Tag: Isambard Kingdom Brunel

A Remarkable Father-Son Team


Isambard Kingdom Brunel is probably the most famous engineer of the nineteenth century. He may have been the best.  Or not. Another lesser-known Brunel is in the running for that title; his father, Marc Isambard Brunel is.

“The Brunels, Father and Son,” by Anthony Burton, is a joint biography of two remarkable men. Burton does a compare-and-contrast on the pair. He concludes it is hard to say who was better.

Isambard Kingdom was best known for building the Great Western Railroad (with its six-foot gauge) and three pioneer steamships, Great Western, Great Britain, and Great Eastern.  Marc Isambard’s signature accomplishment was the Thames Tunnel,  which baffled earlier engineers. He is also known for pioneering mass-production techniques, most notably blocks and army boots.

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: