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.