The following comes from the Internet Archive web version of a copy of The Dictionary of National Biography in the University of Toronto Library. The illustrations have been added from material on the Victorian WebGeorge P. Landow]

Photographs of the great pioneering engineer by the painter J. C. Horsley and the photographer Robert Howlett. Click on images to enlarge them.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59), civil engineer, the only son of Sir Marc I. Brunel, was born on 9 April 1806 at Portsmouth. He was educated first at private schools, and later in the college of Henri Quatre at Paris, then celebrated for its staff of mathematical teachers. At a very early age he evinced decided talent for drawing, and when only fourteen employed himself in making an accurate plan of Hove, near Brighton, where he was then at school. After two years spent at Paris he returned to England for his practical training. In 1823 he entered his father's office, and at the age of seventeen took part in his operations at the Thames Tunnel, where he was afterwards appointed resident engineer, and there gained personal experience of all kinds of work.

Left: View of the western archway of the Tunnel, lighted by gas. Middle: Plan of the Tunnel with reference to the main roads and objects on the eastern part of London. Right: The tunneling process.

Left: Men in the shield. Right: A side view of the tunneling.

Advertisement for the Thames Rotherhithe-Wapping Tunnel. From An explanation of the works of the tunnel under the Thames from Rotherhithe to Wapping (1836), Right: The shaft, from whence the Tunnel works are carried on.

Brunel rendered his father great assistance in meeting the various disasters which occurred in the course of the tunnelling operations. At an anxious time, in September 1826, he was actively engaged on the works for ninety-six consecutive hours, with a few snatches of sleep in the tunnel. On the occasion of the first great irruption of the river, Brunel, to save the life of a workman in danger of drowning, lowered himself into the shaft, then half full of water, and succeeded in bringing the man to the surface. One of Brunel's first great independent designs, executed in 1829, was for a suspension bridge across the river Avon, from Durdham Downs, Clifton, to the Leigh "Woods. His first plan was, on the advice of Telford, rejected; but a second design, sent in in 1831, was pronounced to be the most mathematically exact of all those tendered (among which was one by Telford himself), and was accepted. Brunel was appointed engineer, and the works were begun in 1836, but owing to lack of funds were not completed in his lifetime. After his death the bridge was erected nearly in accordance with his original designs, with chains taken from the old Hungerford suspension bridge, constructed by himself between the years 1841 and 1845, and removed in 1862 to make room for the Charing Cross railway bridge. Brunel was appointed engineer to the Bristol Docks, in which he afterwards carried out extensive improvements. In 1831 he designed the Monkwearmouth Docks, and in later years similar works at Plymouth, Briton Ferry, Brentford, and Milford Haven. In March 1833 Brunel was appointed engineer to the Great Western railway, and in that capacity carried into effect his plans for the broad-gauge railway, a system which became the subject of much controversy among the engineers of the day. His work on this line established for him a high reputation in his profession. The viaducts at Hanwell and Chippenham, the Maidenhead and other masonry bridges, the Box tunnel, and the iron structures of the Chepstow and Saltash bridges on the Great Western line and its extensions, all exhibit boldness of conception, taste in design, and great skill in the use of material.

The Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash.

He obtained a high reputation for his evidence given before the parliamentary committees on schemes of which he was engineer. He was employed to construct two railways in Italy, and to advise upon the Victorian lines in Australia and the Eastern Bengal railway. He adopted the system of atmospheric propulsion on the South Devon railway in 1844, but it resulted in failure. The last and greatest of his railway works was the Royal Albert bridge of the Cornwall railway, crossing the river Tamar at Saltash. It has two spaces of 455 feet each, and a central pier built on the rock 80 feet below high-water mark. It was opened in 1859.

The Great Western steanship.

Brunel's greatest fame was obtained in the construction of ocean-going steamships of dimensions larger than any previously known. The object was in each case to enable them to carry coal sufficient for at least the outward voyage. In 1836 the largest steam vessel afloat did not exceed 208 feet in length. The Great Western, constructed by him, far surpassed any other existing steamship in size, measuring 236 feet in length by 35 in breadth, with a displacement of 2,300 tons. She made her first voyage in 1838, and achieved a great success. She was the first steamship employed in a regular ocean service between this country and America, and accomplished the voyage in the then unprecedented time of fifteen days. In the construction of this vessel Brunel had the assistance of Mr. Paterson of Bristol as shipwright, and Messrs. Maudslay & Field as makers of the engines. A series of observations upon screw propulsion, made in the course of experimental voyages in the Archimedes, convinced him of the practicability of applying the system to large steamships. In 1841 Brunel was commissioned by the admiralty to conduct experiments which led to the adoption of the screw propeller in the navy in 1845. The Great Britain, an iron ship of dimensions far exceeding those of any vessel of the period, first designed by him for paddles, was the first large vessel in which the screw propeller was used. She made her first voyage from Liverpool to New York in 1845, and abundantly demonstrated her excellence of design and strength of hull, especially when she was stranded on the coast of Ireland in 1846, and remained there a whole winter. After the launch of these vessels Brunel was, in 1851, appointed consulting engineer to the Australian Steam Navigation Company, and in this capacity recommended the construction of steamships of 5,000 tons burden, capable of making the voyage to Australia with only one stoppage for coaling. His suggestion was not then adopted.

