Isambard Kingdom Brunel, 1806 to 1859 - Engineer and Architect to the British Empire

In all that constitutes an engineer in the highest, fullest and best sense, Brunel had no contemporary, no predecessor. - -The Engineer, 1910.

The Early Years

Born in Portsea on 9th April 1806, to a French monarchist father, Sir Marc Brunel and his English wife, Sophie Brunel, neé Kingdom, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the youngest of the couple's three children.

Engineering talent seemed to run in the family. Isambard's father, Marc was reponsible for inventing the first machine which could reliably manufacture block and tackle pulley systems, an idea which was sold to the British Admiralty and employed all over the world. To give his son a good start for his future engineering career, Marc had Isambard educated in both the French and English education systems, with his schooling being split between Hove, near Brighton and the College of Caen in Normandy, before he was accepted into the prestigious Henri Quatre in Paris. He served his apprenticeship with the precision instrument maker, Breguet, before moving on to work for the family engineering office.

Underground and Over Gaps

The young engineering prodigy went to work with his father on the building of the Thames Tunnel, which ran from Rotherhithe to Wapping, in 1827 . This tunnel was to become the world's first bored tunnel under a river, and Isambard took over after the original resident engineer, William Armstrong, resigned due to ill health. Several attempts had been made to tunnel under the Thames, most notably one by Richard Trevithick, inventor of the steam engine, all of which had failed. The project ballooned in cost, almost beggaring his father and was dogged by misfortune, suffering two major collapses, the second of which almost killed Isambard, but it was a success in the end, primarily due to Marc Brunels invention of the tunnelling shield.

In 1829, whilst recovering from the tunnel cave-in, Brunel entered a competition to design a suspension bridge to cross the River Avon at Clifton, his first design was rejected by the competition's judge, the famed engineer Thomas Telford in favour of Telford's own entry, but his second won though Brunel never saw the finished product, as a lack of funds and the start of the Bristol Riots delayed construction of the bridge until after his death.

In recognition of his achievements Brunel, at the age of 24, was elected to the Royal Society in 1830. His best was yet to come though. He was appointed as chief engineer at the Bristol Docks a year later. In his building of the docks he started his trademark habit of designing almost everything related to a project, including the locks, the Underfall and a dredger to keep the harbour free of silt. The designs were so successful that they formed a heavy influence on the design of harbours at Milford Haven, Plymouth and Cardiff.

The Great Railway Pioneer

In March 1833, shortly after marrying Mary Horsley, the 27 year old Brunel was appointed chief engineer of the Great Western Railway. His contribution to the company can be described as nothing short of epic. He designed the track layout, the track itself, the rolling stock, the tunnels, the bridges, and even the lamposts used in the stations. The stations which he designed to terminate the original route of the GWR, Paddington Station as the London terminus, and Temple Meads at the Bristol end of the route, are masterpieces of industrial design, and some of the bridges, most notably the wrought iron bridges across the Wye at Chepstow, and over the Tamar at Saltash are truly awe inspiring.

His commitment to using new technology and construction techniques enabled him to push the envelope further than any other engineer of his time. His first notable engineering projects for the company was the construction of a series of bridges, which were built using a compressed-air caisson to sink the pier foundations for the bridge into the riverbed. These works were responsible for this method of working underwater becoming popular, and also lead to a lot of workers developing the previously unknown Caissons disease, better known as 'The Bends' due to working in a high pressure environment.

His work often met with controversy. His decision to adopt the wider broad gauge width for his railway tracks, though sensible bearing in mind his desire to increase the speed of travel down the line, set him at odds with the so called 'father of rail' George Stephenson who preferred narrow gauge, giving us essentially the Victorian take on the VHS vs. Betamax argument of the 1980's. This difference in track width meant that passengers often had to change trains as they moved between railway tracks laid by different engineers. The argument finally went against Brunel and the narrow gauge though technically inferior, became the de facto standard.

One of his greatest achievements during the building of the GWR was Box Tunnel, at just over 2 miles in length, it took almost 6 years to complete. Brunel's engineering skill was such that even after all this time the crews tunnelling from each end finally met in the middle, they were found to be a mere 1 1/4 inches out of alignment.

During his time with the company he was responsible for laying over 1,000 miles of track across South Wales, the Midlands, and Ireland, as well as advising on the construction of the Victorian lines in Australia and the Eastern Bengal Railway in India.

His success with the GWR strangely left him dissatisfied with the performance of early locomotives, and he experimented, unsuccessfully, with the atmospheric system pioneered by Joseph Samuda in his designs for the the South Devon Railway. This railway was powered by air, which sucked the cars along by the differential pressure in the tube meant they could reach speeds of 60 mph .... when it worked, as the design which relied on split leather pipes lubricated with seal fat to maintain an air tight seal, which they often didn't. The sole surviving pump house for the railway can still be seen in the Devon villiage of Exe.


His engineering brilliance is perhaps best exemplified in his design for three steam ships. Brunel formed the Great Western Steamship Company after persuading the board of GWR that it made sense to provide passengers on their railway the option of continuing their journey onward from Bristol to New York. Construction started on a conventional wooden hulled paddle steamer called the SS Great Western which was the first transatlantic passenger steamship, in Bristol in 1836. The ship was the largest in the world at the time being 236ft long, 35ft wide with a displacement of 2,300 tons and was launched in 1838, cutting the crossing time between Bristol and New York to 15 days.

Inspired by this success, Brunel went further by designing the SS Great Britain, the world's first iron, screw-propeller driven, ocean-going ship which could carry 250 passengers, and 1,200 tonnes of cargo and but for an unfortunate accident in 1846 where she ran aground in Dundrum Bay in Northern Ireland, would have been a great success. The ship has since been salvaged and forms the centrepiece of Bristol's Maritime Heritage Museum.

Brunel's third ship, the SS Great Eastern, launched in 1859, was a far more ambitious proposition. This huge ship, was designed to sail from England to Australia carrying 4000 people, and weighed in at more than 22,500 tons. Its construction and launch were fraught with difficulties. Despite a successful launch the ship was never carried many passengers, and ended up being used to lay the first telegraph line between the UK and the US. After this voyage was completed the SS Great Eastern ended its days moored in the middle of the River Mersey, being used as an advertising hoarding. The stresses and stain of designing and builing the ship placed a great deal of stress on Brunel and whilst watching the Great Eastern in her trials on 5th January, 1858, he suffered a seizure. He died ten days later and was buried at Kensal Green cemetery on 20th September, 1859.

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