[I do not know the source of this biography of Brunel, which has been on the site for at least thirteen years. The images have been added from material on the Victorian Web. — George P. Landow]

J. C. Jorsley’s portrait of the great engineer. Click on images to enlarge them.

One of the great British engineers of the 19th century ISAMBARD KINGDOM BRUNEL (1806-1859) built twenty-five railways lines, over a hundred bridges, including five suspension bridges, eight pier and dock systems, three ships and a pre-fabricated army field hospital.

“By his death the greatest of England's engineers was lost, the man with the greatest originality of thought and power of execution, bold in his plans, but right,” wrote Daniel Gooch of the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. “The commercial world thought him extravagant; but although he was so, great things are not done by those who sit down and count the cost of every thought and act.”

One of the most ingenious and prolific figures in engineering history, Brunel was born into his profession. His father, Marc (1769-1849) was one of the great engineers of the Industrial Revolution and a pioneer of mechanical production. Born in France, Marc had studied at Rouen under Gaspard Monge, the inventor of mechanical drawing, but fled to the US during the French Revolution and became chief engineer of New York City. He left for England in 1799, partly to be reunited with an English sweetheart, Sophia Kingdom, and partly because the Royal Navy had ordered his newly invented machinery for making ships’ blocks.

Once in England, Marc married Sophia and invented many mechanical devices, including knitting machines and marine steam engines, as well as designing the Thames Tunnel, the world’s first pedestrian tunnel under a river. Past attempts had failed, but Marc developed the idea of constructing the tunnel under a tunnelling shield after observing the behaviour of a shipworm, the encased head of which bores through the hardest of woods.

Their son Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born at Portsea in 1806. Marc made sure that the boy had a theoretical education as well as practical engineering apprenticeship. Isambard attended school in Chelsea and Hove, but as the best mathematical education was to be had in France, he was sent to study there, at Caen College in 1820 and then at Lycée Henri IV in Paris, where he stayed with the family of the horologist Louis Breguet.

In 1822, Brunel returned to London and the following year went to work for his father, who was designing suspension bridges for Ile de Bourbon (now Ile de Réunion) in the western Indian Ocean. He worked for Marc for five years, mostly as resident engineer on the Thames Tunnel. Work was suspended in 1828 when a flood destroyed much of the tunnel. Brunel was badly injured during the flood and was sent to convalesce in Bristol where he was encouraged to enter a competition to design the Clifton Bridge across the Avon Gorge. Three years later, the judges declared him the winner, Brunel set to work on the bridge and, two years later, was appointed chief engineer to the Great Western Railway. As his practise expanded, he moved to larger premises at 18 Duke Street in 1835 to which he later added number 17. After his marriage to Mary Horsley in 1836, they lived in the upper floors, where Brunel had his office, while business was conducted downstairs.

The design of the Great Western Railway linking Bristol to London absorbed much of his time. Brunel had to pitch for the project against other engineers and presented an audacious proposal for a high speed railway on which Stephenson’s locomotives could travel at 60mph rather than 35mph. He argued that by developing a track with a broader gauge — 7 feet inches, than the then-standard 4 feet 8 inches (1435mm) — the centre of gravity of the carriages would be lower thereby allowing the engine’s driving wheels to be larger and the trains to run faster. Brunel’s scheme was highly controversial and he fought a bitter battle to implement it: even threatening to resign when the GWR board tried to force him to work with a co-engineer. The broad gauge was eventually used on the Great Western Railway, Cornwall Railway and smaller lines, even though an 1845 Royal Commission deemed it too expensive to be adopted as the national standard gauge.

Brunel was equally ambitious in the design of the GWR’s London terminus, Paddington Station, which he was charged with rebuilding in 1849 to accommodate the crowds expected to converge on London for the 1851 Great Exhibition. He was asked to construct a flexible covered space with not columns to accommodate the railway’s future needs and to outshine the London terminus of the GWR’s arch-rival, the Great Northern Railway, at Euston. In an age when the new railways were regarded as the acme of modernity and sources of future prosperity for provincial cities and towns, public interest in Brunel’s daring schemes for the GWR was intense.

