The Models

The Great Eastern

Maritime Innovation In Miniature

The Great Eastern: Monster Ship


The Great Eastern, built in London between 1854 and 1858, was one of the most innovative ships in history.

This remarkable diorama shows her under construction at John Scott Russell’s shipyard at Millwall on the banks of the river Thames in 1857.

A true monster ship, she was at the time the largest man-made movable object ever built. At 210 metres long, she was over twice the length of the largest ships then afloat and at 17,274 tons, she was over five times the weight of her largest predecessors.

The visionary engineer behind this was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of the most gifted in history, who built bridges, viaducts, tunnels, and ships. This was, by far, his most ambitious project. He is shown here on deck with the shipbuilder John Scott Russell inspecting the ships’ plans. Brunel always embraced the newest designs but screw propulsion was SO new that he was uncertain a screw propeller would transfer sufficient energy to make his giant ship move. So Brunel gave the Great Eastern all three types of propulsion then used for large ships: screw propellers, paddle wheels, and sails. 

The propellers were enormous- 4-bladed and 7.3m long. 

The paddle wheels were also enormous – 17 metres in diameter.

The paddle wheels were powered by four dedicated steam engines, the engines themselves a major engineering achievement. They were the largest steam engines yet constructed. Each weighed 90 tons and, in total, produced 3150 horsepower - double the power of any previous marine engine.

An entirely separate steam engine operated the propeller. The engines were powered by no fewer than ten boilers, the exhaust provided by five funnels.

She had six masts, not shown at the moment depicted in this model, but they would carry as much as 5,435 metres squared of sails.

The hull was made entirely of iron, a relatively new shipbuilding material. Iron plates were secured to iron frames with metal pins known as rivets – over 3 million rivets were used in her construction.

The hull itself was also of an innovative design: she was the first ship EVER, to have a double-skinned hull, which is to say that she had two complete layers of watertight hull, one inside the other. This feature would not be seen again in a ship for 100 years, but would later become compulsory for reasons of safety.

Safety was a priority for this was not only a passenger ship but the largest passenger ship ever built. She could carry 4,000 passengers – a figure not surpassed until 1913 by the German ship SS Imperator.

All of this construction required an immense workforce, a huge area of land, specialist machinery and raw material brought up the Thames by traditional Thames barges.

The model was created using a huge variety of contemporary sources that described her. She was so remarkable that people flocked from all over the country to see her. Intrigued tourists are shown sailing in the river;  Here is an artist sketching for the Illustrated London News.

The great eastern was finally launched in 1858 but, being so far ahead of her time, repeatedly met with operational challenges. As a passenger vessel she was a commercial disaster but even in her second career she was innovative – she pioneered the laying of under-sea telegraphic cables and laid the first successful cable from England right across the Atlantic to America…and her very existence changed forever the science of shipbuilding.