Big News

In matters of sheer magnitude, Robert Howlett got the picture

Oversize expectations: The Great Eastern vessel
Oversize expectations: The Great Eastern vessel was supposed to cap the career of its ill-fated designer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (before the huge ship’s launching chains). Victoria and Albert Museum/Art Resource, NY

It was originally called Leviathan, and it was supposed to be a monster of the deep seas. Nearly 700 feet long and 60 feet high, the double-hulled iron steamer renamed Great Eastern was twice the length and triple the tonnage of any other ship when it was launched in 1858. Intended to shrink the vast distances of the British Empire, it could carry 4,000 passengers from England to Australia without stopping to refuel.

The Times of London declared that "its immensity is so great in comparison with all the notions previously conceived of monster ships that it seems to elude comprehension and weigh upon the mind." And yet Great Eastern never met the outsize expectations of its designer, a celebrated engineer named Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Brunel's mammoth project was big news when the Times commissioned a young photographer named Robert Howlett to document the construction of the ship on the Thames River in 1857. Howlett's task was to use one new technology to serve another: photography was just 30 years old when he brought his box camera and glass plates to the docks to create what would become a famous portrait of Brunel in front of the launching chains of his new ship. Drawing on the conventions of portrait painting, Howlett captured a hands-on but nonchalant Brunel standing proudly before his masterwork unconcerned about his dirty trousers. The photograph emphasizes the scale of the achievement: the enormous chain links, subtly echoed in Brunel's watch chain, almost dwarf the man who ordered them. Indeed, Brunel stood 5-foot-4 and was nicknamed the Little Giant for his grand ambitions. Before taking on Great Eastern, he had built two other steamships and, as chief engineer of the Great Western Railway, constructed the first rail link between London and Bristol.

Great Eastern was supposed to cap a triumphant career, and as a feat of engineering it was undeniably remarkable. To power it through the water, eight engines drove a screw propeller and two side paddle wheels. (The ship also had six masts and 6,500 square yards of sail in case the engines failed.) Built with separate watertight compartments, it would survive a collision with a submerged rock off Long Island, New York. But constructing, launching and outfitting the ship cost more than $3.5 million and bankrupted its builder, John Scott Russell.

In fact, the ship seemed to tow bad luck in its wake. Howlett died in 1858 at the age of 27. His friends speculated that the chemicals used in the arduous process of developing glass-plate negatives had poisoned him. Brunel suffered a stroke on deck during Great Eastern's final inspection tour, September 5, 1859, and died ten days later, at 53—having survived long enough to learn that an onboard explosion had killed six men during the ship's sea trials.

Afloat, the ship was a commercial failure. There were only 35 passengers on its maiden, transatlantic voyage to New York. The long hull rolled unpleasantly in storms, and accidents at sea brought costly repairs and delays. In 1864 Brunel's dream ship was sold and achieved its greatest success laying cable for the first permanent transatlantic telegraph lines. After the vessel was scrapped, in 1888, it took 200 men two years to dismantle its iron hull. Not until RMS Celtic was launched in 1901 was Great Eastern's tonnage surpassed. Brunel's friend and fellow engineer, Sir Daniel Gooch, lamented, "Poor old ship: you deserved a better fate."

Still, the ship retained its hold on the popular imagination. Jules Verne, known for his interest in new technologies, traveled on Great Eastern during one of its last attempts at passenger service in 1867. In his novel The Floating City, he rhapsodized about "this enormous bulk borne on the waves, her defiant struggle with the wind, her boldness before the powerless sea, her indifference to the billows." But a character in the book also insists that the ship is "bewitched" and predicts catastrophe. Today Howlett's photograph foreshadows a world revolutionized by industrialization. But it is an ambiguous vision: despite Brunel's air of prosperity and enterprise, he appears enchained by his own creation.

Victoria Olsen is the author of From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.