The Great Eastern steamship.

Brunel's crowning effort in shipbuilding was in the design of the Great Eastern, the largest steamship yet built. The scheme for this vessel was adopted by the directors of the Eastern Steam Navigation Company in 1852. Brunel was appointed their engineer. The work was begun in December 1853, and the Great Eastern entered the water on 31 Jan. 1858. The delays and casualties attending her launch must be attributed to the novel and gigantic character of the undertaking and the imperfect calculations then applied to the problems of friction. The experience of the Great Eastern proved the accuracy of Brunel's designs, and she affords a good example of the double-skin system of construction, a device unknown in previous shipbuilding. In many other respects the ship was admirably constructed, and remains a strong and efficient vessel to this day, although she has been subjected to the severest strains in the work of laying submarine cables. Financially she has been a failure, except as a cable-carrying ship.

She was popular when carrying troops in 1861, and when taking passengers to America; but as a single and exceptional ship has been commercially unsuccessful. Brunel was restive under restraint on invention, and was a persistent and outspoken opponent of the patent laws. In addition to the works already mentioned, Brunel devoted much attention to the improvement of large guns, and designed a floating gun-carriage for the attack on Cronstadt in the Russian war in 1854. He also designed and superintended the construction of the hospital buildings at Renkioi on the Dardanelles in 1855. The labour and anxiety involved in the building and launch of the Great Eastern proved too much for Brunel's physical powers, and he broke down on the day of her start on the trial trip. He was present, on 5 Sept. 1859, at the trial of the engines the day before she left the Thames, but his health had been failing him for some time, and on this occasion he was seized with an attack of paralysis. Ten days later, on 15 Sept. 1859, he died. He was buried in Kensal Green cemetery on 20 Sept. At a meeting held in the following November, under the presidency of Lord Shelburne, it was resolved to erect a public monument to Brunel, and a statue was made by the late Baron Marochetti.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel Memorial by Baron Marochetti. 1864. Bronze. [Click on these images for larger pictures.] Photographs by Jacqueline Banerjee and Robert Freidus. You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite it in a print one.]

A window was also erected by his family to his memory in the nave of Westminster Abbey. Brunel's personal character was universally esteemed. Though undemonstrative and overworked, he found time for many acts of generosity. Where his professional work was concerned he exhibited an almost excessive indifference to public opinion. He was a profound student of engineering science, and possessed, besides high mathematical knowledge and readiness in applying it, great natural mechanical skill. Brunel's special objects of study were problems connected with railway traction and steam navigation. He devoted two years to completing the experiments of his father for testing the application of compressed carbonic acid gas as a motive power for engines. He was a zealous promoter of the Great Exhibition of 1851. He was a member of the building committee, and chairman and reporter of the section of civil engineering. Brunel was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in June 1830, and became a member of most of the leading scientific societies in London, and of many abroad. He joined the Institution of Civil Engineers as an associate in January 1829, became a member in 1837, was elected on the council 1845, and from 1850 to the time of his death held the position of vice-president. He declined the office of president in 1858 from ill-health. He frequently took part in discussions, but contributed no papers to the proceedings. Brunel received the degree of Hon. D.C.L. from the university of Oxford in 1857. In July 1836 he married, and he left a widow, two sons and a daughter surviving him.

[Proceedings of Inst. of Civil Engineers, vol. xix. memoir; Smiles's Life of Stephenson, p. 370; Encycl. Metropolitana; Encycl. Britan. 9th edit.; Life of I. K. Brunel, by his Son, 1870.] R. H.

Related Material


The Dictionary of National Biography Vol. 7. Ed. Leslie Stephen. New York: Macmillan; London: Smith, Elder, 1886. Internet Archive web version of a copy in the University of Toronto Library. Web. 6 October 2014.

Last modified 10 May 2016