On July 13, 1866 – Great Eastern began a two week voyage to complete a 12-year effort to lay telegraph cable across the Atlantic between Britain and the United States.
Massachusetts merchant and financier Cyrus W. Field first proposed laying a 2,000-mile copper cable along the ocean bottom from Newfoundland to Ireland in 1854, but the first three attempts ended in broken cables and failure. Field’s persistence finally paid off in July 1866, when Great Eastern, the largest ship then afloat, successfully laid the cable along the level, sandy bottom of the North Atlantic. As messages traveled between Europe and America in hours rather than weeks, Cyrus Field was showered with honors.
The Great Eastern steamship was considered to be the prototype of the modern ocean liner. Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and John Scott Russell for the Eastern Navigation Company to carry cargo and passengers between England and India, it was the largest ship in the world at the time of its launching (1858), displacing 32,160 tons and measuring 692 feet overall. It had a projected speed of 14.5 knots and alternate methods of propulsion: two paddle engines, a single screw engine, and sails rigged on six masts.
Before launching, the vessel passed to the Great Ship Company, which put it on a New York trade route. The huge cargo holds never were filled to capacity and in 1864, after years of deficit operation, the ship was sold to the Great Eastern Steamship Company, which used it as a cable vessel until 1874.
Cable laying was interrupted in 1867, when it made a voyage from Liverpool to New York to attract American visitors to the Paris Exhibition. Jules Verne was on this passage and wrote about the ship in his novel Une Ville flottante (1874; The Floating City).
The ship was broken up in 1889.