By Shane Winser
Last updated 2011-02-17
Against all advice, the 'Great Ship' was designed by Brunel to be launched sideways on iron rails into the Thames:
'Men and women of all classes were joined together in one amicable pilgrimage to the East, for on that day at some hour unknown, the Leviathan was to be launched at Millwall ... For two years, London - and we may add the people of England - had been kept in expectation of the advent of this gigantic experiment, and their excitement and determination to be present at any cost are not to be wondered at when we consider what a splendid chance presented itself of a fearful catastrophe ...' Extract from The Times, 4 November 1857
Just after noon, there was a cry of 'She moves, she moves'. The multiplying winch that was to control the launch spun out of control, throwing the men operating it into the air. John Donovan, aged 74, died from severe internal injuries, and a further four men were injured. The ship had moved just three feet. Brunel was publicly humiliated.
John Scott Russells' view was that:
'... the ship slid a few feet until the lubricating stuff was rubbed off, and then the rails simply bit one another as the wheels of a locomotive engine bite the rails, and then held the ship firmly in place: so firmly that not only was the inclination of 1 in 12 with the whole weight of 12,000 tons of ship on it unable to move it down the inclined plane.'
Three months later, on 31 January 1858, having used numerous hydraulic rams to push the Leviathan to the shore line, the high tide floated the iron hull into the Thames. The cost of the launch was £120,000, and for the remainder of the completion of the ship, Brunel took no fees and met the salaries of the men from his own pocket. Nearly £750,000 had been spent on an iron hull containing incomplete machinery, and there was no money left to fit it out.
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