08 August, 2008

Great design from 1843 - Brunel’s SS Great Britain


Whenever I'm in Bristol, I usually visit the SS Great Britain, designed by my hero Isambard Kingdom Brunel and launched in 1843. Brunel conceived his ships as extensions of his Great Western Railway, linking London to Bristol and on to New York. His second ship, the Great Britain, was revolutionary in its size, its construction strength and materials, its engine, its screw propeller, its adjustable sails and masts, its rudder and even its iron lifeboats.

Just take the propeller, for example. Brunel originally designed the ship as a sailing vessel, with steam-driven side paddles for propulsion in unfavourable winds. However, when he saw an experimental screw-driven river launch, he immediately recognised its superior power and steering abilities. He explored and tested various design alternatives, and redesigned his ship and its engine to use this new technology, never before used on a large vessel. Brunel’s design was so good that modern screw propellers are only a few percent more efficient. Unfortunately Victorian materials couldn’t cope with the power it generated, so after a few voyages, a slightly less efficient design had to be adopted - an experience familiar even to modern mechanical and materials engineers!

The story of the ship’s long life is as fascinating as its conception, progressing from being the world’s first modern passenger liner, to emigrant ship (33 years on the Britain-Australia run), cargo windjammer, and finally floating warehouse, only to be scuttled in the Falklands in 1937 (for safe-keeping), before being re-floated 33 years later and returned to her birthplace in Bristol, where she has been partially restored to become one of Britain’s top tourist attractions (UK Museum of the Year 2006 and English Large Tourist Attraction of the Year 2007).

Great design often embodies big objectives and bold innovations. And like much truly great design, the Great Britain is also beautiful. Whether you’re fascinated by history, technology, design, ships or just looking for an interesting day out in Britain, take the opportunity to visit the SS Great Britain. You won’t be disappointed.