Following the considerable success of his two earlier steamships Great Western (launched 1837) and Great Britain (launched 1843), the idea of his "great leviathan" - a huge steamship capable of sailing to Australia and back without refuelling - was first proposed by Brunel in March 1852. To be built by John Scott Russell in his Millwall yard, work commenced early in 1854 but was plagued by financial as well as technical problems from the outset. Quite apart from the continually escalating costs exacerbated by Scott Russell's mysterious bankruptcy, the greatest difficulty arose as the ship - by now named Great Eastern - approached completion; built sideways-on along the Thames foreshore in the absence of any dock or slip large enough to take her, her colossal dead weight of almost 19,000 tons made her impossible to move by conventional means. After several unsuccessful attempts to launch her, Brunel appealed to engineering colleagues for help and finally, on 31st January 1858, Great Eastern was floated free.
By then however, the ship's owners were bankrupt and, lacking the funds to finish her, sold their creation to the newly-formed Great Ship Company which resolved to fit her out for service on the North Atlantic. Finally completed in the autumn of 1859, Great Eastern ran her sea trials that September - as Brunel himself lay dying - but was then laid up until the following summer before sufficient money could be found to allow her to commence scheduled sailings. On 17th June 1860, Great Eastern cleared Southampton for her maiden voyage to New York but she was never to be a commercial success despite having cost almost £1,200,000. The whole concept of a gigantic double-hulled iron steamship with paddle and screw propulsion aided by 55,000 square feet of sail was far ahead of its time and the technology of the day was simply unable to cope with the demands Brunel imposed upon it. Beset by seemingly endless misfortune, her career as a passenger ship lasted a mere three years before she was withdrawn for conversion to a cable-layer only to achieve ultimate fame by laying the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1866. Thereafter, brief intervals of employment were interspersed with long periods of inactivity until eventually, after ignominiously changing hands a number of times, she was sold for scrapping in 1888. Even then her legend lived on, for she had been three times the size of anything else afloat; her reign as the largest vessel in the world lasted fifty years and, in many respects, she was one of the most remarkable ships ever built.