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A Year: Day to Day Men: 19th of July, Solar Year 2018

Sailing Away

The steamship SS Great Britain is launched on July 19, 1843.

The SS Great Britain was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, an English mechanical and civil engineer, for the Great Western Steamship Company’s transatlantic service between Bristol and New York. While other ships had been built of iron or equipped with a screw propeller, SS Great Britain was the first to combine both features in a large ocean-going ship.

The ship’s design team, led by Brunel, were initially cautious in the adaptation of their plans to iron hulled-technology. With each successive draft however, the ship grew ever larger and bolder in conception. By the fifth draft, the vessel had grown to 3,400 tons, over 1,000 tons larger than any ship then in existence. The ship was originally designed to use paddle-wheels for propulsion: however, after testing a number of different screw propellers over several months, Brunel persuaded the company directors  to build completely new engines suitable for powering the new propeller.

The launching or, more accurately, the “floating out” took place on 19 of July, 1843. Conditions were generally favorable and diarists recorded that, after a dull start, the weather brightened with only a few intermittent showers. Following the launch ceremony, the builders had planned to have Great Britain towed to the Thames for her final fitting out. Unfortunately, the harbor authorities had failed to carry out the necessary modifications to their facilities in a timely manner. This dilemma was to result in another costly delay for the company. After being trapped in the harbor for more than a year, SS Great Britain was at last floated out in December 1844.

When completed in 1845, Great Britain was a revolutionary vessel—the first ship to combine an iron hull with screw propulsion, and at 322 feet in length and with a 3,400-ton displacement. She had four decks, including the spar upper deck, a crew of 120, and was fitted to accommodate a total of 360 passengers, along with 1,200 tons of cargo and 1,200 tons of coal for fuel. An innovative feature was the lack of traditional heavy bulwarks around the main deck; a light iron railing both reduced weight and allowed water shipped in heavy weather to run unimpeded back to sea.

On 26 July 1845, seven years after the Great Western Steamship Company had decided to build the ship, and five years overdue, SS Great Britain embarked on her maiden voyage, from Liverpool to New York under Captain James Hosken, with 45 passengers. The ship made the passage in 14 days and 21 hours, at an average speed of 9.25 knots, almost 1.5 knots slower than the prevailing record. She made the return trip in thirteen and a half days, again an unexceptional time. In her second season of service in 1846, Great Britain successfully completed two round trips to New York at an acceptable speed, but was then laid up for repairs.

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