In 1859, the S.S. Great Eastern departed from England on her maiden voyage. She was a remarkable wonder of the nineteenth century: an iron city longer than Trafalgar Square, taller than Big Ben's tower, heavier than Westminster Cathedral. Her paddles were the size of Ferris wheels; her decks could hold four thousand passengers bound for America, or ten thousand troops bound for the Raj. Yet she ended her days as a floating carnival before being unceremoniously dismantled in 1889.
Steamships like the Great Eastern occupied a singular place in the Victorian mind. Crossing oceans, ferrying tourists and troops alike, they became emblems of nationalism, modernity, and humankind's triumph over the cruel elements. Throughout the nineteenth century, the spectacle of a ship's launch was one of the most recognizable symbols of British social and technological progress. Yet this celebration of the power of the empire masked overconfidence and an almost religious veneration of technology. Equating steam with civilization had catastrophic consequences for subjugated peoples around the world.
Engines of Empire tells the story of the complex relationship between Victorians and their wondrous steamships, following famous travelers like Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Jules Verne as well as ordinary spectators, tourists, and imperial administrators as they crossed oceans bound for the colonies. Rich with anecdotes and wry humor, it is a fascinating glimpse into a world where an empire felt powerful and anything seemed possible—if there was an engine behind it.
About the author
Douglas R. Burgess Jr. is Assistant Professor of History at Yeshiva University. He is the author of The Politics of Piracy (2014), and a contributor to The New York Times and the The Huffington Post.
"A charming, incisive look at the development of steamship travel and its impact on Western society. Douglas Burgess crafts a masterful narrative that restores steamships to their proper place as the technological marvel of the nineteenth century. These vessels not only transported people, they created new and enduring human experiences such as tourism and pleasure cruises, and altered their passengers' understanding of the world."
—Joshua Smith, U.S. Merchant Marine Academy
"Engines of Empire boldly reconceptualizes historical understandings of technology, empire, transnationalism, and modernization. It barrels forth with creativity and character, to offer a voyage at once informative and thought provoking."
—Glenn S. Gordinier, author of The Rocket's Red Glare: The War of 1812 and Connecticut