The Jacana

 Great Lives Site

 

Back to Jacana

Great Lives index

 


Isambard Kingdom Brunel
1806 - 1859
 

 


Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born on April 9, 1806, in Portsmouth. His father, Marc Isambard Brunel, was a prominent engineer, and he determined that his son should follow in his footsteps. Brunel the younger was educated in France, and at the tender age of 20 he became resident engineer on his father's Thames Tunnel project.

Brunel was injured seriously when the tunnel was flooded. While he was recuperating from his injuries, Brunel entered a design competition for a new bridge over the Avon Gorge. The judge of the competition was the Scottish engineer Thomas Telford. Telford rejected all designs in favour of his own.

After considerable scandal, a second competition was held and one of Brunel's designs was selected, though lack of money delayed construction until after Brunel's death.

Brunel then carried out a number of dock designs at Bristol, Brentford, Milford Haven, and Plymouth. He became intrigued by the new field of railway engineering, and in 1833 he became chief engineer to the Great Western Railway.

He introduced a wider gauge track (the gauge is the distance between the two tracks) in an effort to improve train speed. This resulted in the "Battle of the Gauges" between Brunel's design and the narrower gauge championed by George Stephenson. The matter was not decided until the late Victorian period, when the narrower gauge became the recognized standard.

His most remarkable feat for the GWR was the Box Tunnel, between Bath and Chippenham. This amazing tunnel was 2 miles in length, and took almost 6 years to complete. When the crews funneling from each end finally met in the middle, they were found to be a mere 1 1/4 inches out of alignment.

Brunel oversaw every aspect of railway design, from the track itself to the track layout, bridges, tunnels, rolling stock, even the lamp posts for the railway stations! He was not above rolling up his sleeves and joining his workmen in their digging.

Brunel followed his new passion for railways around the globe, designing lines in Italy, Australia, and India. He was responsible for over 1,000 miles of track in Britain. He was famous for his railway bridge design, and his Maidenhead Bridge had the flattest brick arch in the world. He also pioneered the use of compressed air to sink pier foundations underwater.

Railways did not take all of Brunel's attention; he was responsible for great advances in marine engineering as well. His Great Western paddle-wheeler (1837) was the first steamship to provide regular transatlantic service.

The Great Britain (1843) was the first major ship to use a screw-propeller, and Great Eastern (1858) was the first iron double-hulled ship, and was responsible for laying the first successful telegraph cable across the Atlantic. Each of the three ships was the largest in the world at the time of its construction.

Brunel also designed artillery and hospitals for the Crimean War effort, as well as an ingenious armored barge.

Isambard Brunel was a short, neat man, who stood just over 5 feet tall. He seems to have been self-conscious about his height, and he favoured tall top hats to make himself appear taller. He was a workaholic, often laboring 18 hour days and sleeping at his office in Duke Street.

When Isambard Kingdom Brunel died in London on Sept. 15, 1859, the world lost one of its truly great engineering masters.
 


~~~<"((((((><~~~<"((((((><~~~<"((((((><~~~<"((((((><~~~<"((((((><~~~
 


Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) was a leading English civil engineer in the railway age with an original and unprejudiced approach to problems in railway and marine engineering.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born on April 9, 1806, near Portsmouth, the only son of Marc Isambard Brunel, known for his machine for making ships' blocks and as the engineer of the Thames Tunnel. After attending the Collège Henri Quatre in Paris, Brunel served a short apprenticeship under the Paris instrument maker Louis Breguet. Brunel returned to London in 1822 and entered his father's office in 1823, where he received practical training by assisting with the Thames Tunnel until 1828.

Brunel's first important commission was the 630-foot-span Clifton suspension bridge near Bristol (1831). Unfinished in his lifetime, it was completed in 1864 as his memorial. He also built the Hungerford (London) suspension bridge (1841-1845); its wrought-iron chains were used to complete the bridge at Clifton.


Railway Engineer

In 1833 Brunel was appointed engineer for the Great Western Railway and began surveys for a line between Bristol and London. Construction of the line (1835-1841) included the famous flat-arch bridge over the Thames at Maidenhead and the 3,200-yard Box Tunnel outside Bath (through which the sun is said to shine on Brunel's birthday). With the aim of smooth, high-speed running and locomotive-fuel economy for the line, he introduced the 7-foot gage, which, while technically sound, was commercial folly. However, it was not entirely superseded by the British standard 4-foot 8 1/2-inch gage until 1892. He also designed railroad terminals and a series of bridges, culminating in the Royal Albert Bridge near Plymouth (1853-1859), which combines a tubular arch with suspension chains in the two main spans.


Designer of Steamships

In 1835 Brunel suggested, half in jest, a transatlantic steamship service. The idea found support, and the outcome was the Great Western, a timber-built paddle steamer of 2,300 tons' displacement. In April 1838 it steamed from Bristol to New York in 15 days and then maintained a regular service. His Great Britain (1839-1845) was a 3,600-ton iron-hulled, screw-driven steamship. Brunel's last great ship was the Great Eastern (1854-1859), for which he was the sole architect. Displacing 32,000 tons, the largest ship afloat, it was intended to make the round trip to Australia without recoaling. The Great Eastern had a double hull, and with engines to drive both paddles and screw, it had outstanding maneuverability. That its cost was excessive, its completion delayed, and the launch difficult was largely due to the machinations of the building contractor. Brunel never saw the trials, for he suffered a stroke and died on Sept. 15, 1859, in London. A liability to its owners, the ship showed twice the calculated fuel consumption. The Great Eastern was sold and eventually used to lay the first Atlantic telegraph cable (1865-1866).

 

 

 

JACANA HOME PAGE | CLASSIC VIDEO CLIPS | JACANA ASTRONOMY SITE

JACANA PHOTO LIBRARY | OLD MAUN PHOTO GALLERY | MAUN PHONE DIRECTORY

FREE FONTS | PIC OF THE DAY | GENERAL LIBRARY | MAP LIBRARY | TECHNICAL LIBRARY

HOUSE PLANS LIBRARY | MAUN E-MAIL, WEBSITE & SKYPE LIST | BOTSWANA GPS CO-ORDINATES 

MAUN SAFARI WEB LINKS | FREE SOFTWARE | JACANA WEATHER PAGE

  JACANA CROSSWORD LIBRARY | JACANA CARTOON PAGE | DEMOTIVATIONAL POSTERS

 

This web page was last updated on: 09 December, 2008