Today, a story of two ships. One sank. One didn't.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Both the Titanic and
the Great Eastern were once the largest
ships ever made. They're two of the best known as
well. The Great
Eastern, launched in 1858, was almost seven
hundred feet long. The Titanic, launched
fifty-three years later, was nearly nine hundred
feet long. And each suffered the same kind of
accident soon after it was put to sea.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who designed the Great
Eastern, was the greatest artist ever to work
in iron. He was remarkably thorough, and the
Great Eastern reflected that care. It was to
be a passenger liner, and no cost was spared in
making it safe. It had a double hull. It was
honeycombed with bulkheads that created almost
fifty water-tight compartments.
The Great Eastern was overdesigned and
inefficient, but it still provided transatlantic
service for two years. Then, in 1862, an uncharted
rock in Long Island Sound tore an 83-foot-long,
9-foot-wide, gash in its outer hull. But the inner
hull held. And it steamed safely on into New York
The Titanic was another matter.
Transatlantic service was now lucrative business.
Bit by bit, safety standards yielded to commercial
pressures. The Titanic's hull boasted a
double bottom, but it had only a single wall on the
sides. It had fifteen sections that could be sealed
off at the throw of a switch, but the bulkheads
between those sections were riddled with access
doors to improve luxury service. It didn't have
enough lifeboats. Why did everyone think it was so
safe? Well, its luxurious beauty was seductive.
Historian Walter Lord said of the Titanic,
"The appearance of safety was mistaken for safety
When the Titanic grazed a North Atlantic
iceberg in 1912, it suffered nothing like the
continuous gash in the side of the Great
Eastern. Instead, rivets popped and its plates
parted from the hull over a 250-foot length.
Without a double sidewall, that let in enough water
to sink it within a scant two hours and forty
The Great Eastern's engines never did
function efficiently enough to carry passengers
profitably. But it was the only ship large enough
to finally lay the Atlantic Cable. Still, it had
little other purpose. One investor tried to make it
into a floating amusement park. When it was
dismantled for scrap, the job took two years. And a
long-dead body turned up inside that double hull.
So the shadow of Brunel's Great Eastern
hovers over the Titanic. By 1912, a
half-century of safe steamships had put everyone
off their guard. We can draw a parallel in the loss
of the space shuttle Challenger. NASA's
safety record had been unreasonably good up to
then. We forgot how dangerous rocket launches
really are. The Titanic and
Challenger remind us that we engineers had
better mix a dollop of fear in with our excitement
-- especially when everything's going well.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
A sketch of the history of the Great Eastern
may be found at:
For a fine Titanic web site, see:
Lord, W., A Night to Remember. various
publishers from 1955 to 1987. The latest is New
York: Amereon House.
Bonsall, T.E., Great Shipwrecks of the 20th
Century. New York: Gallery Books, 1988, Chapter
For more on the sinking of the Titanic see
Episodes 747 and 941.
This is a greatly reworked version of Episode 81.