As usual in matters maritime,
the conservatism of the trade delayed progress toward the iron hull,
and Brunel’s Great Britain of 1843 was the first really big iron ship to be built.
But an iron hull was lighter and stronger than wood, and in the British Isles, where wood was in short supply,
an iron hull was soon found to be about 20% cheaper per ton than a wooden one-per ton, that is, of what was already a markedly more efficient ship.
Brunel, with his penetrating insight into the possibilities of machine-age technology, embodied in this first great iron ship watertight bulkheads a
nd a double bottom- innovations that made ships far safer in case of collision, hitting an iceberg,
or stranding, the hazards responsible for most of the losses experienced at sea.
Difficult as it is to grasp this today, before bulkheads and double bottoms were adopted,
Brunel’s Great Iron Ship a ship was just one big tank inside.
She needed only one sizeable hole in her outer skin to be assured of sinking. Right into the 20th-century,
big sailing ships, even metal ones, were built with only a “collision bulkhead” say 20 feet abaft the stem.
Hit them with anything substantial anywhere abaft that bulkhead, and they went down fast.
The loss without trace of many fine, well-found ships undoubtedly stems from this fact.
And of course, iron was more resistant than any kind of wood to the one great dreamt mechanical powers-especially in the phenomena of the railroad engine and the steamboat.
Brunel’s Great Iron Ship A daringly imaginative artist,
J. M. W. Turner caught this feeling magically in his painting Rain, Steam and Speed in 1844–a blurred, expressive rendering of a steam engine rocketing through mist and rain.
It’s not just whirling iron coming at you down the tracks, it’s a new idea, a new energy, a reordering of the elements of the natural world.
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