Launched 170 years ago, the SS Great Britain was an innovation showcase that introduced a number of operational and technical innovations that became building blocks of the modern maritime world.
The first large ship with an all-iron hull, it introduced the world to such futuristic design elements as: a flat double-bottom without a standard center keel and built of cellular construction; five watertight bulkheads; a balanced rudder; a clipper bow; a hydrodynamically designed hull form; and, as its principal form of power, a large, six-bladed propeller. In 1845, Great Britain became the first ship to cross an ocean driven by propeller.
Although iron had been used to some extent in small vessel construction for about 20 years, its use for the entire hull was considered faddish and dangerous – in fact, it would be almost another three decades before iron achieved worldwide acceptance. Meanwhile, common wisdom about propellers was reflected in the pages of Scientific American, the first issue of which coincided with Great Britain’s maiden voyage to New York:
“The steamship Great Britain, the mammoth of the ocean, which has recently arrived from Liverpool, has created much excitement here as well as in Europe; being in fact the greatest maritime curiosity ever seen in our harbor,” the magazine’s editors wrote. “If there is anything objectionable in the construction or machinery of this noble ship, it is the mode or propelling her by the screw propeller; and we should not be surprised if it should be, ere long, superseded by paddle wheels at the sides.”