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Groundbreaking Inventions of the 20th Century

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Boiled Alive on the S.S. Great Eastern (News Update)

(The First Double-Skinned Oceangoing Ship in The World Triumphs Where the Titanic Did Not)

Today, a third attempt will be made to blow up the S.S. Napoli - the huge container ship which got into difficulties during a storm off Cornwall and became shipwrecked after the crew were lifted off; it was deliberately grounded at Branscombe off the South Devon coast. Many will have seen news items picturing hordes of modern-day wreckers descending on the tiny West-country village, choking the lanes and combing the beach for booty which varied from disposable diapers to BMW motorcycles! These items later appeared on e-bay. The victims however were not so lucky as the ship, as in olden times, was carrying their lives - neatly packed into a container. One lady, from the other side of the world suffered the indignity and stress of seeing her wordly goods being marched up the shingle beach and haggled over.

Two failed attempts have now been made to blow up the stricken vessel - to little effect. The irony is that engineers are having trouble with its nigh-indestructible steel double skin! Today they will lay charges in between both hulls to see if this will finish her off! People have gathered on the cliffs to watch, some even parking their deck-chairs, decamping there with picnics for the day! Two puffs of smoke were seen as the charges went off, one either side of the accommodation block, but when the smoke cleared, the ship's back though weakened was still in one piece. It is interesting, and perhaps saddening to reflect at this point, upon the double-skin innovation invented by Isambard Kingdom Brunel - unappreciated in his day but now so safe and so tough that it is causing headaches for salvage operators. Yet in 1889 all that was left of his "great babe" of a design was a rusting hulk ......

1889. A rusting hulk lies in the salvage yard of the river Mersey near Liverpool, England. Now on the scrapheap, her steel is brown, powdery and corroded with seawater and salt, it will take 18 months to break her up. How Mr Isambard Kingdom Brunel would have cried to see her end her days and his dream like this! But Pride Goes Before A Fall! Did he deserve it? Did he treat other people right? Or did he ride rough-shod over their feelings, jeopordising their future and his? How responsible was he for the horrific deaths of five workmen?

It had started so promisingly. His "great babe" as he called her, had been his dream and he had so nearly realised it. For years, ships had been constructed with a single steel skin but the young and ambitious Isambard had a conviction that this system needed to be improved upon. What was more, fresh from his successes he felt sure he was the man to do it.

His daring plan was to construct the largest ship in the world and make it capable of travelling across the world from Liverpool to Australia without the need for refuelling. What an ambitious plan! For a start we need to imagine the weight of the coal alone, that would need to be used to power her enormous throbbing engines, let alone the sheer weight of the mind-boggling amounts of steel that would be required in a ship of that size. And that was not the end of it. No, the ship, he figured, needed to be up to five times the size of any other ship and for that it would need to be strong, yet light in the water. For the first time he to build a ship that had two skins or hulls instead of one. His bold idea was to fit one hull inside the other. So that also meant twice the amount of steel, and double the cost just in steel alone. Yet our energetic Mr Brunel was sure he could make it happen - he was.still only 45 in 1851.

The problem was, how to encourage people to overcome their safety concerns, how to get them excited enough about its capabilities to persuade them to invest. At least he had his own reputation to show off (the Thames Tunnel, the prize-winning Clifton Suspension Bridge design at Bristol, and the developing Tamar Bridge into Cornwall - across the river it was said would never be crossed). His credentials were impeccable and he knew it. What was more, he knew he also had the best naval architect in Mr Russell. Was he perhaps a bit too cocky? He was soon to start falling out with people.

To start the ball rolling, and to demonstrate his confidence and commitment he invested some 2000 of his own money. After managing to secure pledges and loans for the rest they quickly set to work on the gargantuan project - the first propellor driven steamship built of iron. At 680 feet long, it would be five times bigger than any other ship yet constructed, and capable of carrying 4000 passengers. To begin with from 1854, work carried on apace, but Brunel, conscious of the need for exactitude in such an expensive project, became something of a control freak. Overwork could have contributed to a developing illness, and to make matters worse he began to be suspicious of his erstwhile friend, naval architect Mr Russell. For example, after reading an article in the Illustrated London News, Brunel became jealous of Russell whom he thought was trying to steal his thunder.

His control issues and relationship difficulties were exacerbated by the incessant changes he felt he needed to make to the design, infuriating Russell and adding time-delay costs to the project. Yet he felt that modifications such as screw height, and paddle-boxes, were essential even if it added an extra cost in undoing and raising deck heights. With each delay, Russell's financial situation became more precarious, and by 1856 he was forced out of business and the bank took it over, and some sources say that Brunel knew it, seeking an excuse such as missing and misappropriated steel, to rid himself of the irksome fly in the ointment. Russell was sacked, ,then re-appointed by the Eastern Steam Navigation Company Board. Meanwhile Brunel's health was suffering, affecting his control of the project so he insisted that every fine point now be referred to him. Staring ruin in the face due to delays, Russell threatened to resign.

Mr Brunel, seeing sense, knew no one else would work with him due to his pernickety reputation, but he still refused to capitulate to his old friend Russell over one of the most risky ideas of all - that of fitting water heaters around the funnel. Russell tried to warn Brunel that these would be dangerous in such a large vessel to no avail. The water heaters stayed. He over-ruled Russell to save on coal costs.

Inevitably, tragedy struck. On her maiden voyage from Holyhead Wales to Ireland in 1859, there was a horrific accident. Amid the sound of bursting metal, hissing, and among clouds of blasting scalding , five men were killed -some of them boiled alive.

The Great Eastern never made it to Australia. Rather lamely, she worked out her time on the Southampton to New York route. She was then sold off cheap as a cable-laying vessel. In 1889 she was broken up for scrap. Many sources claim veracity for the story that a skeleton was found, riveted in between the two hulls.

Sadly, Brunel died after her launch, in 1859. He never lived to see the day when his revolutionary idea would receive the accolade of being written into International Maritime Law for these ships were indeed safer. Indeed, "the great babe" triumphed where the Titanic did not. Off Long Island her hull was ripped open by a sharp rock, yet no-one was harmed. She steamed into port under her own steam even though badly holed. The inner skin was unscathed.

For some marvellous evocative images, and educational interactive resources which really bring to life the inventions and lives of Victorians such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, visit, or have your kids visit with you :


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