Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806–1859)

Civil and mechanical engineer

Isambard Kingdom Brunel is celebrated as an engineering genius. Brunel’s Great Western Railway was designed for speed and efficiency, and his daring schemes and record breaking structures are still a vital part of today’s railway infrastructure. He combined considerable ingenuity with immense boldness of vision in his sometimes controversial achievements.

Born on 9 April 1806 in Portsea near Portsmouth, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the third child of Marc Brunel, a French émigré engineer and English mother Sophie Kingdom. After an education in both England and France, Brunel started an apprenticeship with his father on the construction on the Thames Tunnel in London. He quickly became resident engineer to the project work, and he was able to gain considerable experience of a large scale and innovative construction project as well as working knowledge of brickwork and cements that would stand him in good stead for his future engineering projects.

The Great Western Railway

Brunel’s work for a proposed bridge across the River Avon at Clifton introduced him to the Bristol Railway Committee. In 1833 they engaged him to survey a railway line between Bristol and London, and he presented his proposals to the Committee after only three months. It was an ambitious scheme with carefully planned gradients to make the route as level and straight as possible in order to promote high speed travel on the line. The Great Western Railway Act was approved by Parliament in 1835 and work on the 116 mile line started in 1836. The line proved considerably more problematic and expensive to construct than Brunel had originally estimated, not least because of the immense work involved in constructing Box Tunnel near Bath. Shareholders, particularly in Liverpool, were dissatisfied with Brunel and unsuccessfully attempted to remove him from office before the line was completed. His robust defence of the engineering on the line secured his position, but debate raged about his use of the broad gauge.

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. 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.

Grand designs

Throughout his career Brunel worked on a wide variety of engineering projects, to varying degrees of success. He pioneered the use of the ‘atmospheric railway’, and used it on a line for the South Devon Railway between Exeter & Newton Abbot. Using stationary engines rather than locomotives, a pipe in the centre of the track moved the train along by vacuum. Plagued with difficulties from the start, the scheme was unsuccessful and quickly abandoned.

It was Brunel’s vision to link the cities of London and New York via Bristol by rail and sea that was to be his legacy. The Great Western Railway established the Great Western Steamship Company to promote the venture. Having engineered their line between London and Bristol, they appointed Brunel as its chief engineer. His first ship for the Company, the SS Great Western, was the largest steamship of its day. Built to Brunel’s precise specifications, it was big enough to carry the fuel needed to power the journey and established non-stop steam navigation across the Atlantic on its maiden voyage in 1838. His second ship for the company, the SS Great Britain was even bigger, and the first large ship to be built of iron. But it was the SS Great Eastern that was to be Brunel’s biggest ship building challenge. Designed on a massive scale her construction and eventual launch in 1858 were fraught with difficulties. A ship on this scale in the mid nineteenth century was not a commercial success, but was the forerunner of the cargo ships commonplace today.

Brunel’s health had been failing for some time before he had a stroke on board the SS Great Eastern. He was taken back to his home at 18 Duke Street, London where he died on 15 September 1859 at the age of fifty three. He was buried in the family vault at Kensal Green Cemetery, London. Memorials were quickly raised, including the words ‘I K Brunel 1859’ being added to the portals at each end of the Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash which opened just a few months before his death. This memorial can still be seen on the bridge today.

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.