Launching the "Great Babe" - Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Leviathan

"This steam-ship is indeed a masterpiece of naval construction; more than a vessel, it is a floating city, part of the country, detached from English soil, which after having crossed the sea, unites itself to the American Continent. I pictured to myself this enormous bulk borne on the waves, her defiant struggle with the wind, her boldness before the powerless sea, her indifference to the billows, her stability in the midst of that element which tosses "Warriors" and "Solferinos" like ship's boats." (Jules Vernes, "A Floating City").

The "Great Eastern" as titanic billboard at North Wall, Dublin, in 1887

12.000 workers (many children among them) working for more than three years, at least three dead, a ship-builder's bankruptcy, 120.000 pounds sterling (roughly 100 Mio £ in today's buying power) wasted in a first attempt to spout her off, but today, 155 years ago on 31 January 1858, it was finally done, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's last project, his "Great Babe", the "Leviathan" was finally launched in London.

Rechristened to "Great Eastern" shortly thereafter, because the name of a biblical monster was found being a bit too much of bad cess on top of it, the ship was six times bigger than anything build before her... and proved to be a huge commercial failure. With a capacity for 4.000 passengers, she was booked for her first transatlantic crossing by 40 and accidents went on and on. Her reputation of being an "unlucky ship" seemed confirmed. Probably the biggest ship of the Victorian era with her length of almost 700 feet and a tonnage of 19.000 gross-tons was too much for the technical facilities as well as the common imagination of her day.

"Great Eastern" was converted into a cable ship seven years after her launch, laying submarine telegraph cables on her old transatlantic route and finally from Aden to Bombay until she was superseded in that role by purpose-built craft. She ended her days as a titanic floating billboard in the harbours of Liverpool and Dublin - as seen below, laying at North Wall docklands, Dublin, with an advertisement for Lewis's department stores around 1886).

The old Leviathan that was the "Great Eastern" was finally laid up and scrapped in 1889, still the biggest ship of her time until RMS "Oceanic" surpassed her ten years later.

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