By Shane Winser
Last updated 2011-02-17
In his stove-pipe hat, with his cigar always in his mouth and mud-caked shoes and trousers, Brunel gave everything to his work. He designed and built over 1,000 miles of railway, including numerous tunnels and stations. He also built over 125 bridges, and three groundbreaking ships - to designs far ahead of their time. Among his creations were Paddington Station, the Great Western Railway, the Thames Tunnel, the Royal Albert Bridge, Bristol Docks. His influence in engineering is unparalleled.
After the collapse of railway mania in the late 1840s, Brunel turned his interest to long-distance travel, and in 1851 the first sketches of what was to become the SS Great Eastern appeared in his notebooks.
The ship was designed to carry goods and people to India and Australia, without stopping for fuel. It would be the biggest ship the world had ever seen. Twice the length and five times the weight of any previous ship, it would be the largest moveable object man had ever created. It was designed like a bridge beam, with innovative cellular construction and transverse bulkheads, and would have both a screw propeller and giant paddles powered by the cast-iron steam engines. Most importantly, the ship's hull would be built completely of wrought iron.
It was first proposed to the Eastern Steam Navigation Company in 1852 by Brunel's partner on the project, the shipbuilder John Scott Russell. The two men had worked together on committees in connection with the Great Exhibition in 1851, and it's known that at the outset they had a high regard for each other.
Brunel usually had complete control of his projects - from the promotion to the design and management. However, Brunel's and Scott Russell's roles on this project were never clearly defined, and this caused severe conflict between them.
Brunel felt he should review and approve each aspect of the ship's design and construction, whilst Scott Russell, as an established shipbuilder, expected some latitude in both design and construction.
By 1852, Brunel was probably aware he was facing a serious kidney disease, and hoped that the Great Eastern would be his crowning achievement. This made him particularly sensitive about being credited with the concept and design of the ship. There was considerable scepticism in the press, however, about its viability, and a war of words about who should take the credit for its design. This also caused tension between the two men.
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