Isambard Kingdom Brunel FRS
1806 – 1859
The Victorian era produced many great men and women but none so celebrated as the mechanical and civil engineer, I K Brunel. This remarkable man solved many intractable engineering problems with ingenious solutions.
He designed and built dockyards, suspension bridges, viaducts, tunnels, railways, propeller driven steamships, and arched metal and glass roofs. Although we are unaware of it, every day we use something Brunel was involved in or invented.
Brunel’s unusual name is a combination of his parent’s names. Isambard, comes from his father's middle name and is a Norman name of Germanic origin, meaning "iron-bright". Kingdom was his mother’s maiden name.
Brunel’s father was the French civil engineer, Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, who was working in Portsea, Portsmouth on block making machinery when his son was born on 9th April 1806.
The family moved to London for his father’s work when Isambard was 2 years old . Despite money worries, Isambard had a happy childhood with his father acting as his teacher. He was taught drawing and observational techniques from the age of four and he had learned Euclidean geometry by the age of eight. During this time he also learnt fluent French and the basic principles of engineering. He was encouraged to draw interesting buildings and identify any faults in their structure.
When Isambard was 8 he was sent to Dr Morrell's boarding school in Hove, Sussex, where he learned the classics. His father was determined that his son should have access to the high-quality education he had enjoyed himself as a youth in France; accordingly, at the age of 14, young Isambard was enrolled first at the Université de Caen Normandie, then at Lycée Henri-IV in Paris.
When Isambard was 15, his father Marc, who had accumulated debts of over £5,000, was sent to a debtors' prison. After three months went by with no prospect of release, Marc let it be known that he was considering an offer from the Tsar of Russia. In August 1821, facing the prospect of losing a prominent engineer, the government relented and issued Marc £5,000 to clear his debts in exchange for his promise to remain in Britain!
When Isambard completed his studies at Henri-IV in 1822, his father tried to enrol him in the renowned engineering school École Polytechnique, but as a foreigner he was deemed ineligible for entry. Instead, Isambard subsequently studied under the prominent master clockmaker and horologist Abraham-Louis Breguet, who praised Brunel's potential in letters to his father. In late 1822, having completed his apprenticeship, Brunel returned to England.
Isambard returned home and joined his father’s firm as an Assistant Engineer. He achieved many engineering "firsts", including assisting in the building of the Thames Tunnel between Rotherhythe and Wapping - the first tunnel under a navigable river.
The Royal Society
Founded in 1660, The Royal Society is the United Kingdom's and Commonwealth of Nations' Academy of Sciences and fulfils a number of roles. It was initially founded to promote science and its benefits, to recognise excellence in science, and to support instances of outstanding science.
Fellows are chosen by their scientific peers and invited to join as lifelong members. Some of the most significant scientists of our time have been awarded Fellowship of The Royal Society including Isambard Kingdom Brunel who was honoured in 1830, when aged just 24.
In the early part of Brunel's life, the use of railways began to take off as a major means of transport for goods. This influenced Brunel's involvement in railway engineering, including railway bridge engineering.
Great Western Railway (GWR)
In 1833, before the Thames Tunnel was complete, the 28 year-old Brunel was appointed as chief engineer of the Great Western Railway, one of the wonders of Victorian Britain.
The GWR ran from London to Bristol and was later extended to Exeter. It was Brunel’s vision that passengers would be able to purchase one ticket at London Paddington and travel from London to New York, changing from the Great Western Railway to the Great Western steamship at the terminus in Neyland, West Wales.
Brunel surveyed the entire length of the route between London and Bristol himself, co-opting many of his friends in the project. He even got his solicitor friend, Jeremiah Osborne to row him down the River Avon while he surveyed the bank of the river for the route.
Although Brunel's projects were not always successful, he set the standard for well-built railways, using careful surveys to minimise grades and curves. He was a great promoter of the wide gauge although this necessitated expensive construction.
Drawing on his experience with the Thames Tunnel, the GWR contained a series of impressive achievements—soaring viaducts such as the one at Ivybridge, specially designed stations such as Paddington in London, , and vast tunnels including the 2-mile Box Tunnel, which was the longest railway tunnel in the world at that time.
There is an anecdote that the Box Tunnel may have been deliberately oriented so that the rising sun shines all the way through it on Brunel's birthday!
The initial group of locomotives ordered by Brunel to his own specifications proved unsatisfactory, apart from the North Star locomotive. Another whizkid, 20-year-old Daniel Gooch (later Sir Daniel) was appointed as Superintendent of Locomotive Engines. Brunel and Gooch chose to locate their locomotive works at the village of Swindon, at the point where the gradual ascent from London turned into the steeper descent to the Avon valley at Bath.
Brunel's achievements ignited the imagination of the technically minded Britons of the age, and he soon became quite notable in the country on the back of this interest.
The Gauge Controversy
When building the GWR, Brunel made two controversial decisions: to use a broad gauge of 7 ft 1⁄4 in (2,140 mm) for the track, which he believed would offer superior running at high speeds; and to take a route that passed north of the Marlborough Downs—an area with no significant towns, though it offered potential connections to Oxford and Gloucester—and then to follow the Thames Valley into London.
The fact that most of the railways already built were standard gauge was loudly denigrated by Brunel who maintained this was due to a hangover from the days of George Stephenson’s mining tramroads.
Brunel proved through both calculation and a series of trials that his broader gauge was the optimum size for providing both higher speeds and a stable and comfortable ride for passengers. In addition the wider gauge allowed for larger carriages and thus greater freight capacity.
His preference for the wide gauge caused difficulties when eventually it had to interconnect with other railways using the narrower gauge. As a result of the Regulating the Gauge of Railways Act 1846, the gauge was changed to standard gauge throughout the GWR network.
