Great Eastern
Tuesday, Dec. 15th 1857

Mr. BRUNEL has not been altogether un-familiar with failures; but no failure of his ever did so much to lower the reputation of English engineers as the launch of the Leviathan. Having first, by the construction of that enormous vessel, concentrated the attention of the world upon him, he has now presented to it the greatest and most costly example of professional folly that was ever seen. Was ever such a spectacle witnessed as thousands upon thousands have for weeks past beheld on the Thames! - an English engineer at the head of multitudes of mechanics and labourers, breaking ponderous engines, rending enormous cables, crushing solid masses of timber, bursting strong iron vessels, forcing up the soil, tearing up the very bed of the river, expending vast sums of money, impoverishing shareholders, ruining the vessel herself, spreading terror around, imperiling life-keeping this up day after day, week after week, and even month after month, and all in order merely to lower a ship from the shore to the river!

It is our imperative duty to endevour to transfer the disgrace of such a scene from English engineering science to the individual engineer who is responsible for it. If the scene had been connected with an undertaking of the Government, a thousand journals would have teemed with reproach amid invective. If the Admiralty happen even to purchase a ship which after a time turns out bad, men cannot refrain from seeking to trace the fault to some unhappy public servant, and to visit him with becoming retribution. Why, then should the press pass unnoticed the blunders of a private individual who has far out-stripped the mismanagement with which as any Government ever executed a work of plain, practical engineering?

The first question to be asked is, why was the Leviathan built where she is? (for we cannot here discuss the advantages and disadvantages of such a vessel in the abstract.) Recent experience, both in our own dock-yards and in America has shown that the launching of ships much less in weight than the Leviathan is sometimes attended with difficulties which are not easily overcome; such, for example as the stoppage of the ship upon the ways, as in the cases of the Caesar at Pembroke Dock, the Marlborough at Portsmouth, and the Queen of the Pacific at New York.

In all these cases, moreover, the ship was launched lengthwise in the usual manner so that the weight was more easily distributed over a large surface than when side launching has to be resorted to. With these facts before him, it was, in our judgement, an altogether unnecessary display of self-confidence in Mr. Brunel to build the ship where she is, particularly as the narrowness of the river and the populousness of its banks rendered a rapid launch extremely dangerous.

Beside the influence of which the inherent difficulties of the case must have exerted upon Mr. Brunel the further influence of professional dissuasion was, we are informed brought to bear upon his judgment, at the Institution of Civil Engineers, before the ship was commenced, strong adverse opinions were, we are told, expressed to him by several influential members of that cultivated and experienced body, but without effect; and it is even rumoured that a chalk-pit near the Thames was offered the Company as a dock to build the ship in, for a total rental of £10,000, the owner undertaking to fit it with suitable gates, &c., for the purpose. But whether this be true or not, Mr. Brunel's best friend (if he have friends, of which our intercourse with engineers renders us doubtful) cannot question that the construction of such a ship upon such a spot as that selected was most rash and improvident. A suitable dock would have cost far less than time launch has cost. The exhibition of himself mounted upon a rostrum, with signal-flags in his hands, amid thousands of spectators at a grand launch, can hardly be considered to have weighted greatly with Mr. Brunel in selecting the site, even were he supposed capable of having foreseen the august presence of the Siamese Ambassadors!

Some persons will probably think these statements of ours might have been made earlier with advantage. This we do not believe. We certainly should have made them when the first failure occurred with the launch, but we thought it would be more graceful to defer them until time vessel was afloat. That event has, however, been so long postponed that it seems imprudent to wait longer for it. Had we made such statements at the outset of the vessel's construction they would not have turned Mr. Brunel from his purpose and could have no other effect than that of flinging the heavy pecuniary burden, which has now to be borne upon the shoulders of fewer shareholders.

