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Engineering Zeal

 

Voted the second Greatest Briton of all time (after Winston Churchill), Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) was one of the 19th century’s engineering giants. He was the son of French civil engineer Marc Isambard Brunel and an English mother. His father taught him drawing and he learned Euclidean geometry by eight. At 14 years old, his father sent him to school in France for a technical education that was unavailable in Britain. His school report showed that he was a precociously talented child. At 16, he returned to England as an engineer on the first tunnel under the Thames River. In 1828, the tunnel flooded and injured Isambard. While recuperating, he made drawings for a suspension bridge over the Avon Gorge in Bristol, which became the Clifton Suspension Bridge. With the “short man syndrome” like Napoleon, at five feet tall he wore his trademark eight-inch stovepipe hat to look more imposing. A workaholic, regularly putting in 20-hour days, he smoked more than 40 cigars a day. He epitomized Engineering Zeal.

In addition to the tunnel and various bridges, Brunel designed the world’s largest ships upon launching. The Great Western (1837) was the first steamship with regular transatlantic service. The Great Britain (1843) was the first large ship driven by a screw propeller. The Great Eastern (1859) with sails, paddle wheels, and a screw propeller, was the largest ship for 40 years and laid the first successful transatlantic cable. As transportation devices, his steamships are no longer in service, but his greatest success is still in use today.

Before the Thames Tunnel was complete, Brunel became chief engineer of the Great Western Railway, connecting London to Bristol. The Bristol merchants wanted their city to prosper with the American trade. With a Liverpool to London rail line under construction in the 1830s, Bristol’s status was threatened. With the co-operation of London interests, the company was founded at Bristol in 1833 and was incorporated by Act of Parliament in 1835. Brunel chose a very wide gauge of seven feet which would give smoother running at high speeds. In addition, he selected a route west of Reading that had no significant towns but offered potential connections to Oxford and Gloucester. The tracks make a broad sweep to the north, as shown below:

Brunel surveyed the entire length of the route between London and Bristol himself, along with the help of others. The Great Western Railway included many bridges that Brunel designed. The Maidenhead Bridge over the Thames River was the largest span achieved by a brick arch bridge at the time of construction. By the end of 1840, the railway was over 80 miles long and west of Swindon. Also in 1840, an 11.5-mile line from Bristol to Bath was opened.

If helping with the Thames Tunnel and the Avon suspension bridge, designing the three biggest ships in the world from 1837 to end of the 19th century, designing many bridges and the Great Western Railway wasn’t enough, Brunel designed the famous Paddington Station in London. Major upgrades took place in the 1870s, the 1910s, and the 1960s, each adding additional platforms and space while preserving the architecture as much as possible. Despite the damage sustained during World War II, Brunel’s original design is still recognizable. The children’s book character Paddington Bear was named after the station.

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There are 23 comments.

  1. Thatcher
    Vectorman Post author

    While on a trip to England in 2015, we stayed at a Bed and Breakfast in Pangbourne which backed up to the Great Western Railway station. There were trains at all hours. Luckily, our room faced away from the trains, so we slept through the night.

    • #1
    • October 10, 2018 at 2:05 pm
    • 4 likes
  2. Member

    Wow, I’ve been in Paddington Station. Why isn’t this guy more famous?

    • #2
    • October 10, 2018 at 2:19 pm
    • 4 likes
  3. Member

    Marc was a royalist in the French Revolution and was driven out by the Republicans. He wound up in New York City where he became a citizen and city engineer before going to England to help with problems with the manufacture of pulley blocks and marrying Sophia Kingdom, etc.


    This conversation is an entry in our Group Writing Series under October’s theme of Zeal. If you’ve got something exciting in your life, something that brings out your zeal, why not sign up and write about it?

    • #3
    • October 10, 2018 at 2:21 pm
    • 2 likes
  4. Member

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Wow, I’ve been in Paddington Station. Why isn’t this guy more famous?

    I don’t know. You get a name like that, you’re hard to forget.

    • #4
    • October 10, 2018 at 2:23 pm
    • 3 likes
  5. Thatcher
    Vectorman Post author

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Wow, I’ve been in Paddington Station. Why isn’t this guy more famous?

    Because Engineers are too busy doing their jobs, are not part of the “chattering class,” and don’t write history books, etc.

    • #5
    • October 10, 2018 at 2:24 pm
    • 14 likes
  6. Member

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Wow, I’ve been in Paddington Station. Why isn’t this guy more famous?

    He is very famous. But, he’s also a dead White European, so they don’t teach him anymore.

    • #6
    • October 10, 2018 at 2:29 pm
    • 10 likes
  7. Member

    Talk about making the world a better place, or leaving your mark. Truly a great man.

    • #7
    • October 10, 2018 at 2:37 pm
    • 4 likes
  8. Member

    @vectorman Terrific article. My dad gave me a biography of Brunel to read many years back. When we talk of the industrial revolution in England Brunel figured heavily in it.