Inspired by Joseph Paxton’s design of Crystal Palace, Brunel hired the same contractors, Fox, Henderson, to build a three-span iron and glass structure for Paddington, which would be 700 feet long and 240 feet wide, with a 102 feet wide centre span, a 68 feet south span and 70 feet north span. It consisted of 189 wrought-iron arched ribs with 12 diagonals supporting the transept roofs and 69 identical cast iron columns erected in three rows.

It is difficult for us to comprehend the scale and complexity of the construction of a new railway like the Great Western or Cornish Railway today. Among Brunel’s gifts was to understand that, if passengers were to fully appreciate the romance of the railway, its engineering had to be invisible. The trains should float over the landscape with such apparent ease that their passengers did not notice if they were climbing hills or fording water. To achieve this, Brunel and his team designed numerous viaducts, tunnels, embankments and sea defences. Arguably his greatest challenge — and achievement — was on the Cornish Railway where he designed the Royal Albert railway bridge to cross the River Tamar at its narrowest point of 1,100 feet at Saltash allowing sufficient height for sailing ships to pass underneath.

The Royal Albert (or Saltash) Railway Bridge.

Brunel’s solution was a two-span bowstring suspension bridge with a single rail track. Each of two main spans was a wrought iron tubular arch with a profile in the form of a parabola. Sets of suspension chains hung on each side of the tube in a catenary curve with the tube’s rise equalling the dip of the chains. To create enough room for sailing ships to pass beneath the bridge, Brunel proposed a central pier and two spans each of 465 feet.

There were two principal difficulties. First, the creation of the pier in the middle of the river, which Brunel solved by designing a Great Cylinder to be floated into position and to act as a coffer dam. The second was the raising of the main spans. These were built on the Devon foreshore and floated into position. The Cornwall pier was erected first and jacked up three feet at a time to enable the brickwork on the landward pier and ironwork on the central pier to be erected beneath.

The Great Western. designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1837) — the first steamship in regular transatlantic service.

Consuming though his railway projects were, Brunel devoted considerable time and energy to other projects, notably his 1855 design of a 1,000 bed pre-fabricated field hospital to be shipped to the Crimean War at Renkioi and a series of steamships. The SS Great Western, a wooden paddle steamer, was launched at Bristol in 1837 and was to miss, by three hours, being the first ship to cross the Atlantic under steam. Six years later, the SS Great Britain took to the sea as the first liner iron ship with a screw propeller. By the early 1850s, Brunel determined to solve the refuelling problem by building a big enough steamship to carry all the coal required for a round trip to Australia.

The SS Great Western had paddle wheels. The SS Great Britain had a screw propeller. The SS Great Eastern had both to allow her to operate in the shallow waters of the River Hoogly in India where the screw propeller would not be completely immersed. She was built by John Scott Russell at Millwall on the Isle of Dogs with over three million iron rivets used to secure 30,000 wrought iron plates. The project was fraught with financial difficulties. Scott Russell, who had greatly underestimated the cost, went bankrupt.

When construction work recommenced, Brunel faced the problem of getting his huge ship into the water. She had to be launched sideways with 21 hydraulics forcing her down — a process that took nearly three weeks. Unable to finance a voyage to Australia, the Great Eastern’s owners put her on the transatlantic run, but she was too big to compete with the smaller steamers specifically designed for the route. After a short but successful career as a cable layer —  notably laying the first transatlantic cable in 1866 — she lay rusting at Milford Haven before being sold for £26,200 in 1884 as a floating music hall. Four years later she was sold to a firm of shipbreakers for £16,000 and took two years to break up — twice as long as planned.

Brunel did not live to see the Great Eastern’s demise. Early on in her construction, he became seriously ill and on 5 September 1859 collapsed on the deck of a heart attack. Brunel was too ill to join the great ship on its maiden voyage steaming down the Thames two days later and died on 15 September. Few engineers have matched Brunel’s achievements in the scale and range of his output — from the largest steamship of the age in the SS Great Eastern, to its most ingenious railway bridge in the Royal Albert. His funeral at Kensal Green Cemetry was attended not only by eminent engineers, but several thousand railway workers paying their respects.

Created 6 August 2007

Last modified 11 January 2020