Isambard Kingdom Brunel
The Thames Tunnel
Brunel before the launching of the Great Eastern
The son of noted engineer Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, Isambard K. Brunel was sent to France to be educated at the College of Caen in Normandy and the Lycée Henri-Quatre in Paris. He rose to prominence when, aged 20, he was appointed as the resident engineer of the Thames Tunnel, his father's greatest achievement. The first major river tunnel ever built, Isambard spent nearly two years trying to drive the horizontal shaft from one side to the other. Two severe incidents of flooding injured the younger Brunel and ended work on the tunnel for several years, though it was eventually completed.
The Great Western Railway
In the mean time, Brunel moved on. In 1833 he was appointed engineer of the Great Western Railway, one of the wonders of Victorian Britain. Running from London to Bristol (and a few years later, to Exeter), the Great Western contained a series of impressive achievements — viaducts, stations, and tunnels — that ignited the imagination of the technically minded Britons of the age. Brunel soon became one of the most famous men in Britain on the back of this interest.
Brunel made the controversial choice of using broad gauge (7 ft 0.25 in or 2.14 m) for the line. According to many railway historians, this was an advantageous choice but nonetheless it eventually had to be changed to bring it in line with standard British railway gauge (4 ft 8.5 in or 1.435 m).
Brunel's "atmospheric caper"
Another of Brunel's interesting though ultimately unsuccessful technical innovations was the atmospheric railway, the extension of the GWR southward from Exeter towards Plymouth (technically the South Devon Railway (SDR), though supported by the GWR). Instead of using locomotives, the trains were moved by Cleggs and Samudas Patent system of atmospheric (vacuum) traction, the evacuation being done by stationary engines at a series of pumping stations. The section from Exeter to Newton (now Newton Abbot) was completed on this principle, and trains ran at approximately 20 miles per hour (32 km/h). 15 inch (381 mm) pipes were used on the level portions, and 22 inch (559 mm) pipes were intended for the steeper gradients. Unfortunately the technology required the use of leather flaps to seal the air pipes, the leather had to be kept supple by the use of tallow, and tallow is attractive to rats; the result was inevitable, and air-powered vacuum service lasted less than a year, from 1847 (experimental services began in September; operationally from February 1848) to September 10 1848. The accounts of the SDR for 1848 suggest that the atmospheric traction cost 3s 1d per mile (£0.10/km), compared to 1s 4d (£0.04/km) for conventional steam power. The pumping station at Starcross, on the estuary of the River Exe, remains as a striking landmark, and a reminder of the atmospheric railway — which is also commemorated in the name of the village pub. A section of the pipe, without the leather covers, is preserved in Didcot Railway Museum .
Even before the Great Western Railway was opened, Brunel was moving on to his next project — transatlantic shipping. He used his prestige to convince his railway company employers to build the Great Western, at the time by far the largest steamship in the world. It first sailed in 1837. The Great Britain followed in 1843, and was the first iron-hulled, propeller-driven ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
Building on these successes, Brunel turned to a third ship in 1852, even larger than both of its predecessors. The Great Eastern was cutting edge technology for its time — it was the largest ship ever built until the RMS Lusitania launched in 1906 — and it soon ran over budget and over schedule in the face of a series of difficult technical problems. The ship is widely perceived as a white elephant. Though a failure at its original purpose of passenger travel, it eventually found a role as an oceanic telegraph cable-layer.
Besides the railway and steam ships, he was also involved in the construction of several lengthy bridges, including the Royal Albert Bridge near Plymouth, and an unusual telescopic bridge in Bridgwater. He also designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge near Bristol, but did not live to see it constructed. His colleagues and admirers in the Institution of Civil Engineers felt the bridge would be a fitting memorial, and started to raise new funds and to amend the design. Work started in 1862, and was complete by 1864, five years after Brunel's death.
Illnesses and death of Brunel
In 1843, while performing a conjuring trick for the amusement of his children, he accidentally swallowed a half-sovereign coin which became lodged in his windpipe. A special pair of forceps failed to remove it, as did a machine to shake it loose devised by Brunel himself. Eventually, at the suggestion of Sir Marc, Isambard was strapped to a board, turned upside-down, and the coin was jerked free.
Brunel suffered a stroke in 1859, just before the Great Eastern made its first voyage to New York. He died ten days later and is buried, like his father, at Kensal Green Cemetery in London. His son, Henri Marc Brunel, also enjoyed some success as a civil engineer.
There is an anecdote which states that Box Tunnel on the Great Western railway line is placed such that the sun shines all the way through it on Brunel's birthday. For more information, see the entry on the tunnel.
Brunel was included in the top 10 of the 100 Greatest Britons poll conducted by the BBC and voted for by the public. Each of the finalists in the poll was featured in an hour-long documentary. An admiring Jeremy Clarkson wrote and presented the programme about Brunel. In the second round of voting, which concluded on November 24, 2002, Brunel placed second behind Winston Churchill. There are many monuments and memorials commemorating his achievements in the GWR area, including a statue at Paddington station, and a collection of streets around St David's station in Exeter, giving access to student residences of the university, that bear his names — Isambard Terrace, Kingdom Mews, and Brunel Close. He is also the namesake of Brunel University in West London.
- L. T. C. Rolt Isambard Kingdom Brunel ISBN 058210744X, ISBN 0140079866, ISBN 0140117520 (Fantasticfiction)
- R. Angus Buchanan Brunel:The Life and Times of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Hambledon and London, 2002, 294pp, 22pl and 11 text illus, ISBN 1-85285-331-X