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Brunel and the Treasures of World History

Treasures of World History book

In August 2020, the authors Peter Snow and Ann MacMillan released a new book entitled ‘Treasures of World History: The Story of Civilization in 50 Documents’.

The book features a letter written by IK Brunel from the University of Bristol Brunel Collection, and which is cared for by the SS Great Britain Trust at the Brunel Institute.

The letter is dated 12 October 1840, and was written by Brunel to his friend Captain Christopher Claxton, one-time harbour master in Bristol and the Secretary of the Great Western Steamship Company. It’s a short letter, only covering two sides, but the topic it covers and the decision it conveys truly does warrant its inclusion on a list of the Treasures of World History.

In the letter, Brunel explains to Claxton that, following experiments with the screw propelled steamship Archimedes, “taking into consideration all the advantages of the screw it was better than any paddle”. It was this discovery that led to Brunel convincing the Great Western Steamship Company’s directors to equip the SS Great Britain with a screw propeller, rather than side paddles (as had previously been planned).

The date is particularly interesting as the letter was written after construction had started on the ship. Indeed, work had already begun on the engines for the paddle wheels, and this change in plan apparently caused a great deal of upset to the engineer originally given the task of building the SS Great Britain’s engines, a man named Francis Humphreys. According to the engineer James Naysmyth, Humphreys ‘being a man of most sensitive and sanguine constitution of mind’ soon fell ill with a ‘brain fever’ and died!

It was the adoption of the screw propeller, along with the use of iron to construct the ship’s hull, which has led to the SS Great Britain being called ‘the grandmother of all modern shipping’. Discover the letter for yourself at Brunel’s SS Great Britain, where it is currently on display within Being Brunel.

Author: Nick Booth, Head of Collections


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