Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a flamboyant and brilliant British engineer who has often been credited for helping to create the modern world.
Brunel’s creations included bridges, tunnels, railroads and steamships, and it’s impossible to tell the story of transportation in the 19th century without including his contributions.
A flamboyant public figure, Brunel was often seen smoking a cigar and wearing a very tall top hat. As Brunel was fairly short, it’s possible he wore his trademark hats to make him seem less diminutive.
Born on April 9, 1806 in Portsmouth, England, Brunel was the son of Marc Isambard Brunel, an engineer who had been born in France but settled in England. The elder Brunel was known for his talent, and was a business associate of Henry Maudslay, a great British machinist often considered the father of modern machine tools.
As a child Isambard Brunel showed great aptitude for mechanics, and was sent to France at the age of 14 to study mathematics.
Brunel Entered His Father’s Business
After several years in Paris, Brunel returned to England and began working on one of his father’s great projects, the Thames Tunnel.
The tunnel was designed to provide a pedestrian passageway under the River Thames in London, and as the first attempt to tunnel under a major river, it was both dangerous and ahead of its time. And the younger Brunel, who was only in his twenties, was given an enormous amount of responsibility.
Isambard Brunel was nearly killed while working in the Thames Tunnel, and after many setbacks the project was suspended. The tunnel was eventually completed, and today it is part of the London subway system.
Solo Career of Isambard Brunel
As a solo engineer, Isambard Brunel first made his name by designing and building bridges throughout England. His facility with bridge building helped gain him a contract in 1835 to be the chief engineer of the Great Western Railway.
The railway was planned to connect London with the west and southwest of England as well as with Wales. Brunel was responsible for surveying where the tracks would go, and he also made several critical decisions which would influence the building of the railway.
Brunel reasoned that very wide railroad tracks would provide a smoother ride. So he designed and built the Great Western Railway with a gauge (the distance between the tracks) of seven feet. His idea did not endure, and the width of railroad tracks in later years was made considerably more narrow.
Brunel's High Standards Were Legendary
Brunel was obsessive about the construction of the railroad. Besides personally surveying where the tracks would be laid, he designed bridges and viaducts to cross obstacles. The roadbed was constructed to be so level that the railway was sometimes called “Brunel’s Billiard Table.”
Along the route of the railway Brunel designed the Box Tunnel, which was begun in 1836 and finished five years later. It is a mile in length, and there is a legend that Brunel purposely laid out the tunnel so the rising sun would shine down the length of it every year on April 9, his birthday.
Another noteworthy accomplishment of Brunel’s along the railway route is the Maidenhead Railway Bridge, which was completed in 1838. The bridge uses brick arches, but Brunel’s obsession with keeping the railway level meant that he used a flat arch design so the bridge would not have the usual hump found in most arched bridges.
Besides major tunnels and bridges, Brunel also designed features of the railway such as stations and even lampposts.
Brunel Entered the Atlantic Steamship Business
The work Isambard Brunel did on the Great Western Railway would be considered a lifetime achievement for any engineer, but Brunel actually went on to court international fame by entering the steamship business.
Brunel’s interest in steamships began in jest. At a meeting of the Great Western Railway directors in October 1835, someone objected to the railway’s length. Brunel responded that perhaps the railway should go even farther, with a “steamboat that would sail from Bristol to New York.”
The joke Brunel made was taken seriously by one of the company directors, and turned into substantive discussions in the following days. At that time steamships had crossed the Atlantic, but not as part of regular service. And the steamships that crossed had not used their steam power the entire way, having to rely on sail for much of the voyage.
Brunel Became Known for Three Innovative Ships
Brunel was intrigued by the engineering challenge. He formed a company to build a steamship, and while he didn’t do much of the engineering himself, he was the driving force behind the creation of what could be considered the first steam-powered ocean liner, the Great Western.
Launched in 1838, the Great Western quickly proved that steam ships could reliably cross the Atlantic.
Brunel masterminded an improved steamship, the Great Britain, which was launched in 1843. The new ship had several major innovations, including an iron hull and a screw propeller.
The third ship for which Isambard Brunel is known, the massive Great Eastern, was his crowning achievement though it was also a colossal business failure. And its building probably contributed to his death at a relatively young age.
The Great Eastern was constructed of iron. And at nearly 700 feet in length, it would hold the record for the world’s largest ship for decades.
Legacy of Isambard K. Brunel
Brunel, beset by health problems, worked tirelessly on the Great Eastern, and died on September 15, 1859, before the great ship's maiden voyage. The ship may have been an engineering wonder, but it wasn’t practical from a financial standpoint. It ceased operation as an ocean liner, but was later put to use for laying the transatlantic telegraph cable.
While Brunel's innovations were not always entirely successful, his contributions to 19th century engineering were enormous. And it's fitting that he's often remembered as the man who made the modern world.