Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Design For The Clifton Suspension…

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The Picture

  • In 1829, a competition was launched to design a bridge to cross the River Avon at Clifton in Bristol. The prize was 100 guineas (a lot of money at the time!). 22 different designs were entered hoping to be selected as the winner.
  • This sketch was part of Brunel’s entry to the competition held in 1829. Brunel was 23 years old when he created this design.
  • At first no winner was selected. The judges faulted all the designs and thought that Brunel’s design, although innovative and attractive, would not cope with the Avon Gorge’s frequent windy weather.In 1830, a second round of the competition was announced. Brunel changed his design, tried again and was awarded second place. He was later declared the winner after he persuaded the judges and agreed to make extra changes to his design.
  • Today, you can still see and cross Brunel’s dramatic Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol.

The Story

The Competition

In 1829, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was recovering from injuries sustained while working on the construction of London’s Thames Tunnel. Although he was instructed to rest, he kept working; entering a competition to design a new bridge to span the Avon Gorge in Bristol.

William Vick, a Bristol wine merchant, had given money to fund the Bridge’s construction. In 1829, the Society of Merchant Venturers held a competition to choose the best bridge design. The committee judging the competition asked well known engineer Thomas Telford for his advice. He asserted the logic of the time that a suspension bridge could be no longer than 600 feet (about 182 metres). Brunel’s design proposed a suspension bridge that was much longer at between 870 and 916 feet (about 260 – 279 metres) long.

Even though Telford submitted his own design, no suitable design was found from the 22 entries so a second competition was held in October 1830. This time, Brunel shortened his bridge design to 630 feet (192 metres) which earned him second place. He was later declared the competition’s winner after he persuaded the judges and agreed to make extra changes to his design. Brunel also got the job as Project Engineer

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The Design – Bringing Ancient Egypt to Bristol

Brunel’s design had many features designed to appeal to the tastes of fashionable Victorians. Developments in travel and transportation meant that wealthy Victorians could see Egypt’s archaeological sites for themselves and discover more about Ancient Egyptian culture, architecture and history than ever before.

Brunel’s original bridge design had been inspired by Ancient Egyptian architecture and design, especially the tapered shape of the towers either side of the Avon Gorge. Brunel originally planned to build sphinx sculptures on the top of the towers. Sphinxes were creatures from Ancient Greek and Egyptian mythology and had the body of a lion but the head of a person (often an Egyptian Pharaoh).

Between Brunel taking on the project in 1831 and the Clifton Suspension Bridge’s eventual completion in 1864, there were many changes made to Brunel’s design. If you look at the bridge today, you will see his Ancient Egyptian inspired towers but no sphinxes!

Brunel later travelled to Egypt in 1859. He was attempting to recover from a serious illness but still found time to make accurate sketches of many of the Ancient Egyptian sites that he visited.

Extra Resources

By Courtesy of the Brunel Institute – a collaboration of the ss Great Britain Trust and the University of Bristol.