Trailblazer: SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse

Entering service in 1897, SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse captivated those seeking passage between the old and new worlds. The majestic liner was the first of four North German Lloyd vessels which shared the same base design - proof of popularity amongst the travelling public. The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, essentially the prototype, proved herself a thoroughbred from the get-go. It wasn't long before she captured the coveted Blue Riband of the Atlantic from her British rivals; the award acted as a huge publicity magnet for any ship holding it, as it was custom to bestow it upon the fastest vessel in service, only to be transferred to a new ship when the current holder's record time was bested. Passenger shipping lines such as NDL, Cunard, White Star and countless others competed in an endless game of one-upmanship to build larger, faster and more imposing liners. When Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse claimed the record for fastest North Atlantic crossing, the eyes of the public were firmly fixed upon her.

On top of being the record-holding fastest transatlantic passenger vessel in service, she was also popular for another record of sorts; her unprecedented four funnels. Before long, passengers began to acquaint the number of funnels with how luxurious or well-regarded a vessel was. Other lines began to implement extra funnels, particularly during the Edwardian era and onwards in the form of such ships as Mauretania and her sister, Lusitania. Then, of course, came Titanic, Olympic and their sister, Britannic. Often, these ships only needed three funnels to serve their intended purpose sufficiently, with the fourth being a "dummy" funnel often acting as a storeroom. The elegant spacing of Kaiser Wilhem der Grosse's trendsetting funnels was unique to her and her sisters, however, and allowed for some clever interior design opportunities.

And goodness, those interiors. One must take a moment to consider the sheer brilliance of such public spaces onboard. Back then, there was a certain tendency to blow the competition out of the water with increasingly palatial architecture and decor to draw in more wealthy passengers. True, this trend continued throughout the age of ocean travel, but it was during the lifetime of Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse when such practices really took off, often forcing lines to visit the drawing board at shorter intervals. In fact, the competition between nations was heated when Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany had attended the British fleet review in 1889, in honour of the jubilee of Queen Victoria - his grandmother. Seeing the magnificent British liners such as Oceanic and newly launched Teutonic, the Emperor was flabbergasted by the sheer beauty of their interiors, and had praised the vessels' design and implementation of meticulous details.

And so, Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, the first "superliner", was born, as were her awe-inspiring interiors. 

Though she was the subject of several disastrous events (including a massive fire in New Jersey that killed 100 staff attempting to fight it), the vessel never ceased to inspire all who laid eyes on it. Even after her unfortunate loss as one of the first casualties of the First World War, Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was but the much-needed kindling laid upon the roaring fires of passion forming the golden age of the ocean liner; a feat that was, unquestionably, iconic and legendary. This furious yet friendly competition between nations might not have been the same if she hadn't been built from passionate minds and hearts with an intention, simply, to create something splendidly beautiful.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons (unaltered)