Monday, November 14, 2011

The SS Great Eastern

I forgot to mention back here about my fascination with the ship which laid most of the first transatlantic cable. Launched in 1858, the SS Great Eastern was the biggest vessel of her day until the White Star Line's RMS Oceanic came along a generation later. Christened the SS Leviathan, she was quickly renamed the Great Eastern and crossed the seas as a passenger vessel, mainly ferrying immigrants to the U.S.

What I find cool about this ship is that she resembles a transition state in the sense that she embodied the past, present, and future of ship propulsion: sails, paddle wheels, and a screw propeller. Of course she was steam drivenDiesel hadn't yet invented his eponymous engine.

The Great Eastern was sold and refitted with several spools of wire-thousands of miles of it. She set about laying wire on the ocean floor between Ireland and Newfoundland and elsewhere around the world. Here's a sketch of what the giant reels of copper wire looked like inside her:

Inside the SS Great Eastern, spooling out copper wire to lay across the ocean floor.

The Great Eastern met a rather ignominious end.  Like the RMS Olympic (older sister of the RMS Titanic), she was scrapped.

Stripped carcass of the SS Great Eastern awaiting the scrapper's torch in 1889.


  1. "Transition state" is a poorly chosen expression here. It has a very defined meaning in chemistry which is what I was trying for here. "Hybrid" or "transitional form" might be a better choice, but keeping the idea that the design is short lived, existing only momentarily with respect to longer lived designs of sailing ships, paddle steamers, and steamers.

  2. How about "chimerical", in both imaginative and grafted together senses?

    Wiki doesn't have the weight of this cable. Any idea how much copper was in it or what today's value would be?

  3. Wiki says 107 lbs of copper nautical mile. If I had the length in nautical miles, it would be easy to calculate the total amount.

    i'm not sure that the original cable is still down there. They had means of grappling and finding cable then and they might have pulled some of it up and recovered. Several cables were laid over the years and it would be interesting to know which if any are still down there. They might coexist with fiber-optic cables and so the precise locations might be rather "murky" for security reasons.

    But I do wish I knew the answer to your question.

  4. 107 lbs/nm was for the previous, failed cable. Later in the article it says that cables of the vintage laid by the Great Eastern were 300 lbs/nm. I see reference elsewhere to the cable being 1,850 nm, as laid, which equates to 555,000 total lbs. Copper is at roughly $3.50 a pound, so...$1,942,500? Actually not as much as I'd have guessed.

  5. "Chimerical" is a great word choice.

    Thanks for the calculations. The narrowness of the wire is deceptive. It struck me while working out that the fate of the ship and the fate of the wire is probably the same--recycling.

    In a perfectly green world, the past is recycled and is not allowed to accumulate.

  6. Two small points. The first transatlantic cable was laid by the Agamemnon and the USS Niagara. Also, the Great Eastern wasn't broken up by 'cutting torch'. It was hammered and chiseled apart by brute force over a period of two years.

  7. Thanks for clarifying those points, ray.