It’s January 12th, 1828… at about 75 feet beneath the River Thames in London.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel grips his shovel and digs at the clay mud in front of him. Isambard’s famous father is chief engineer on the Thames Tunnel project. And Isambard is proud to be part of this historic attempt to build the first-ever passage beneath a navigable river.
But it’s dangerous work. If the support system that holds the tunnel intact fails, Isambard and his crew could drown. But Isambard isn’t worried. He’s confident in the integrity of the wooden planks and iron scaffolding his crew have installed to keep them safe while they finish the project.
Isambard keeps shoveling away and sighs and wipes the sweat from his brow. As he looks up at his men who toil at the top of the scaffolding, Isambard sees a distressing sight: the wooden planks overhead seem wet.
Then they begin to creak under the weight of the mighty river above. The creaking goes louder then turns into cracking and splintering. Then a violent torrent of water gushes down from above.
The deluge knocks miners from the high scaffolding, and extinguishes every lantern in its path, and plunges the tunnel into darkness. Isambard scrambles to get out of the tunnel before he drowns. But there’s only one route of escape; a shaft at the far end. But he doesn't make it.
Timbers crash down on him, trapping his leg underneath. In the pitch darkness, foul-smelling water rises all around him. But determined not to drown… Isambard breaks free. He fights through the pain in his leg and makes for the shaft.
But as he does… an immense wave hits him from behind. Isambard fears that this is it. But instead of drowning him, the cascade sweeps him up to safety, carrying him all the way up to shaft where his fellow engineers are able to haul him up into the light of day.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel survives. But not everyone is so lucky. Six members of his father’s crew die in the flooding. And badly injured, Isambard will be forced to spend the next few months in recovery. His father is forced to pull him off of the Thames Tunnel project.
But Isambard’s career is far from over. After recovering from his injury, Isambard will go on to achieve tremendous success in his field, far surpassing his famous father. He will distinguish himself as one of the most prolific civil engineers in history; a reputation he solidifies by designing the SS Great Western, intended to be the first transatlantic steamship, that begins its maiden voyage from Bristol, England to New York City on April 8th, 1838.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is April 8th, 1838: The Maiden Voyage of the Great Western.
Act One: Gorge
It’s Spring 1829 in the leafy suburb of Clifton in Bristol, England; nine years before the Great Western sets out across the Atlantic for the first time.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel sits on the edge of a tremendous ravine, looking down at the mighty Avon river below. With a pencil in one hand and his sketchbook in the other, Brunel is hard at work on a design for a proposed bridge that would stretch across this ravine, known as the Avon Gorge.
Brunel’s design is strongly inspired by the culture and art of Ancient Egypt, an aesthetic that has captured Isambard’s imagination ever since he was a child. Although still in the early design stages, Isambard plans to use these sketches to enter a much-publicized competition for young engineers.
The contest has been set up by an influential committee of Bristol citizens who feel strongly their prosperous port city needs better transport links to the rest of the country. This proposed “Clifton Suspension Bridge”, as it will be called, must span a gorge - an extraordinary 700 feet wide and 300 feet deep.
It’s a big job, but young Isambard feels he’s up to the challenge. Ever since he was removed from his father’s tunnel project, he’s been itching to throw himself into something ambitious. This bridge might be it.
With a final stroke of the pencil, Isambard completes his day's work. He holds up the sketchbook in line with where the bridge will be and smiles, confident he'll win the competition. With the sun setting, he gathers his things, lights a cigar, and heads back to a nearby inn for a well-deserved pint of ale.
Isambard is right to be confident. Not long after submitting his proposal, he learns he’s a finalist. But he also learns something else: the competition is being judged by Thomas Telford, one of England's finest engineers.
But Telford is also Isambard’s father’s greatest professional rival. As a result, Isambard doubts Telford will give him fair consideration. And soon, Isambard learns he was right to be concerned. Not only does Telford reject Isambard’s work, but he rejects every other competition entry he receives. Instead, Telford awards the bridge contract to himself. Isambard is furious. Especially when he sees Telford’s proposed design.
Isambard writes a scathing letter to the Bridge Committee, mocking Telford’s old-fashioned Gothic design and trumpeting his own which he argues is better and cheaper. In the end, the committee agrees. They overrule Telford and give Isambard the commission to design one of the most ambitious bridges of the Victorian era. But obstacles lay ahead that threaten to hinder construction, and stymy Isambard’s career.
