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