Intended for the passenger and cargo trade between England and Ceylon, she was by far the largest ship the World had yet seen.
She was so far ahead of contemporary commercial requirements, and industrial capabilities, that her length (nearly 700 feet) and tonnage would remain unmatched for four more decades.
Though christened Leviathan during an initial launching attempt in early November 1857, she was thereafter always known as Great Eastern. Nearly three month’s costly struggle to get her afloat, and more problems while she was completing, left her original company bankrupt. New owners decided to employ her on the route between Britain and North America. However, insufficient capitalization restricted outfitting to luxury accomodations, thus ignoring the decidedly non-luxurious, but very profitable immigrant trade. The ship financial difficulties continued compounded by a series of accidents.
In September 1859 Great Eastern’s first voyage was cut short by a boiler explosion. Her second company collapsed under the expense of repairs and a new firm took her on. Finally reaching New York in June 1860, for the next two months she was exhibited to the public and made voyages along the U.S. coast. Nearly a year passed before Great Eastern’s next westbound trip in May 1861, by which time the American Civil War had begun. During June and July she transported troops to Quebec to reinforce Canada’s defenses. In September Great Eastern began another trip to New York, but was disabled by a severe storm. In mid-1862 she made three voyages, but improving commercial prospects abruptly ceased when she struck an uncharted rock entering New York harbor, necessitating more expensive repairs. She did not resume service until mid-1863, making two more trips and bankrupting yet another company.
Sold at auction, Great Eastern was chartered for laying a trans-Atlantic telegraph cable. The ship finally found her niche. In 1866 Great Eastern brought a cable to North America, establishing nearly instantaneous communication between the Old World and the New that has remained unbroken ever since. Following a unfruitful effort by French interests to put her back into passenger service in 1867, Great Eastern returned to cable work. Between 1869 and 1874 she strung six more cables from Europe to America, repaired two earlier ones, and laid another across the Indian Ocean.
Great Eastern was laid up at Milford Haven, Wales in 1874. In 1886 she steamed to Liverpool to become an exhibition ship. This prosaic, but profitable employment continued during visits to London and Scotland later in the year. Sold late in 1887, Great Eastern went back to Liverpool, where she was stripped and slowly broken up during 1888 and 1889.