Born on 9 April 1806, Isambard Kingdom Brunel is celebrated as an engineering genius.
His daring schemes and record-breaking structures are legacies that remain vital today. Like ‘father of the railways’ George Stephenson and his son, Robert Stephenson, Brunel’s work enormously influenced the development of the railway worldwide.
Brunel was the third child of Marc Brunel, a French engineer, and his English wife, Sophie Kingdom. Brunel started an apprenticeship with his father on the construction on the Thames Tunnel in London having studied in England and France.
He quickly became resident engineer to the project work and gained considerable experience of a large-scale and innovative construction project. Knowledge of brickwork and cement would stand him in good stead for his future career.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
A timeline of Brunel
1806: 9 April - Isambard Kingdom Brunel is born Portsea, Portsmouth. He is the third child and only son of Marc Isambard Brunel and Sophia Kingdom.
1814: Between 1814 and 1820 Brunel is educated at schools in Chelsea and Hove.
1820: Brunel is sent to France to study, first at Caen College then the Lycée Henri IV in Paris.
1822: April, Brunel returns to London and starts work in his father’s drawing office.
1826: Brunel is appointed resident engineer to the Thames Tunnel engineering work, where he gains experience of working with bricks and cements.
1828: IK Brunel almost dies in an accident in the Thames Tunnel.
1833: Brunel surveys a railway line from London to Bristol for the Great Western Railway. He is appointed its chief engineer.
1835: 31 August - The Great Western Railway Act is authorised. The Great Western Railway adopts Brunel’s recommendation of the 7ft 0 1/4 in (2140 mm) broad gauge rail.
1836: 5 July - Brunel marries Mary Elizabeth Horsley.
1838: The first part of the Great Western Railway line, extending from London to Maidenhead is opened.
1841: 30 June, the Great Western Railway London to Bristol main line is opened throughout.
1847: Between 1847 and 1848 Brunel experiments with the South Devon 'atmospheric railway'. It was not a success and quickly abandoned.
1850: Brunel becomes a Vice-President of the Institution of Civil Engineers
1859: Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge across the River Tamar is opened. 15 September: Isambard Kingdom Brunel dies at his home aged 53 from a stroke. He is buried in the family vault at Kensal Green Cemetery, London.
Did you know?
During the construction of the Mickleton Tunnel in the Cotswolds, a fierce argument took place between Brunel and his contractor. On 17 July 1851, Brunel arrived on site with a gang of several hundred navvies to take possession of the tunnel. The stand off was only diffused when Brunel was ‘read the Riot Act’ by local magistrates.
Brunel’s railway from London to Bristol required pioneering civil engineering. The Wharncliffe Viaduct (1837) was the first major structure to be completed by Brunel, and the first to be completed on the line.
In 1839 he persuaded the GWR to allow wires for the new electric telegraph system to be installed between Paddington and West Drayton, taking them over the viaduct. This was the first ever installation of a commercial electric telegraph.
Brunel's Box Tunnel
Unequalled anywhere in the world, the arches of the Maidenhead Bridge (1838) were at the time the flattest brick arches ever built.
Box Tunnel (1840) was the largest work on the line and at the time of construction was the longest tunnel ever constructed.
Designs for the Windsor Bridge (1849) for the Great Western Railway’s branch line and the Chepstow Bridge (1852) for the South Wales Railway developed Brunel’s thinking for the much larger ‘Royal Albert Bridge’ (1859) for the Cornwall Railway.
Taking the line across the Tamar at Saltash, this bridge used both wrought iron tubular arches and suspension chains to support the rail deck, giving it its unique appearance.