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Born in 1806, lsambard Kingdom Brunel was the son of Sir Marc lsambard Brunel, a famous engineer. The younger Brunel made history by his work for the Great Western Railway and by his later work in popularizing screw propulsion for ships


Isambard Kingdom Brunel

OF the names heading the chapters of engineering history there are few which are duplicated. It is seldom that father and son both prove worthy of the honour. One such name is that of Brunel. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the son of Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, the engineer of the first Thames Tunnel. Sir Marc was a man of great inventive genius, resourceful and indomitable, but he received from his adopted country much less than was his due. With such a father, the boy Isambard, born at Portsmouth (Hants) on April 9, 1806, had fewer difficulties to face in becoming an engineer than had many other pioneers, but that is not to say that he was not the maker of his own reputation. His early education was of the kind then current in Great Britain, save that he spent two years in a mathematical college in Paris, in which he achieved distinction. At the age of seventeen he started practical work in his father’s office.

The Thames Tunnel was begun in 1825 and young Brunel found himself in the thick of the battle against the river overhead. On one occasion, after a break-in had driven out the workers, he returned to the rescue of an old engine attendant who had been left behind; on another occasion he narrowly escaped the death that overtook six of the men in the workings. The tunnel was formally opened in 1843, but long before that Brunel had been employed on other important matters. In 1836 work was begun on the well-known Clifton Suspension Bridge, near Bristol. This bridge was built, with a span of 702 ft 3 in and a deck 245 feet above the River Avon, to the designs that Brunel had prepared five years before. He was engaged also on docks and railways in England and on the Continent.

It is, however, as the engineer for the Great Western Railway that most people remember Brunel. The last of his broad gauge track was taken up in 1892, and its disappearance was tacitly accepted in many quarters as an admission of failure. But to the better-informed it is still an open question whether Brunel was not right in his persistent advocacy of the 7-feet gauge

against the now standard gauge of 4 ft 8½ in. The locomotive of to-day is handicapped by the small size of its boiler, and the narrow gauge imposes severe limitations on the size of the firegrate. A larger boiler would have been practicable on the frame of the broad-gauge engine. The broad gauge had, moreover, other advantages likely to be of considerable value to-day. Not least of these advantages was the greater roominess of the coaches. The narrow gauge had, however, too long a start and, in unifying the railway system of the country, it was much simpler to reduce the broad than to widen the narrow gauge. The change was not made all at once, as much of the Great Western Railway had latterly three rails, making it possible to run broad-gauge and standard-gauge trains on them. The removal, then, of Brunel’s permanent way does not prove that he was wrong, and his layout of the Great Western Railway is still regarded as a fine piece of work. The great bridge over the River Tamar at Saltash (Cornwall), a compound of the chain suspension and bow suspension principles, remains his chief visible monument. Even when judged by the exacting standards of to-day it is a notable achievement. His fine timber viaducts across the deep valleys of Cornwall also demonstrated up till quite recently his great constructive ability, and in the Box Tunnel, near Bath, on the London-Bristol main line, Brunel confounded those who had predicted that he had undertaken an impossible task.

The early engineers had an immensely harder task than their successors. They had weaker materials to deal with; the ubiquitous steel of to-day did not exist; there were only comparatively primitive tools and apparatus for handling heavy masses; and few data for reference had been accumulated. Brunel was a good example of the pioneer worker, and his name is also closely associated with the early steamships, in the building of which he led his contemporaries by recognition of the merits of the screw propeller and the iron hull. A wooden vessel, the Archimedes, had been built to demonstrate the screw propeller to the Admiralty. Brunel, having grasped the possibilities of this form of propulsion, changed his designs for the 3,618-tons steamer Great Britain, then building at Bristol, from paddle to screw propulsion. This vessel was launched in 1843 and had an iron hull without external keel, and a balanced rudder. These were at the time innovations for a sea-going vessel. Encouraged by the success of this vessel, Brunel, in conjunction with a naval architect, Scott Russell, designed the famous Great Eastern, a vessel 680 feet long, with a tonnage of 18,914 gross. This ship was of iron and was launched after great difficulties in 1858. It is said that the anxieties connected with the building of the Great Eastern, not due to faults in design, hastened Brunel’s end. At all events, he was taken ill at her engine trials and died shortly afterwards, on September 15, 1859, a comparatively young man.

[From part 18, published 29 June 1937]

You can

“The First Atlantic Cable”,

“The First Thames Tunnel” and

“Robert Stephenson”

on this website.

You can

“The Story of the Great Western Railway” in Railway Wonders of the World

You can read more on “The Famous Great Eastern” in Shipping Wonders of the World

Isambard Kingdom Brunel