Steam power : connecting people

One of the important inventions in the 19th century was the steam machine. Apart from it’s use in the industry, it changed the way people travelled. In Great Britain it was a visionary engineer who designed both a railway that connected Bristol to London, but also great steamships departing from Bristol. This engineer was Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He shortened the travel time from London to Bristol from 2 and a half days, to 2 and a half hours.  To get this done, Brunel not only had to build and design a steamtrain, but also all the infrastructure around it like tunnels, bridges and stations.  William Turner painted his Rain, Steam and Speed in 1844 in which nature melts with technology. Barely visible a hare runs on the traintrack ahead in a fruitless attempt to keep up with the locomotive.

Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway , William Turner,  1844 

The arrival station in London was Paddington station. Frith painted the departure of a train in which he painted himself and his family the middle (his wife kissing goodbye her son). On the right two detectives from Scotland Yard  arresting a criminal just before entering the train. It is not a coincidence that the founding the London Metropolian police force, was in the same time that travel intensified, people moved from rural areas to the city and differences between rich and poor became more pregnant.

 The railway station, William Powell Frith, 1862

A final painting about steamtrains is from the Spanish Czech Ulpiano. He made this wonderful painting of a horseman competing with a steam locomotive. As the horseman loses his hat and some of his luggage in horrendous speed, it is clear that his horses cannot sustain this burst of energy for a long time, in contrast with the steady horse powers from the steam locomotive.

The unfortunate encounter, Czech Ulpiano

As mentioned before, Isambard Kingdom Brunel did more than building train tracks. He build the first regular transantlantic steamship, the SS Great Western, but his ambitions reached even further. His dream was a gigantic steam ship capable of reaching the far East and Australia without having to  stop for extra coals. As such he designed the SS Great Eastern, six times as long as the longest vessel at that time. These constructions would not be possible with wood but the Great Eastern was build from iron and even fitted with a double wall for safety reasons.

Brunel was portrayed by photographer Robert Howlett in an iconic picture. Breaking loose from studio photography, Brunel was portrayed on his shipyard with the huge launch chains of the Great Eastern as background and his shoes covered in mud.

The Great Eastern was fitted with both paddle propulsion and screw propulsion. The paddle propulsion was practical for shallow waters and rivers and to reach Calcutta it was necessary to have paddle wheels. The launch of the vessel in the Thames was a huge undertaking and did not succeed the first time.

With the introduction of steam ocean liners, the transantlantic passage which was around 7 weeks on a sailship, shortened to 2 weeks. A competing industry was born to transport millions of people between Europe and the United States of America. This lady, painted by Henry Bacon, waves goodbye with her steamer trunk and other luggage next to her.

The departure, Henry Bacon, 1879

In the end, the Great Eastern did some transantlantic crossings but was never used for East bound travel. Because of the double wall, it did not sink when it hit a rock in the harbour of New York.  In the meantime Brunel died, the company behind the Great Eastern got bankrupt and the ship was sold on an auction. But then its full potential only started to show. Because of its enormous cargo hold, the ship was transformed into a submarine cable laying ship.

The first transantlantic cable was laid in 1858 by two ships, the UK Agamemnon and the US Niagara. The cable was too big to fit in one ship so the two ships each carried half of the cable, trying to splice the cable halfway. This failed as the cable snapped. They tried again, this time starting from the sea midway and after splicing, each ship headed for its destination either Newfoundland or Ireland. The Agamemnon almost perished in a severe storm but in a final fourth attempt, the project succeeded. However the cable was not isolated good enough and using high voltages it only lasted a couple of weeks. An engineer who also was a gifted painter, Henry Clifford, made a depiction of the Agamemnon on her last attempt while she was sometimes turned 45 degrees in the storm.

HMS Agamemnon, Henry Clifford, 1858

H.M.S. Agamemnon laying the Atlantic Cable in 1858; a whale across the line, Robert Dudley

The importance of fast communication became clear in military issues. In January 1815 the battle of New Orleans was fought with 2000 British casualties. However in december 1814, a peace agreement had been made in Belgium but this news had not yet reached the battlefield. Communication was as fast as the fastest horse could run and the fastest ship could sail. In the short time the 1858 cable was functioning, the British could just in time prevent the unnecessary deployment of two regiments, first ordered to ship to the UK because of the Indian Mutiny, but because of a peace agreement no longer needed.  This single cable transmission on August 31 1858, saved the British government 50.000 pounds.

The Great Eastern, Robert Dudley


Landing the Shore End of the Atlantic Cable (at Valencia), Robert Dudley, 1866

The Atlantic Telegraph Company had spend 300.000 pounds of its starting capital of 360.000 pounds. The failure of the first cable was assessed by a special committee. After they reported that an improved cable still could be economically feasible, they approached investors again and raised enough funds for another cable, this time with the Great Eastern as cable ship. A first attempt in 1865 failed as the cable snapped after 1200 miles. The 1866 mission finally succeeded, not only in laying the cable but also in picking up the stranded cable of 1865 and after splicing, laying a second cable. The expedition had its own artist aboard, Robert Dudley. He produced 65 watercolours to illustrate the expedition book written by WH Russell. The company thought of it as an epic adventureous book which could make some revenue for the investors.


The old frigate Iris with her freight of cable alongside the Great Eastern at Sheerness. The cable passed from the hulk to the Great Eastern, Robert Dudley


Interior of One of the Tanks on Board the Great Eastern: The Cable Passing Out, Robert Dudley


Awaiting the Reply (1 September 1866), Robert Dudley

From 1866 on, transcontinental communication by submarine cables became the standard and more cables were laid to other continents. In 1902 the British Empire succeeded in a continuous redundant cable system worldwide, nicknamed the All Red Line and untill the launching of communication satellites in the 20th century, it stayed the most important route of communication.