Voted the second Greatest Briton of all time, after Winston Churchill, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was one of the 19th century engineering giants. His achievements, many of which are still part of our everyday lives and landscape, are a lasting testament to his far-sighted genius.
Early years and work
Brunel had engineering in his genes. Born in Portsmouth on 9 April 1806, he was the only son of French civil engineer Sir Marc Brunel. Under his father’s guidance Isambard was fluent in French and had a command over the basics of engineering by the age of eight.
He was educated at Hove, near Brighton, and at 14 went to study in Paris. In 1823 he embarked on his first engineering project, working with his father on the building of the Thames Tunnel from Rotherhithe to Wapping in east London. He was later appointed resident engineer for the tunnel.
Clifton Suspension Bridge
The iconic bridge, crossing the River Avon, was designed by Brunel in 1829. At the time it had the longest span of any bridge in the world but his original design was rejected on the advice of Thomas Telford (1757 - 1834). An improved version, complete with Egyptian-influenced sphinxes and hieroglyphs, was accepted.
Sadly the project was abandoned due to a lack of funds and the bridge was not completed until 1864, after Brunel’s death.
Great Western Railway
Brunel’s international engineering status was established by his work on the Great Western Railway (GWR) linking Bristol and London. At the age of 27 he was appointed GWR’s chief engineer. And his achievements included viaducts at Hanwell and Chippenham, the Maidenhead Bridge, the Box Tunnel and Bristol’s Temple Meads Station.
Controversially Brunel used the broad gauge (2.2m) instead of standard gauge (1.55m). While this produced a smoother, faster journey it also meant passengers had to change trains at stations where the two gauges met.
The Great Western
Not content with railways the far-sighted Brunel persuaded the company which backed the Great Western Railway to consider trans-Atlantic travel. The Great Steamship Company was established, allowing Brunel to build a steam ship to cross from Bristol to New York. At 236 feet long the Great Western was the largest steamship of its time. She made her first voyage in 1838. The journey took 15 days and was the first of more than 60 crossings made over the next eight years.
The ss Great Britain
Brunel’s next steamship quickly overshadowed her older sister. At the time of the ss Great Britain’s launch in 1843 she was the largest ship in the world. She was also the first screw-propelled, ocean-going, iron-hulled steam ship – a truly revolutionary vessel and fore-runner of all modern shipping.
Designed initially for the emerging trans-Atlantic luxury passenger trade, the ship carried 252 first and second class passengers and 130 crew. The ss Great Britain typifies Brunel’s innovative approach to engineering and also marks the beginnings of international passenger travel and world communications.
This was not, however, his final maritime project.
The Great Eastern – the final project
In 1853 the Eastern Steam Navigation Company employed Brunel to build the Great Eastern. The huge ship (originally dubbed the ‘Leviathan’) was designed to carry 4,000 passengers and was technologically way ahead of her time. But this led to a series of engineering problems and the strain of the work took its toll on Brunel’s health.
He died on 15 September 1859, aged 53, following news of an explosion on board the Great Eastern during her sea trials. Five days later Isambard Kingdom Brunel was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in London.