This photograph was taken by the young photographer Robert Howlett at Millwall, London, in 1857.

It is one of a series of pictures commissioned from Howlett by The Illustrated Times to document the completion and launch of SS Great Eastern, the vast steamship designed by the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59).

Brunel is seen in the photograph (second from right) at one of several attempts to launch the ship in November 1857. Flanking him are his assistants Solomon Tredwell and William Jacomb. The figure on the left is thought to be that of William Harrison, Great Eastern’s first captain. Brunel had planned to launch the vessel sideways into the Thames, but it failed to move and was eventually launched in January 1858.

Howlett is regarded today as a pioneer of photojournalism, admired particularly for his cropping of compositions and naturalistic scenes. This gelatin silver print, made soon after the event it documents, now joins the collection at the Brunel Museum, which is located in the engine house of the Thames Tunnel about a quarter of a mile away from the site where Great Eastern was launched.

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