Brunel astonished Britain by proposing to extend the Great Western Railway westward to North America by building steam-powered iron-hulled ships. He designed and built three ships that revolutionised naval engineering. These were the Great Western, the SS Great Britain and the Great Eastern.
In 1843 he helped develop the largest ship ever built, the ss Great Britain, the first propeller-driven ocean-going iron ship. This iconic ship is now preserved at Bristol Docks and open for inspection.
The three ships did not achieve their full potential as passenger ships because they were decades ahead of their time. However, the Great Eastern eventually found a role as an oceanic telegraph cable-layer and played a significant role in laying the first lasting transatlantic telegraph cable, which enabled telecommunication between Europe and North America.
Brunel’s role in the creation of portable hospital buildings during the Crimean War is not as well known as some of his other achievements.
That indomitable woman Florence Nightingale was trying to save British troops in an unsanitary British Hospital in Scutari but more than 50%.of her patients were dying from a variety of illnesses including cholera, dysentery, typhoid and malaria. Florence sent a plea to The Times newspaper for the government to produce a solution.
As luck would have it, Brunel was working on another project with William Eassie, a man who had designed and built wooden prefabricated huts used in both the Australian gold rush, as well as by the British and French Armies in the Crimea.
With Eassie’s help Brunell accepted a War Office commission in early 1855 to build a temporary, pre-fabricated hospital that could be shipped to Crimea and erected there.
Brunel initially designed a unit ward to house 50 patients, 90 feet (27 m) long by 40 feet (12 m) wide, divided into two hospital wards. The design incorporated the necessities of hygiene: access to sanitation, ventilation, drainage, and even rudimentary temperature controls. These were then integrated within a 1,000 patient hospital layout, using 60 of the unit wards. The design took Brunel six days in total to complete.
In 5 months the team he had assembled had designed, built, and shipped pre-fabricated wood and canvas buildings, providing them complete with advice on transportation and positioning of the facilities. These portable hospitals were shipped directly via 16 ships from Gloucester Docks to the Dardanelles, and re-assembled in the malaria free area of Renkioi.
The “Atmospheric Railway”
This was not one of Brunel’s success stories. The current heritage South Devon Railway (SDR) is all that remains of Brunel’s “atmospheric railway”. Passengers can still see the Pumping Stations with their distinctive square chimneys at Totnes and Starcross.
After extending the GWR to Exeter, Brunel considered driving the line further south to Plymouth using a radical new idea. Instead of using locomotives, the trains were to be moved by Clegg and Samuda's patented system of atmospheric (vacuum) traction, whereby stationary pumps sucked air from a pipe placed in the centre of the track.
The section from Exeter to Newton (now Newton Abbot) was completed on this principle, and trains ran at approximately 68 miles per hour (109 km/h). Pumping stations with distinctive square chimneys were sited at two-mile intervals. Fifteen-inch (381 mm) pipes were used on the level portions, and 22-inch (559 mm) pipes were intended for the steeper gradients. A section of the actual pipe can be seen in the Swindon Steam Railway Museum.
The technology required the use of leather flaps to seal the vacuum pipes. Unfortunately, the natural oils were drawn out of the leather by the vacuum, making the leather vulnerable to water, rotting it and breaking the fibres when it froze during the winter of 1847. It had to be kept supple with tallow, which is attractive to rats. The rats ate the flaps, and vacuum operation lasted less than a year.
The service was experimental from September 1847 until February 1848 when it became operational; the service failed on 10 September 1848. The system never managed to prove itself as evidenced in the 1848 accounts held by the SDR.
Deterioration of the valve due to the reaction of tannin and iron oxide has been cited as the last straw that sank the project, as the continuous valve began to tear from its rivets over most of its length. The estimated replacement cost of £25,000 was considered prohibitive. Instead of struggling on with the project, Brunel abandoned it.
A reconstruction of Brunel's atmospheric railway, using a segment of the original pipe without the leather covers, can be seen at Didcot Railway Centre.
The most famous of Brunel’s bridges is the Clifton Suspension Bridge spanning the Avon Gorge in Bristol.
Brunel designed many bridges for his railway projects, including the Royal Albert Bridge spanning the tidal River Tamar at Saltash near Plymouth. He designed the it in 1855 for the Cornwall Railway, after Parliament rejected his original plan for a train ferry across the estuary.
The bridge (of bowstring girder or tied arch construction) consists of two main spans of 455 ft (139 m), 100 ft (30 m) above mean high spring tide, plus 17 much shorter approach spans. Opened by Prince Albert on 2 May 1859, it was completed in the year of Brunel's death.
Brunel’s Maidenhead Railway Bridge over the Thames in Berkshire is the flattest, widest brick arch bridge in the world and is still carrying main line trains to the west, even though today's trains are about ten times heavier than in Brunel's time.
Three Bridges, London
Brunel's last major undertaking was the unique Three Bridges in Hanwell, west, London. The three bridges in question are a clever arrangement allowing the routes of the Grand Junction Canal, Great Western and Brentford Railway, and Windmill Lane to cross each other - road above canal above railway. Work began in 1856, and was completed in 1859, 2 months before Brunel’s death.
Early Death & Grave
Isambard had always been a heavy smoker and in 1859 suffered a stroke. He died ten days later on 15 September, at the age of 53, and was buried in the family vault in Kensal Green Cemetery in London. The grave is insignificant by the standards of the cemetery and easily missed. It lies south of the main central path, midway between the entrance and the central chapel, around 22 yards (20 metres) from the path and screened by trees.
He left behind his wife Mary and three children: Isambard Brunel Junior (1837–1902), Henry Marc Brunel (1842–1903) and Florence Mary Brunel (1847–1876).
Henry Marc followed his father and grandfather in becoming a successful civil engineer.