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SS Great Britain

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.

Photo by: Kathleen Craig

Historic image of SS Great Britain

In this photograph taken by Fox Talbot, one of the first ever taken of a ship, the SS Great Britain is seen in Bristol in 1844, the year after it launched.

Photo by: Brunell's SS Great Britain & Brunell Institute


This is the bow of the SS Great Britain.

Photo by: Kathleen Craig

Leaving Liverpool

In this painting of the SS Great Britain, we see it leaving Liverpool on its first trip to Australia, in 1852.

Photo by: Brunell's SS Great Britain & Brunell Institute

Horn of plenty

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.

Photo by: Kathleen Craig

Hull front

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.

Photo by: Kathleen Craig

Propped up

Here we see the hull propped up, as well as the dehumidifiers alongside the bottom edge of the ship.

Photo by: Kathleen Craig


The SS Great Britain was the first ocean liner to have an iron hull, run on a steam engine, and have a propeller like this one.

Photo by: Kathleen Craig


These are the flags that today decorate the SS Great Britain.

Photo by: Kathleen Craig

Front of the deck

This is the front of the main deck of the SS Great Britain, as seen today at the museum in Bristol, England.

Photo by: Kathleen Craig

The deck

This is the rest of the main deck of the SS Great Britain.

Photo by: Kathleen Craig


In order to deter pirates on the high seas, the SS Great Britain carried cannons like this one. As well, it resembled a war ship and would likely have avoided most pirates.

Photo by: Kathleen Craig


This is a view of the SS Great Britain's 1,000-horsepower steam engine.

Photo by: Kathleen Craig

Lower view of engine

This is another view of the ship's steam engine.

Photo by: Kathleen Craig

Drunk monkey

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.

Photo by: Kathleen Craig

Through the water

Here, we see the stern of the SS Great Britain through the thin layer of water that is on top of glass above the dehumidified iron hull, as seen at the museum in Bristol.

Photo by: Kathleen Craig


This is a representation of a typical day in the ship's infirmary during a voyage.

Photo by: Kathleen Craig

First class dining

Here, we see the first-class dining area aboard the ship.

Photo by: Kathleen Craig


This is an actual piece of hard-tack that a steerage passenger kept as a souvenir from a trip in 1874.

Photo by: Kathleen Craig


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