isambard brunel

Interview with the ss Great Britain Trust

Often at Materials World, we end up speaking to fascinating people with very sumptuous stories to tell. And as often, because brevity is important, much of their comments get left out of our write-ups.

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Nick Booth, Head of Collections, Simon Strain, Active Interpretation Officer, and Luke Holmes, Interpretation Officer, at the ss Great Britain Trust (and got to play around the ship a bit) and, as you can imagine with interviews between three people, there was a lot said.

The recreated kitchen of the ss Great Britain

In the next issue of Materials World, we begin our first regular feature, Material Marvels, looking at engineering ingenuity and history, starting with the ss Great Britain. However, I thought you might enjoy some tidbits - copied verbatim - that didn’t make it into the magazine.

Entirely unsponsored and personal recommendation, but if you’re in the Bristol area, check out the museum some time. The ship has been lovingly recreated, the museum chronicles the timeline of the ship fantastically, and the docks are a sweet place to be. - Khai


The Dry Dock that helps preserve the ship’s iron hull

I understand Brunel was a core component in persuading the Navy into adopting iron ships, as they were hesitant to move away from wooden ship, although again I can’t speak for the validity of this claim.

Strain: I don’t know much about Brunel’s involvement with persuading the Navy. I know there had been early tests with iron ships, and the problem was that under cannon fire, iron is brittle and shattered and that was the reason for the hesitancy within the admiralty. It’s also why Warrior was iron clad, because the combination of the huge oak hull with an outer layer of iron addressed the brittle issue, as the wood gave a degree of flexibility, but I don’t know much about Brunel’s involvement in iron warships.

*murmurs of agreement from Holmes and Booth*

I could be wrong.


Holmes: He got up to a lot!

Strain: No doubt he had an opinion about it, and surely made it well known to the admiralty! That’s the downside, there’s so much he was involved in and so many stories that despite all of the research done and all of the objects found, there’re just things that slip through the gaps.

Holmes: I guess the best thing we know [on this] is that he really didn’t like the admiralty at all. He got fed up with them very quickly, and I think that’s why he preferred private, commercial business. He felt people would listen and he could exact change, whereas the admiralty was just bureaucracy through and through, and there are multiple accounts of him getting very frustrated when he was forced to work with the admiralty or military, or even just the government, and how it took them weeks to replace to one of his letters, but he could do it in a day. He found that whole process very frustrating.

Strain: It’s so good to know things have improved a lot, because the military and Government are so good at that nowadays.


Booth: He didn’t patent things either. He didn’t agree with government interference to that level, and he didn’t think engineers should be subject to government inspection. When the Government tried to bring in military inspectors to look at bridges, he didn’t agree to an extreme degree. And not patenting things is obviously very interesting, he probably could’ve made a lot of money from the things he did - and his dad did patent a lot.

Holmes: He felt it interfered with competition in that period, and he mentioned explicitly that it would stifle the ingenuity of the working class. He thought the patent system didn’t encourage competitive thinking and coming up with innovation, and I think it was the same with how he hated getting medals and awards for anything. Because he felt people shouldn’t be encouraged to do things for merit or reward. Good ideas will make their own living.


A replica of Brunel’s original six-bladed iron propeller

The six-bladed propeller was replaced with four, and later to two. I don’t know very much about the mechanics of screw propellers, so I’m curious as to why.

Holmes: A lot of the issues were that the six-bladed propeller Brunel designed was the most efficient at the time. That was based on the findings of the report Simon [Strain] just mentioned. But if you imagine, it’s still a largely untested technology at that scale, and essentially was too weak. Blades would snap off beneath the water. The other thing was, because they were traveling from Bristol to New York, the water gets very cold and the iron gets exposed to cold iron fatigue - because the iron contracts and expands, it essentially wears the propeller so it deforms and breaks. That was a huge problem, and the propeller was far from a reliable technology in the early life of the ship. As the screw propeller gets more successful and people take more interest in designing them and manufacturing processes catch up, becoming a developed technology better at forging the propellers and tweaking materials used, it got several upgrades over its life. The two-blade propeller was the most successful.

Booth: We’ve also got a two-blade propeller on the HMS Rattler, a Naval ship, which Brunel inspired. If you can use the propeller, it’s a better military technology, leaves more room for guns.

Holmes: There’s an interesting relationship between Brunel and the admiralty, because he applied to the admiralty for what is essentially funding for experiments. They were conservative and hated the idea of the propeller - or at least certain people in the admiralty-

Strain: I was going to say, I’ve read other accounts.

Holmes: But the Rattler is a great example of that. Brunel was promised a ship to experiment on, and they gave him the most rundown, old ship they could find. He turned it into a real success story, and the Rattler went on to have a really successful military career as effectively one of the first screw-propelled warships ever.

