BRISTOL, England--This is the SS Great Britain, said to be the world's first great ocean liner, as well as the first-ever to have an iron hull, steam power, and a propeller. It was launched in 1843, the creation of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a world-famous designer who also is credited with two other ships, the Great Western Railway, several London train stations, and a number of bridges. He is said to have been voted the second-most important Briton in history, after Winston Churchill.
The ship was built to handle luxury traffic to New York, it may have raised the bar on what was possible from engineering, speed (with the steam engine, the ship couldn't get becalmed on the high seas), and reliability standpoints, but it didn't convince many. Most people saw its size and its iron hull and thought it would break in half. Brunel sold very few tickets. It was only after its fifth trip, when it went aground in Ireland and didn't break up, that its stability was confirmed. But its owners went bankrupt salvaging it.
It was then bought and spent years taking people seeking their fortunes in a gold rush to Australia. It was expanded and became the fastest way to get Down Under.
Later, it was purchased and used as a floating warehouse before it was again beached and then stranded. Finally, it was rescued, and towed back to England. It is now the heart of one of the most popular attractions in the U.K.
In this painting of the SS Great Britain, we see it leaving Liverpool on its first trip to Australia, in 1852.
/ Photo: Brunell's SS Great Britain & Brunell Institute
SS Great Britain
Historic image of SS Great Britain
Horn of plenty
Front of the deck
Lower view of engine
Through the water
First class dining
This is the horn of plenty alongside the stern of the SS Great Britain. Brunel knew that the black iron of the ship was too stark to attract travelers on its own, so he had decorations like this added as a bit of marketing.
This is the left side of the hull, at the bow of the SS Great Britain. At the museum in Bristol, the ship is displayed with the hull literally under water. A layer of water atop glass, that is. Underneath, the air is dehumidified in order to maintain the aridity necessary to keep the iron of the hull from decomposing.
Throughout the interior of the ship, as displayed at the museum in Bristol, there are dioramas that are based on what were typical scenes aboard during journeys. One may have been mischievous monkeys breaking into passengers' liquor supplies.