    • #8
    • October 10, 2018 at 2:52 pm
    • 4 likes
  9. Moderator
    She

    Arahant (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Wow, I’ve been in Paddington Station. Why isn’t this guy more famous?

    He is very famous. But, he’s also a dead White European, so they don’t teach him anymore.

    This.

    • #9
    • October 10, 2018 at 3:47 pm
    • 2 likes
  10. Moderator

    Brunel was a fascinating guy, and his sons were no slouches themselves. Still, The Great Eastern was very much both an engineering marvel and a commercial flop as a ship. Her high operating costs rather negated her size and speed advantages, and she was quickly surpassed by other technology.

    • #10
    • October 10, 2018 at 8:45 pm
    • 3 likes
  11. Thatcher
    Vectorman Post author

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    Brunel was a fascinating guy, and his sons were no slouches themselves. Still, The Great Eastern was very much both an engineering marvel and a commercial flop as a ship. Her high operating costs rather negated her size and speed advantages, and she was quickly surpassed by other technology.

    Brunel was wrongly told that Australia had no native coal reserves, so he designed the ship to go around the world without refueling, leaving less room for cargo.

    • #11
    • October 11, 2018 at 2:54 am
    • 3 likes
  12. Member

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    Brunel was a fascinating guy, and his sons were no slouches themselves. Still, The Great Eastern was very much both an engineering marvel and a commercial flop as a ship. Her high operating costs rather negated her size and speed advantages, and she was quickly surpassed by other technology.

    If I remember correctly, this story was featured as one of James Burke’s “Connections”.

    Serendipity intruded. Laying the transatlantic cable is a much more significant contribution. 

    • #12
    • October 11, 2018 at 7:06 am
    • 5 likes
  13. Member

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    Still, The Great Eastern was very much both an engineering marvel and a commercial flop as a ship. Her high operating costs rather negated her size and speed advantages, and she was quickly surpassed by other technology.

    Sort of the Concorde of its day?

    • #13
    • October 11, 2018 at 10:48 am
    • 1 like
  14. Member

    I met him on a recent trip to Bristol!

    • #14
    • October 11, 2018 at 10:52 am
    • 6 likes
  15. Coolidge

    He ranked as in the top two of great English citizens, on the BBC.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/100_Greatest_Britons

     

    • #15
    • October 11, 2018 at 1:13 pm
    • 2 likes
  16. Thatcher

    She (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Wow, I’ve been in Paddington Station. Why isn’t this guy more famous?

    He is very famous. But, he’s also a dead White European, so they don’t teach him anymore.

    This.

    100 years ago there wouldn’t have been an engineer worth his or her salt that didn’t know Brunel name or what he had accomplished. He was one of Victoria’s “trusted and well-beloved” citizens. He put the “U” in United Kingdom.

    • #16
    • October 11, 2018 at 1:45 pm
    • 3 likes
  17. Thatcher

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    I met him on a recent trip to Bristol!

    I understand he is good for a round at the local.

    • #17
    • October 11, 2018 at 2:01 pm
    • 2 likes
  18. Member

    Napoleon was reportedly more like 5′-7″, not particularly tiny in 1800.

    • #18
    • October 11, 2018 at 8:10 pm
    • 2 likes
  19. Member

    Duane Oyen (View Comment):

    Napoleon was reportedly more like 5′-7″, not particularly tiny in 1800.

    French measure (the French foot) was based on longer units, so he was 5’2″ French measure. As you say, that was about 5’7″ English measure. 5’6″ was average at the time, so he was slightly above average, although not outside the 95% normal range.

    • #19
    • October 11, 2018 at 8:19 pm
    • 2 likes
  20. Member

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Wow, I’ve been in Paddington Station. Why isn’t this guy more famous?

    Because Engineers are too busy doing their jobs, are not part of the “chattering class,” and don’t write history books, etc.

    Also because they usually need someone to translate them into English. I’ve spent a career in technical writing doing that. I love engineers, but I haven’t known one that could spell since I was a child.

    • #20
    • October 12, 2018 at 5:31 am
    • 4 likes
  21. Member

    Douglas Pratt (View Comment):
    I love engineers, but I haven’t known one that could spell since I was a child.

    You need to meet my brother.

    • #21
    • October 12, 2018 at 5:50 am
    • Like
  22. Member

    Douglas Pratt (View Comment):
    I love engineers, but I haven’t known one that could spell since I was a child.

    That’s why we invented spell check.

    • #22
    • October 12, 2018 at 9:50 pm
    • 1 like
  23. Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Duane Oyen (View Comment):

    Napoleon was reportedly more like 5′-7″, not particularly tiny in 1800.

    French measure (the French foot) was based on longer units, so he was 5’2″ French measure. As you say, that was about 5’7″ English measure. 5’6″ was average at the time, so he was slightly above average, although not outside the 95% normal range.

    Everyone got their “Napoleon Complex” info from misapplication of French feet…..

    • #23
    • October 14, 2018 at 8:20 am
    • 3 likes