The martyrs to progress in the Great Eastern — martyrs by fire and water — will not have given up their lives wholly uselessly if we know how to reason rightly. The Great Eastern has not been burnt, as would assuredly have been the case with a wooden craft, and the boiler fire that threw out flames like a volcano was extinguished by the efficient water supply. The tiller ropes that broke were easily replaced by the chains provided by the sagacity of Captain Harrison.
How far these chains may be trustworthy we do not know; but the risks in chains are considerable. Every link is composed of a separate piece of bar, which is usually welded by a scarf-joint heated in a coal fire, and therefore there is great risk of an imperfect weld. This might be remedied. We join lead pipes now-a-days not by solder but by melting them together by gaseous flame. We could do the same thing by iron rods, making most probably a sound butt-joint instead of an imperfect scarf-joint. This is one of the things worth verifying.
For the sake of security, the smoke funnels of the vessel were surrounded by water-casings, thus to keep cool surfaces. But the surplus heat practically converted these casings or jackets into boilers. These boilers were not provided with sure safety valves to relieve the pressure, and one of them burst and carried away the funnel, the effects of the explosion penetrating into the passengers’ saloons and gutting them, fortunately the passengers being absent.
Now, the water casings were right enough, if we remember only that they were a kind of prolongation of the boiler, and should be treated accordingly. But outside the casings there should have been an explosion-proof iron chamber entirely cutting off the steam from the other portions of the vessel. Before the vessel goes to sea again this should be done. It is quite possible to make the passengers absolutely safe in such a vessel if rightly constructed, and if the directors look to profit they must make this clear possibility an absolute fact.
The passengers should be enabled to turn in to their berths quite certain that they can neither be burnt, nor scalded, nor drowned, nor suffocated. Nothing short of this will or ought to satisfy those who may take passage in the vessel. The sides of every boiler-room should form a solid wrought-iron shaft, open or lightly covered at top to a sufficient height to vomit forth the results of any explosion above the heads of those on deck. And exposed as the engineers and stokers must be to boiler casualties, still they should be provided with a wholesome atmosphere to work in by the abundant play of cool air around them. This can be done, and should be insisted on. Let all frippery be dispensed with; passengers will be content with plain white paint in their berths if they know that those who serve them amidst the machinery are in a state of as great comfort and as little risk as may be.
The neglect of these things has filled the mouths of fools with matter for exultation, and progress is retarded for awhile. But it would be better to put off the sailing of the vessel for any number of months, rather than put to sea with anything left undone that may be done in the way of the most perfect comfort and security.
This catastrophe should be regarded as a warning, a source of knowledge how to avoid future catastrophes; as a cause of additional safety to all those who may travel by this vessel, and not as an omen of misfortune. Not by having regard to omens was England made what she is; but by regarding every misfortune as a teaching of something more to be avoided in the future. And the essence of safety against explosions in steam-ships is to remove every obstacle to the upward force of the explosion, and to provide solid iron walls to retain it laterally and downwards. Let this be done, and the Great Eastern will still be the first in the latest phase of ocean transport. If it be not done, she will be a standing menace to passengers that no amount of decoration can overlay.
W. B. A.