It’s August 1836 at the edge of the Avon Gorge, the same spot where Isambard designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge seven years earlier.
But today, Isambard is without his sketchbook. Instead, he stands in front of an audience of local dignitaries and reporters delivering an awkward speech. The bridge should be much further along than it is, but a constant stream of setbacks and difficulties has Isambard well behind schedule. If he fails to complete this project, this might be the last project of his career.
Although the construction of the bridge is far from complete, his team has made progress. And today, Isambard is determined to show the crowd what they’ve achieved.
His team has successfully secured a 1000-foot iron bar across the great gorge. Hanging from the bar is a sizable basket connected to a pulley system designed to transport Isambard’s workers from one side of the gorge to the other. And to prove it works, and to win over his audience, Isambard himself climbs into the basket and instructs his men to take him to the other side.
In a bit of showmanship, Isambard smokes a cigar and waves his hat as he dangles hundreds of feet above the Avon River in a tiny teetering basket.
But just as he reaches the halfway point, the pulling mechanism abruptly stops. Isambard calls out to his men to ask what the problem is. He can see them pointing above his head. Looking up, Isambard realizes that the rope has snagged on a kink in the iron bar. His men try to pull him back to safety but the pulley system is jammed.
Isambard realizes that he’s the only one who can save himself and the demonstration. So he flicks the cigar over the side of the basket and climbs up onto the iron bar above. He can hear the onlookers gasp as he reaches the top.
Then Isambard moves farther away from the safety of the basket and edges along the bar to free the rope. Fighting his own fear, he forces himself not to look down. Instead, he fixes his gaze on the crowd of onlookers standing on the edge of the gorge, watching breathlessly his every move.
As soon as the snagged rope is within reach, Isambard untangles it. Then he edges his way back and carefully climbs down into the basket. The onlookers break out into applause as Isambard continues his journey across the gorge.
With an act of daring, Isambard turns a moment of crisis into a public relations triumph. He’s soon regarded as one of the most exciting engineers in Britain, and this newfound fame will catapult his career beyond the Clifton Suspension bridge, and help Isambard revolutionize the world of transportation, not just with tunnels and bridges, but with railways, train stations, and… steamships.
Act Two: Steam
It’s March 31st, 1838, on the Thames Estuary in the southeast of England, one week before the SS Great Western embarks on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic.
Isambard stands proudly on the deck of the Great Western,as she coasts beyond London’s River Thames into the waters of the North Sea. Until this point, the only ships that ever made the journey across the Atlantic Ocean were powered by wind and sail. Isambard hopes to make history, designing, building, and sailing the Great Western across the Atlantic by steam power.
So far, Isambard is delighted with how well the ship’s engines are performing on this trial run, especially considering his crew only just finished installing them days ago. He and the captain confer as they watch the huge paddle wheels on either side of the ship do their work. They both agree that if the coal-powered steamer performs like this out on the ocean, she will have no problem making the long journey from Bristol to New York City.
But Isambard knows there are many among London’s scientific community who think it's an impossible feat. They claim that no ship is capable of carrying enough coal to complete the journey. One of his critics went so far as to state that “steam navigation of the Atlantic is about as plausible as sending a man to the moon.” But Isambard is looking forward to proving his doubters wrong. And he is glad that the paying public appears to be on his side too. 60 passengers have already booked top-price tickets for the maiden voyage, due to embark in mere days.
But just as the Great Western is about to pass out of the estuary and into the sea, something goes wrong. Isambard feels the entire ship violently shake. He looks up to see black smoke billowing out of the huge funnel that extends up from the engine room. Isambard instantly knows what this means: one of the engines must have overheated and exploded.
Frantic, he runs along the length of the ship to the wooden ladder that leads down to the engine room. When he reaches the hatch, he can already feel the heat of the flames below. But he is determined to get down there and put out the fire.
But as Isambard places his foot on one of the rungs at the top of the ladder, it breaks. He falls 20 feet down into the flaming engine room. On his way down, his fall is broken by a naval officer who was climbing up the ladder at the exact same moment. Both fall back down into the engine room, and are injured but are alive.
