Atlantic, but who worried that it would take too long or that their sail ships would get becalmed if there was no wind.

The history of the world's first great ocean liner (photos)

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The SS Great Britain had an iron hull, a steam engine, and a huge propeller--it was the world's first great ocean liner--and when it launched it was called "the greatest experiment since the creation." It slashed the trans-Atlantic trip from 21 days to 14 and was 100 feet longer than any other ship. For well-to-do Victorians, said Dagmar Smeed, the head of marketing and communications at the Brunel's SS Great Britain museum here, it was a "startling change" in travel and was truly the forerunner of all modern liners.

But rich travelers worried that the iron hull would snap in rough seas and stayed away. Ironically, the ship proved its seaworthiness on its fifth journey, when it ran aground in Ireland and didn't break up. But the company that owned it went bankrupt salvaging it. The experiment looked to be over.

Yet, the ship quickly took on a new life when it was bought and converted into a ship renowned for ferrying fortune seekers after newly discovered gold to Australia. Over the years, with its giant sails and its 1,000-horsepower engine, it made 32 trips around the world, accumulating more than a million miles along the way.

Eventually, though, the ship outlived its usefulness as a liner and was sold again, this time to the Falklands Company, which turned it into a floating warehouse. In 1937, it beached and was stranded in the Falklands, where it lay fallow for some time.

And finally, in 1970, it was raised from the sea, towed 7,600 miles across the sea and brought home to Bristol to serve as a museum ship.

And that's where the SS Great Britain is today--in Bristol, where it is the heart of one of the most popular attractions in the U.K.: a fully restored ocean liner that treats visitors to the taste of luxury ocean travel--and to some of its deprivations as well. The full ship is open for exploration, from its vast top deck, to its multiple below-deck levels complete with first-class, crew, and steerage cabins, and even the first-class dining area. There's also a look at the giant engine, and on the outside of the ship, the beautiful adornments Brunel added to the star iron hull as marketing to attract the wealthy customers he sought.

I got a chance to visit the SS Great Britain as part of Road Trip 2011 and it was a quick education in the lifestyles of the rich and famous and the poor but gold-struck of the 19th century. Walking through the spacious decks, peering into the cabins, complete with realistic dioramas of scenes that would have been typical aboard the ship, and glimpsing the vast engine room, I couldn't help but sense the adventure the ship's many passengers would have experienced.

These days, you can fly from New York to England in six hours. And you can even do so in luxury. Or you can take a ship across the Atlantic that likely would put the richness of the SS Great Britain to shame. But without Brunel's giant masterpiece, today's vessels might not be what they are. We take for granted that its safe and easy to cross the oceans, but in 1843, the rich worried that this newfangled liner would crack open and lead to their painful deaths. Little did they know the history-making innovation that was staring them right in the face.