SS Great Britain at sea, with a storm brewing.

In October 1835, Brunel was attending a meeting of the Great Western Railway’s directors at Ridley’s Hotel in Blackfriars, London. One of the more nervous spirits present expressed concern at the length of the proposed mainline to Bristol, and Brunel is said to have riposted: “Why not make it longer, and have a steamboat go from Bristol to New York, and call it the Great Western”. It is the kind of story which sounds as if it is probably made up or exaggerated, but actually it seems to be perfectly true. Furthermore this was, quite literally, the origin of the Great Western Steamship Company, and of a revolutionary advance in ship design.

The first ship built to designs by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Great Western was the direct result of Brunel’s suggestion to the company’s directors, in 1835, that the Great Western Railway should extend it’s London-Bristol service to New York via a "steamboat." Although regular and reliable packet service between Europe and North America had been in place since 1816, it was all by sail, not steam. Though taken up by the company, the idea was considered sheer folly, as it was widely believed that the power—and hence its fuel, coal—required to drive a steamship varied in direct proportion to the size of the hull. It was Brunel who devised the elegant formula demonstrating that though a ship’s capacity increases as the cube of the hull‘s dimensions, the power required to drive it increases only as the square of the dimensions.

Considerably larger than any vessel built in Europe, the first of Brunel’s ships was built of oak, trussed with iron and wood diagonals, and with considerable attention paid to the longitudinal strength of the hull. (The largest Chinese ships of the fourteenth - and fifteenth - century Ming dynasty, including those of Zheng He’s voyage to the east coast of Africa, easily exceeded 300 feet.) The ship’s engines were the most powerful yet built, and their development was entrusted to the firm of Maudslay Sons and Field. Laid down on July 26th, 1836, the ship was launched on July 19th, 1837, and proceeded to London, where Maudslay’s 100-ton boilers and other machinery were installed. The proportions of Great Western’s accommodations were as noteworthy as her more technical aspects. The ship was designed to carry 148 passengers, and she boasted a main passenger saloon 75ft long by 34ft at its widest, again a superlative achievement. Although fitting out took until the following March, it was not for lack of motivation, for in the interim, two firms from Liverpool, Bristol‘s rival port, had entered the race to be first to offer regular steamship service to New York. These were the British & American Steam Navigation Company and the Transatlantic Steamship Company. The Liverpudlians had laid down or purchased ships for the purpose, but as neither would be ready in time to beat Great Western, they leased and modified the Irish Sea steamers Sirius and Royal William, respectively. As it happened, Sirius left London on March 28th, 1838, three days before Great Western, bound for Cork.

Two hours after the ship set off down the Thames under Lieutenant James Hosken, RN, the heat from the boilers ignited the deck beams around the funnel. Hosken ran the ship aground, and Brunel was nearly killed when a charred ladder into the boiler room gave way. Damage was minimal, however, and the ship sailed on the following tide, arriving at Bristol on April 2nd. After taking on supplies and bunkering, Great Western sailed for New York on April 8th, with only seven passengers, more than 50 bookings having been canceled after news of the fire.

Great Western arrived at New York on April 23rd, scant hours after Sirius, which had left Cork on April 2nd. The smaller ship’s crossing was four days slower, although Cork was a full day’s steaming closer than Bristol. More important for establishing the feasibility of the undertaking, Great Western arrived with 700 tons of coal remaining in her bunkers. Although the great ship’s landing was accompanied by the tragic death of the engineer, George Pearne, who was scalded to death, the American public was confident of the ship’s safety, and the ship with 68 passengers arrived at Bristol 15 days out from New York. Over the course of the next eight years, Great Western made 67 crossings, with a best eastbound crossing of 13 days, 6 hours, and westbound 12 days, 9 hours.

In 1846, following the near loss of Great Britain, Great Western was sold to the Royal Steam Packet Company, and was engaged in the West Indies passenger trade out of Southampton, being requisitioned as a troop transport during the Crimean War. The ship was broken up at Castles’ Yard, Millbank, in 1856-57.