Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806–59)

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the most imaginative figure in the heroic age of British civil engineering.

He was the son of Sir Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849), who was a native of Normandy, and served in the French navy. He was a royalist and, with the onset of the revolutionary wars, emigrated to the United States in 1793, and settled in England in 1799. Between 1805 and 1812 he built the block-making works in the dockyard at Portsmouth, where I K Brunel was born.

The younger Brunel revealed precocious talents in drawing and mathematics, and after education at a private school in London, studied for three years in France from 1822, where he acquired a taste for the Egyptian style in architecture. On returning to England he worked for his father on the construction of the Thames Tunnel in east London, where he was seriously injured when water burst into the workings on 12 January 1828. During his convalescence at Clifton he made the acquaintance of leading figures in the city of Bristol, with which he was closely involved for the remainder of his life.

He became an associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1829, and a full member in 1837. In the early 1830s he sought work on several projects in north-east England but worked principally on the improvement of the docks in Bristol.

In 1833 he became involved in the project for what came to be called the Great Western Railway, linking Bristol with London, and from an office in London assisted the passage of the legislation authorising the line through parliamentary committees. On 29 October 1835 the board of the company agreed that the line should be built to the broad gauge of 7 ft 0 ? inches (2.14 m). The main line of the Great Western Railway was completed in 1841. It was memorably recorded in a volume of engravings by the artist John Cook Bourne. From 1840 Brunel was responsible for the building of the company’s mechanical engineering works at Swindon. Many of the early works buildings remain, now occupied by English Heritage, together with the nearby Great Western village, where cottages, designed by Brunel, were built up to 1854. The broad gauge offered many engineering advantages, but was an obstacle to the development of a national network of railways. The Great Western’s line to the north reached Wolverhampton in 1854, but within less than two decades had been converted to narrow gauge operation. On the routes to the west the broad gauge persisted well beyond Brunel’s lifetime, and the line from London to Penzance was finally converted to standard gauge in 1892. The Great Western extended into Devon and Cornwall through subsidiary companies, for which Brunel acted as engineer.

On the South Devon Railway between Exeter and Plymouth he adopted the atmospheric system of propulsion, which was used for a short time in 1847-48 between Exeter and Newton Abbot, but was quickly abandoned.

Brunel was Britain’s most skilful exponent of timber construction and his lines to the west included more than 50 wooden viaducts, all of which have been replaced, the last of them in 1934. One of Brunel’s most notable structures was the Royal Albert Bridge by which the Cornwall Railway was carried across the River Tamar west of Plymouth.

Brunel demonstrated to the world the potential of large iron steamships. He designed the wooden hulled paddle steamer Great Western, a 2300 ton vessel that was intended to ply from Bristol to the United States that made her first voyage in 1838, and the much larger SS Great Britain, the first large screw-propelled iron ship, that was built in Bristol and made her maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York in 1845. The company that owned her became bankrupt after she ran ashore in Northern Ireland in 1846. She is now conserved in Bristol.

The much larger 32,000 ton SS Great Eastern, built for Brunel in east London between 1854 and 1858, was the cause of many problems. The project proved a financial disaster, although the ship was successfully used to lay trans-oceanic cables before she was scrapped in 1888.

Brunel died on 15 September 1859. He had directed the raising of the first truss of the Royal Albert Bridge two years previously, but had been too ill to be involved with the erection of the second truss in July 1858 or with the official opening by Prince Albert in May 1859. The project to build the suspension bridge that he had designed to be erected over the Avon Gorge at Clifton was revived after his death and the bridge was opened in 1865.

Many of Brunel’s projects cost much more than his estimates. His adoption of atmospheric traction proved disastrous in the short term, and the decision to use the broad gauge was ultimately shown to be misguided. Nevertheless he was one of the most creative of engineers, and Sir Daniel Gooch, one of his close colleagues, aptly summarised his career: ‘the greatest of England’s engineers … the man of the greatest originality of thought and power of execution, bold in his plans but right. The commercial world thought him extravagant, but altho’ he was so, great things are not done by those who sit down and count the cost of every thought and act’.