Happy birthday Brunel

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

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.

Engineering feats

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.

From the archive: Glasgow Queen Street

From the archive: London Charing Cross

Step back in time... and inside Britain's busiest signal box

Network Rail graduates step into history

Our signalling heritage

Preserving railway history: five things saved by Network Rail

Incredible Stephenson railway history rediscovered