Booth: It’s really nice that Brunel has to tie-in too. His success in the commercial world and military world. He did write a report for the admiralty too, which we have his handwritten copy here in which he lists the pros and cons, and comes out endorsing the propeller. It’s in the format you would recognise today, and not all of his working-out is correct because, well, it was the very start.


Booth: But it’s still really interesting to see. There’s a famous tug-of-war between the Rattler and another Navy ship with a side propeller…

Strain: The Alecto.

Booth: The Rattler won, pulling the Alecto at a couple of knots, and you can’t argue with that. It would be considered now as a PR stunt. Both sides were aware that the Rattler would win. But you can’t really argue with that, can you?


An imitation decorative sheep’s (?) head atop a pie in the Great Britain kitchen.

Throughout the Great Britain’s lifespan, the parameters of the ship changed a lot. The number of propeller blades changed, and the propeller was removed entirely eventually, and the number of masts went down. This gives me the suggestion that there was a gradual backlash against the early innovations of the ship as time went by.

Booth: When she was originally built, she was a transatlantic ship, designed as a steamship with auxiliary sails. When she ran aground in Ireland in Dundrum Bay and there for over a year, and only really survived because she was made of iron, she bankrupted the company that owned her, and was bought and transferred to a sailship with an auxiliary engine, so kinda a switch. That was because she was sailing to Australia and you couldn’t carry enough coal to steam all of the way there. That was Brunel’s plan for his third ship, something big enough to do that [the Australia trip]. So I think that was the ship changing her life, I’m not sure there was a backlash against the engines, more changing the job she was doing.

Holmes: She was so successful that she grew to an old age, and she couldn’t be insured. So they wanted to make as much space for cargo as possible, and that was when she was changed into a windjammer. Interestingly, though, she carried coal so I don’t think it’s a backlash against that technology as such. In a way, she still facilitated that technology.

Strain: A lot of modern ships built today have a working life of 15-20 years in mind. The Great Britain, which was experimental, was in service as a passenger ship for around 30 years, double what we would expect from a modern ship today. Plus it had a couple of extra years as a cargo ship, and another 30 years as a floating warehouse, so it’s really a testament to how well built and designed she was that she lasted for so long and was able to go through so many iterations. Rather than a backlash, I think it’s a testament to how sound the basic design of the ship was that she could be repurposed and reused in so many different ways.

Holmes: And rescued.

Strain: And rescued, and brought back! Arguably she is still a working ship today as an award-winning visitor attraction and wedding venue.

Wedding venue?

*murmurs of agreement*

Booth: We get quite a lot of steampunks, I think.


Strain: My father got remarried on the ship. He was a helicopter engineer for the Royal Navy and Brunel is a huge hero of his, so he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get married on the ship.

Booth: You get the whole ship for the afternoon, eat in the dining room.

Strain: No sheep’s head.


I’m not interested anymore.

Booth: We do a lot of events, like murder mysteries. They are really fun.


SS Great Eastern was an iron sailing steam ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

She was by far the largest ship ever built at the time of her 1858 launch, and had the capacity to carry 4,000 passengers from England to Australia without refuelling.

Displacement: 32,160 tons
Length: 692 ft (211 m)
Beam: 82 ft (25 m)

She had sail, paddle and screw propulsion. The paddle-wheels were 17 m (56 ft) in diameter and the four-bladed screw-propeller was 7.3 m (24 ft) across. The power came from four steam engines for the paddles and an additional engine for the propeller. Total power was estimated at 6 MW (8,000 hp).

Laid down: 1 May 1854
Launched: 31 January 1858
Fate: Scrapped 1889–90

The Great eastern before it’s launch and sail to New York

The Great Eastern was the work of Isambard Brunel to make vessels that were powerful and luxurious enough to transport passengers to and From Britain and America. His work on the Great Eastern proved to be ultimately flawed as paddled vessels were to be replaced by propelled ships.

Cable laying role

The conversion work for Great Eastern’s new role consisted in the removal of funnel no. 4 and some boilers as well as great parts of the passenger rooms and saloons to give way for open top tanks for taking up the coiled cable. Under Sir James Anderson she laid 4,200 kilometres (2,600 mi) of the 1865 transatlantic telegraph cable. Under Captains Anderson and then Robert Halpin, from 1866 to 1878 the ship laid over 48,000 kilometres (30,000 mi) of submarine telegraph cable including from Brest, France to Saint Pierre and Miquelon in 1869, and from Aden to Bombay in 1869 and 1870. The ship was painted white for the trip to Bombay in an effort to reflect heat