Brunel’s Great Eastern: a floating city
20 April 2006
How a voyage on Brunel’s great ship inspired Jules Verne.
The Great Eastern was Brunel’s third great ship (after the Great Western and the Great Britain), designed in the early 1850s, and constructed from 1854 onwards on the Isle of Dogs. The biggest ocean-going liner of its day, the Great Eastern was to remain the largest vessel built until the turn of the twentieth century.
Originally named the Leviathan, the ship was intended for voyages to India and Australia and, with a range of over 22,000 miles, would more or less have been able to steam around the world without refuelling. Though never used for that purpose, the Great Eastern was the first ship to cruise non-stop under its own power from London to New York.
To achieve this exceptional autonomy, Brunel introduced innovative design features. He used every available space in the hull for the storage of coal, which was packed in so tightly that the crew had to use an iron tube buried within it to move between engine rooms. As for the living areas on board the ship, Brunel used skylights to illuminate inner cabins, and provided a system of air conditioning through air ducts. This enabled him to place cabins deep inside the hull of the ship. Until then many cabins were placed on the deck, significantly reducing the deck area, but with this uniquely bold design Brunel was able both to achieve greater range and to maximise living space on this vast new liner.
This ship was both the result of spectacular engineering progress and the sign of humanity’s impending mastery of the planet
A truly “magical” vessel, then, the Great Eastern brought one of the nineteenth century’s great dreams within tantalisingly close reach: that of swift, effortless travel to every region of the globe. This ship was both the result of spectacular engineering progress and the sign of humanity’s impending mastery of the planet.
The writer Jules Verne (1828-1905) travelled with his brother Paul on the Great Eastern from Liverpool to New York in March-April 1867. While on board, Verne kept detailed notes of every aspect of his journey. For him, the massive ship is a storyteller’s dream, a veritable microcosm of humanity, where any attentive observer will discover “all the instincts, the follies and the passions of human nature”. However, Verne’s imagination is spurred not only by the setting, but also by the fabulous technology, the wondrous dimensions and capacity, and the sheer miracle of engineering that this majestic liner embodies.
A careful observer of reality, Verne is far from being the futuristic “father of science-fiction” that he is so often simplistically labelled as. On the contrary, he is fascinated by the designs, inventions and technologies of his own century, and this constant focus in his work is quintessentially present in A Floating City.
The choice of the Great Eastern, dogged from the very outset by a legendary series of misfortunes, suits Verne’s purpose perfectly
However, Verne clearly suggests that such inventions come at a price. For all its miraculous efficiency, modern technology is a potentially menacing monster – in danger of self-destruction through its own excesses, always liable to cause irreparable damage, and at the very least cruelly indifferent to the human destinies and dreams that it transports within it.
In this respect, the choice of the Great Eastern, dogged from the very outset by a legendary series of misfortunes, suits Verne’s purpose perfectly. For all his admiration of the ship’s design and seafaring properties, his vision is not one of a technological utopia, but one of danger, concern, and incipient threat.
The so-called “curse” that dogged the construction and subsequent career of the Great Eastern is well documented and well worked into Verne’s narrative. Through the character of an eccentric doctor, Dean Pitferge, Verne describes the background history of the ship’s construction, and of the sometimes calamitous events that seemed to have followed every stage of her progress. Pitferge refers to the failed first launch of the Great Eastern in 1857 (a botched attempt to shift the vessel sideways into the water), the various commercial disasters that occurred during the building of the ship, and the well-known legend that during the construction a riveter had been trapped and left to die inside the double hull. Pitferge believes that he is travelling on “a cursed and condemned ship, upon which disaster will inevitably fall”.
Verne is often described as the first true writer of science fiction. While it is true that in a few of his stories Verne envisions the world at some distant future stage, what a reading of A Floating City tells us is that he is above all interested in the technologies of his own age and in the questions they raise.
While there is an underlying concern about the uses to which humanity is likely to put such creations, the overall emphasis is very much on the magical present
In the main, he finds them exciting enough not to have to resort to fantasies of the future. Inventions like Brunel’s Great Eastern are indeed the very embodiment of the future for Verne. While there is, in Verne’s story, an underlying concern about the uses to which humanity is likely to put such creations – and in that sense, he might be called “futuristic” in a somewhat different and unexpected way –the overall emphasis is very much on the magical present.
For Jules Verne, ships more than any other form of transport encapsulate the dream of global travel. While he writes stories about every known form of transport – balloons, submarines, trains and, most famously perhaps, a missile that is sent to the moon – his preferred and abiding fascination, as exemplified by his interest in Brunel’s Great Eastern, is with the sea and with those miraculous vessels which cross it and shrink the globe. As Captain Nemo, commander of the Nautilus submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas, puts it, echoing the sentiments of his creator: “La mer est tout… Là je suis libre!” (“The sea is everything… The sea is where I am free!”).