Isambard Kingdom Brunel

How Brunel’s transport network that brought America closer to Europe

When Brunel suggested to investors his idea of extending transport network all the way to North America, it sounded extremely cost prohibitive and commercially unsustainable.

It’s been said that the engineer had this idea long before the Great Western Railway went operational in 1835. The idea was simple; build a steamship that would transport passengers and cargo from Bristol across the Atlantic Ocean to New York City.

Many doubted whether Brunel could design and build a steamship powerful enough to make it across such vast distance. It was also theorized at the time that such a ship would require an enormous amount of fuel that would end up taking all the space on the ship meant for cargo.

In order to solve the concerns about fuel consumption and storage, Brunel applied English astronomer and physicist Mark Beaufoy’s theory to his designs and built larger ships. He developed the theory and realized that larger ships consumed proportionately less fuel than smaller ships.

Absolutely confident in his findings and plans, he volunteered to work without pay at the Great Western Steamship Company, a company set up (by Thomas Guppy) to make Brunel’s transatlantic shipping network a reality.

The Great Western – the longest ship in the world at the time

Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Great Western was the first wooden paddle vessel to provide regular transatlantic service | Image: Maiden voyage of the Great Western in April 1838

Placed in the building committee of the Great Western Steamship Company, Brunel set out to create the company’s first ship – the Great Western. At 236 ft (72 m) long and a 250-foot (76 m) keel, the ship was the longest ship in the world at the time. Majority of its parts were made of wood; however, Brunel used iron to make the ship’s diagonal reinforcements in order to strengthen the keel.

Once it was completed, the Great Western, a ship with four masts and a steam-powered paddle wheels, went on to make its maiden voyage from Avonmouth, Bristol to New York on April 8, 1838. It sailed across the Atlantic with about 600 tons of fuel (i.e. coal), cargo and seven passengers.

Had it not been for the delay by several days caused by a fire incident aboard the ship, the Great Western would have been the first steam-powered ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean. It lost that honor to Sirius, which beat it by about a day. To put into perspective, Sirius used all its fuel and had a four-day early start, while Brunel’s Great Western needed just 15 days and five hours while using two-thirds of the coal.

Clearly Brunel had built arguably the Great Western to be run across the Atlantic in an efficient manner, making the transatlantic steamship service a viable business venture. The Great Western went on to make more than 60 crossings between 1838 and 1846. It received many acclaims, including being the first ship to receive the Blue Riband, an honor that honors vessels with the highest average speed.

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