Soon, the captain manages to run the Great Western onto a nearby sandbank where crew members are able to turn off the engine and extinguish the fire. Fortunately, the damage to the ship is minimal and the problem with the engines is easily solved. But the highly publicized accident proves damaging to the Great Western’sreputation. Over the next few days, over eighty percent of the now-nervous passengers cancel their places aboard the transatlantic voyage.
Meanwhile, Isambard lies recuperating in a nearby hospital. His body aches from the fall and the doctor forbids him from traveling on the steamship’s maiden voyage. But that’s just the beginning of the bad news.
Soon, Isambard is visited by some representatives of the Great Western Shipping Company,the firm who hired him to be the steamship’s chief engineer. They’ve just learned of the existence of a rival ship that’s about to embark for New York.
The SS Siriusis a wooden-hulled sidewheel steamship, built by another transatlantic passenger company and jointly financed by American and Scottish entrepreneurs who fully intend to beat the Great Western to America.
Isambard’s employers assure him that the Siriusis no competition for the Great Western. For one thing, she’s much smaller. Isambard designed his ship to carry 148 passengers and 60 crewmen; the Siriuscan only carry a small fraction of that. But for Isambard, this is cold comfort. He doesn’t want to be the biggest. He wants to be first.
And he is frustrated to learn that his rivals will get a headstart. On April 4th, while the SS Sirius embarks from Ireland, the Great Western is still docked for repairs. Isambard’s creation won’t leave for another four days, adding insult to injury, Isambard is humiliated to learn that only 7 paying passengers will make the journey on his ship.
But despite these setbacks, Isambard remains confident that his steamship will win the race across the Atlantic. He designed the mighty paddle steamer himself and he trusts that its powerful engines will outpace the Siriusin the open water.
So against doctor’s orders, Isambard is present on the Bristol dockyard on the day his beloved steamship sets out for America. After wishing the captain good luck, he lights up a cigar and watches as the Great Western pushes out to sea. As it disappears over the horizon, he knows that his reputation as one of the leading engineers of the Industrial Age will now rest on how well his ship performs on this maiden voyage which begins on April 8th, 1838.
Act Three: Sirius
It’s April 22nd, 1838 at New York Harbor. Two weeks after the Great Westernsteamship embarked on her maiden voyage to America.
On board the SS Sirius, the captain loudly berates his crew. He is furious at how their entrance to New York must look to any onlookers watching from the banks. The Captain had hoped to enter the harbor smoothly and to great fanfare. Instead, the small steamer drifted too close to shore and got itself stuck on a sandbank.
In theory, it shouldn’t be hard for the crew to unmoor the ship and continue their arrival as planned. But the crewmen are tired after 18 long days at sea, and the ship is low on coal. The Captain is worried that his ship will have to be towed the rest of the way in a humiliating defeat.
The Sirius has beaten the Great Western to New York, but the journey has been an ordeal for the passengers.In order to keep the boilers burning, the crew was forced to sacrifice wooden furniture and even children's toys as fuel. Even one of the masts was taken down and fed into the fire to help keep the ship moving. It’s clear to everyone aboard that this voyage has been mismanaged, even if they have arrived in New York before Isambard's more famous ship.
Then, less than a day later, the Great Westerncoasts into the same harbor. Thousands of cheering spectators turn out to celebrate the arrival of this extraordinary vessel. By now, most people are aware that the huge ship left port four days after the Siriusand yet came in close on its heels. The Sirius took 18 days to cross the Atlantic. The Great Western took just 15. Even more impressively, the Great Western still has plenty of coal left in her bunkers. Isambard has not only proven that steam navigation across the great ocean is possible, but can be a superior method of travel to any other.
Throughout the rest of his career, Isambard Kingdom Brunel continues to assert himself as one of the most ingenious engineers of the Industrial Revolution. As time passes, he becomes one of the Victorian era’s most recognizable icons with his tall stovepipe hat and ever-present cigar. His work on steam engines transforms the way people travel, not just across Britain, but across the globe. And one of his most memorable triumphs was the voyage of the Great Western steamship, the second to cross the Atlantic, which began its historic journey from Bristol to New York on April 8th, 1838.
Next onHistory Daily. April 11th, 1981. Amid growing anger toward police brutality toward black people in London, the Brixton Riots erupt, heralding a watershed moment for race relations in the UK.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by James Benmore. Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.