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Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Chief engineer for the Great Western Railway

Expertise

Bridges, Rail

Location

United Kingdom
Career highlights

Chief engineer for the Great Western Railway

Designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol

Designed some of the world’s greatest ships

Why you might have heard of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was one the most celebrated civil engineers of all time. Taking on a vast variety of projects throughout his lifetime, and revolutionising them along the way, he designed tunnels, bridges, railway lines, ships and much more.

He is particularly well known for designing the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol and for his construction of tunnels, bridges, and viaducts as chief engineer for the Great Western Railway (GWR). He even had an important role in the construction of Paddington Station, where the first GWR train departed in 1854.

He was also behind some of the most famous ships of all time: the ‘Great Western’ (1837), the ‘Great Britain’ (1843), and the ‘Great Eastern’ (1859).

Brunel is thought to be “one of the most versatile and audacious engineers of the 19th century,” according to BBC History.

Education

Brunel had a talent for engineering and maths from a young age. Encouraged by his father, Sir Marc Isambard Brunel (the engineer known for the invention of underwater tunnelling), he began to depict model drawings of buildings and study Euclidean geometry (the study of plane and solid figures based on axioms/postulates) by the age of eight.

He was educated in England and France, before taking on an apprenticeship under Louis Breguet, France’s most celebrated watchmaker. On his return to England, he began another apprenticeship working on the Thames Tunnel in London with his father.

He quickly proved his talent and became resident engineer, earning copious amounts of experience and knowledge that would serve him throughout his entire career.

Career

Brunel was appointed resident engineer on the construction of the Thames Tunnel from Rotherhithe to Wapping in 1825. He held this post until 1828, when unexpected flooding caused Brunel serious injury and halted the work on the tunnel, which was eventually completed in 1843.

While recovering from his injury, he worked on the design for what we now know as the Clifton Suspension Bridge, in Bristol. Construction began in 1831, but the bridge wouldn’t be completed until 1864, after Brunel’s death.

At the time it was built, the bridge was the longest bridge in the world, spanning a 250ft (76m) deep gorge across the Avon River, with rock on each side. The masonry towers on either side reach 245ft (75m) above the river gorge. The suspension bridge uses tension cables to support the roadway, which allowed the bridge to use significantly less material for construction. The Clifton Suspension Bridge is still in use today, and approximately 4 million vehicles pass over it every year.

Brunel is well known for his work on the Great Western Railway, the ambitious project that linked London and Bristol by railway. He was appointed chief engineer of the GWR in 1831 and he controversially chose the flattest route between the two cities, passing through Reading and Swindon, mere villages at the time that became booming cities thanks to the railway.

Some of the greatest achievements during the construction of the railway include the viaducts at Hanwell in Middlesex and Chippenham in Wiltshire, the Maidenhead Bridge (which had the flattest brick arch in the world), the Box Tunnel (the longest railway tunnel at the time) and Bristol Temple Station. Notably, he also collaborated on the design and construction of Paddington Station in London with architect Matthew Digby Wyatt.

Brunel’s work on the GWR is noted for his introduction of the broad gauge in place of the standard gauge. The track gauge is the distance between the two rails of a railway, with the broad gauge extending past the standard distance of 1,435mm. The broad gauge made high train speeds possible, providing a great stimulus to progress on the railway.

Network Rail noted that “in 1839 he persuaded the GWR to allow wires for the new electric telegraph system to be installed between Paddington and West Drayton, taking them over the viaduct. This was the first ever installation of a commercial electric telegraph”.

The last bridges he built were the Chepstow bridge, on the Welsh border, and the notable Saltash (Royal Albert) bridge between Devon and Cornwall. The Encyclopaedia Britannica highlighted that “Brunel’s use of a compressed-air caisson [or watertight retaining structure that enables underwater work] to sink the pier foundations for the bridge helped gain acceptance of compressed-air techniques in underwater and underground construction.”

Brunel also carried out extensive work on the Bristol Docks. He designed the Monkwearmouth Docks in 1831 and “later, similar works at Brentford, Briton Ferry, Milford Haven, and Plymouth”.

Brunel designed several famous ships. The Great Western (1837) was a wooden paddle vessel that was the first steamship to provide regular transatlantic service.

The Great Britain (1843) was the world’s first iron-hulled ship driven by a screw propeller.

Finally, the Great Eastern (1859), his last project, was propelled by paddles and a screw and was meant to take passengers from London to Sydney, but the ship’s first voyage proved catastrophic when it was damaged by an explosion.

  • In a 2002 poll by the BBC, Brunel was voted second greatest Briton of all time (after Winston Churchill.)
  • Brunel’s design for the suspension bridge over the Avon Gorge in Bristol was chosen after public outcry when noted Scottish engineer, Thomas Telford, heading the selection committee, selected his own design for the bridge.
  • Brunel was known for being visibly self-conscious about his height and would often wear very tall top hats to increase his height. He was 5 feet (1.52m) tall.
  • Brunel once tried to take possession of the Mickleton Tunnel in the Cotswolds after an argument with his contractor. The stand-off between them was diffused after Brunel was read the Riot Act by the local magistrates.

Notable projects

Membership of societies

Brunel was a member of ICE from 1829.

Brunel died before he could take up the post of ICE President, but he was vice-president from 1850 until 1859).