The next question for consideration is, why has Mr. Brunel, having built his ship where she is, been so utterly unsuccessful in time launching of her? In the first place he has, in our opinion, made a fatal innovation by introducing iron rails upon his slide-ways, and iron plates upon his bilge ways. What earthly advantage over a large surface of smooth greased wood did he expect to get out of a small surface of rough rusty iron? This question Mr. Brunel will not, in all probability answer. It is his part, and, according to the Builder of Saturday last, it is the part of Mr. Yates, the Company's Secretary, also, to treat the press with contempt and to cast the cash of the Company into the river Thames with the utmost liberality. But until Mr. Brunel or someone else does answer the question, there is no more to be said upon the choice of the iron rails. Mr. Brunel preferred them, you may depend on't; Mr. Brunel preferred them, there's an end on't. Even the shareholders will not, we fear, get beyond this point.

Iron surfaces having been chosen the proper inclination to be given to the slideways was the next point to be considered; and here there was an opportunity for a little judicious assumption and calculation. Because, although the iron on iron would produce an immense amount of friction, this might be provided for by giving a suitable inclination to the slide-ways. Here, however, nothing has been done with any tolerable approximation to this truth. So small is the inclination, as compared with the inclination required, that all the combined powers yet brought to bear upon the ship have failed to get her to the water; and it seems as if all the King's horses and all the King's men will be required before the task is accomplished. Where then is Mr. Brunel engineering ability, if he fails thus utterly upon such a point? But he has not mistaken the inclination only. He is equally at fault in his distribution of weight upon the two cradles.

The after cradle has to sustain much more than one half the weight of the ship. The consequence is, as we said in a former article, the friction upon the slide ways is most unequal, and the ship twists upon the ways, and thus adds still more to the difficulty of moving her. It will perhaps, be scarcely believed, although it is perfectly true, that some days since Mr. Brunel actually had two or three hundred tons of water placed in the fore part of the ship in order to rid of this evil; and this is a case where the weight is the one great thing to be dealt with!

We do not feel disposed to criticize the measures taken since the commencement of November last to push the ship off; because they have consisted simply in this continual addition of the most obvious appliances available for the purpose. From all these things our readers must draw their own conclusions. We desire only that they should not consider the launch of the Leviathan a task beyond the powers of English Engineers. It is the name and repute of Mr. Brunel only, which are staked upon the undertaking; and we are perfectly confident that there are many men among us who would have launched the ship with ease, success, and security.

Thursday, 5 P.M. Dec. 17th 1857

Our weekly summary of proceedings connected with this launch not having reached us, we must content ourselves with repeating here what the times states of yesterday's proceedings, vis., "That nearly every portion of the powerful gear was broken, without producing the slightest effect in the way of movement upon the monstrous vessel." She did, however, at on time slip about 3 feet. It is not a very flattering thing to be supported by the Times upon a question of science, but the following passage from its article of this day singularly confirms our preceding remarks: it says, "The real reason (of the failure) we fear, will be found in the fact that the iron bars of the cradles, and the railway metals of the ways, are both considerably rusted, and that this resistance, added to the immense friction always caused by running iron on iron, offers such a bar to the further progress of the vessel and will require half the hydraulic presses in the kingdom to overcome"

We must not omit to contradict the foolish report which has got abroad to the effect that the slideways were laid with a changing inclination - part 1 in 10, and part 1 in 12. This is quite erroneous.

Our friend and correspondent Mr. W. B. Adams in a late letter to the Spectator, says - " One account attributes to Mr. Scott Russell the authority of the saying that the launch failed because the friction of oiled iron on oiled iron is an unknown quantity, the friction of wood on wood with tallow interposed being a known one. Now in as much as we know that an iron axle involves less friction than a wooden one, it follows that if disproportionate friction be the cause, it must arise from the great disproportion of bearing surface in the applied iron as compared with the wood causing the squeezing out of the lubricating matter, and the actual impact of the iron surfaces, or from some other cause, or both combined. What is the philosophy of the matter?" It should be remembered, however, that the iron rails and the plates of the launch are constantly rusting in the air and water, and cannot be got at beneath the ship. The must not, therefore, be compared with a smooth lubricated axle. The friction in one case must be enormously greater than in the other. Still, the reduction of the bearing surface by using rails situated at considerable distances apart is, of course, a great evil - Eds M.M. 
Back to SS Great Eastern