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Isambard Kingdom Brunel


Isambard Kingdom Brunel
While an era of progress, the Industrial Revolution was also a time of trial and error. Those leading the way in technological advances attempted to make huge leaps forward, often resulting in failure, but sometimes incredible success. One of the greatest of the innovators of this time was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, born at the start of the 19th century. His father, Marc, was a French civil engineer, and encouraged his son to learn arithmetic, scale drawing and geometry. At 16, he became a watchmaker’s apprentice.

In 1824 Marc was appointed chief engineer of a project to construct a tunnel under the River Thames. He hired his son as an assistant engineer, who later became resident engineer. The project was fraught with disaster, witnessing several incidents of flooding, as well as financial difficulties. At one point the operation was halted for several years and the tunnel bricked up. It was eventually opened in 1843 and is still in use today as part of the London Overground network.
The project transformed the young Brunel into a full-fledged engineer. In 1830 he entered a competition to design a bridge that would span across the River Avon in Bristol, and although rejected initially, he eventually persuaded the panel to appoint him as project engineer. Work on the Clifton Suspension Bridge commenced in June 1831, but just four months later the Queen Square riots drove investors away. Once again a project ground to a halt.
In 1833 Brunel was made chief engineer of the
Great Western Railway, which would run from London to Bristol. It was then that he developed one of the most controversial ideas of his career – to use a 2.1-metre (seven-foot) gauge (distance between the tracks) rather than the standard 1.4-metre (4.6-foot) gauge. He believed that this would allow the trains to run at much higher speeds, as well as provide a more stable and comfortable journey without as much rocking back and forth. For the rest of his life the efficiency of this design was heavily contested.
But none could contest the efficiency of his Great Western Steamship, which transported passengers from Bristol to New York. It was thought a steamship would not be able to carry enough fuel for the trip and have room for cargo. However, it completed its maiden voyage in 15 days, with a third of its coal remaining.
Brunel was also a fierce proponent of propellerdriven ships and incorporated a propeller on his second ship, SS Great Britain. Considered the first modern ocean-going ship, it was made of metal, powered by an engine rather than wind, and driven by a propeller rather than a paddle wheel. Indeed, this vessel laid the foundations for a new era of transatlantic travel.
Brunel’s personal life was a series of ups and downs too. Many say the stress of the Great Western Railway led to his early death in 1859. Soon after it was decided all railways in the country should revert to using the standard gauge. However, funds were also raised to complete the Clifton Bridge, which was opened five years after Brunel’s death and is still in use.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Brunel Trivia


Brunel Trivia
1 French connection
During his teenage years, Brunel attended school in France, but surprisingly his application to the renowned French engineering school École Polytechnique was unsuccessful, owing to the fact that he was a ‘foreigner’.
2 River party
In 1827, after several incidents of flooding, Brunel held a lavish banquet inside the Thames Tunnel to help convince people that it was perfectly safe.
3 Beating the
Competition Brunel’s submission to the Clifton Bridge competition was initially rejected by the judge, Thomas Telford, who instead put forward his own design.
4 Flip of a coin
In 1843, while performing a magic trick for his children, a coin became lodged in Brunel’s windpipe. In order to remove it, he was strapped to a board and turned upside down.
5 Commissioned
by the lady with the lamp In 1855 Brunel responded to a request from Florence Nightingale, known as nursing icon ‘the lady with the lamp’, to design a new hospital that would replace the unsanitary British Army Hospital in Scutari, Turkey, which he did successfully.