Isambard Kingdom Brunel On BOARD THE GREAT EASTERN, 1859

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The Picture

  • This photograph shows Isambard Kingdom Brunel making a final visit to his ship, the SS Great Eastern, on 5 September 1859. It is one of only eight existing photographs of Brunel and is the last photograph taken of him before his death.
  • Here, Brunel is holding a walking stick and suffering from ill health. This is a very different image of Brunel when compared to the famous photograph of the engineer standing proudly by the SS Great Eastern’s launch chains; taken two years previously.
  • The SS Great Eastern was Brunel’s final project and its construction was full of problems. These problems put Brunel under a great deal of stress and he died just 10 days after this photograph was taken.
  • The same photograph has been printed twice here because the photograph has been turned into a stereoscopic card. Cards like this could be viewed through a stereoscopic viewer and transformed into a three-dimensional (3D) image. The stereoscope was a very popular Victorian invention.

The Story

Brunel and Photography

By 1859, photography was becoming popular and many more people were having photographs of themselves taken. The public could also buy photographs of famous people, places, landmarks and curiosities. Photographs like this one were widely reproduced due to the Victorian public’s interest in the great engineering projects of the age. Engravings were also made and printed in newspapers, allowing these images to be more widely seen.

Photographs were also reproduced and sold as stereoscopic cards, like this one, that could be viewed through a stereoscopic viewer and transformed into three-dimensional (3D) images.

Photographs like this were often carefully staged to influence the public’s perception of the person shown. Brunel was aware of his reputation and carefully planned how he was presented in photographs that might be seen by the public.

What does this photograph tell you about Brunel?

Continue The Story

A Problem Project

The SS Great Eastern was Brunel’s final project. At nearly 700 feet long (about 214 metres), it was much larger than either of his previous ships, the SS Great Western and the SS Great Britain. To power this “Leviathan” ship, Brunel used two huge paddle wheels attached to one engine and a screw-propeller attached to a second engine.

The SS Great Eastern, built in London, was not Brunel’s most successful project. It was so large that launching it into the River Thames proved greatly problematic. There were several unsuccessful launch attempts before the ship finally floated on 31 January 1858. Construction proved far more expensive than originally planned.

Sea trials were planned for 7 September 1859 but disaster struck. In a rush to get the ship ready, two temporary stopcocks fitted to heaters on the ship’s funnels were accidently left on. This resulted in a funnel exploding, causing the deaths of five people. Brunel had been ill for some time and it is believed that his health worsened when he heard about this explosion. He died soon after on 15 September 1859 at the age of 53.

The SS Great Eastern – a ship ahead of its time?

When it was launched in 1858, the SS Great Eastern was the biggest ship in the world and was extremely expensive to construct. It was conceived to carry 4,000 passengers from Britain to Australia whilst carrying enough coal to fuel the ship for the journeys there and back. However, the ship never travelled to Australia. Instead, it was used to carry passengers to and from New York. It never carried enough passengers to become as commercially successful as Brunel’s previous ships.

After proving to be too large and expensive to run as a passenger liner, the SS Great Eastern was used in 1865 to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable between Britain and North America. This improved transatlantic communication enormously and meant that messages could be sent across the world faster than ever before.

Extra Resources

Virtual Archive in Five: Brunel's last portrait

Stereoscopic card held at the SSGreat Britain Trust