Brunel, Isambard Kingdom

views updated May 18 2018


BRUNEL, ISAMBARD KINGDOM (1806–1859), English engineer.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel has come to be regarded as one of the heroic engineers of the British Industrial Revolution, a reputation that stems from his visionary roles in building the Great Western Railway (GWR) and constructing large steamships. He was the only son of Sir Marc Isambard Brunel (1769–1849), a civil engineer. From an early age, Isambard Kingdom shared his father's professional interests, and these were fostered by parental guidance in draftsmanship and the proper application of tools. He received a formal education in first England and then France, when his French-born father enabled him to spend a period with Louis Breguet (1747–1823), one of the foremost clockmakers. Isambard Kingdom completed his introduction to engineering through assisting his father's project for a tunnel under the River Thames. Despite an innovative tunneling process involving a shield, the scheme was ill-fated, and Isambard Kingdom nearly lost his life when the workings were flooded on 12 January 1828. The tunnel finally opened to pedestrians in March 1843, and in 1869 a railway was laid within it—to ultimately form a north–south link in London's underground system.

Following the Thames tunnel's collapse in 1828, Isambard Kingdom convalesced at Bristol, circumstances that led to his design for the Clifton suspension bridge. His second essay was accepted but Isambard Kingdom never saw his bridge. The erection of its two towers exhausted construction funds, and the elegant bridge was only completed in 1864, undertaken by the Institution of Civil Engineers as a memorial to him. The connections that Isambard Kingdom developed within Bristol business circles also resulted in his acting as a consultant for improvement of the city's docks and being appointed in March 1833 the engineer to the GWR. Over the next fifteen years, he designed a complete railway, including locomotives, for a line initially between London and Bristol (fully opened in 1841), but which was ultimately extended to Penzance in the southwest, to Milford Haven in southwest Wales, to Birmingham in the midlands, and to Birkenhead in the northwest.

Isambard Kingdom took a unique approach to railway building, eschewing methods that stemmed from early northeastern colliery lines and were pursued by his rivals George Stephenson (1781–1848) and Robert Stephenson (1803–1859). He introduced broad gauge—seven feet between the rails—and laid the track on longitudinal sleepers to provide a stable permanent way on which trains could be run safely at speed. This objective was also obtained by detailed surveying that resulted in a very carefully graded routeway. Care with establishing the line went along with fine designs for its bridges, tunnels, and viaducts. However, not all of his innovations were successful, as with the South Devon

"atmospheric" (pneumatic) railway, and broad gauge soon lost its competitive advantage, forcing the GWR to abandon it, first for its extensions to the midlands and the northwest and, ultimately, for its initial lines in southern England and Wales. Furthermore, although he was an outstanding civil engineer, Isambard Kingdom's locomotives performed poorly and GWR's timetable performance only came about following the introduction of haulage designed by Daniel Gooch (1816–1889).

As the GWR was being conceived, Bristol was being rapidly overtaken in the Atlantic trades by Liverpool and Glasgow. This may have led to Isambard Kingdom suggesting in spring 1833 that the projected railway should go to New York, under-taken by an associated shipping company. As its engineer he designed the Great Western, a very large wooden paddle steamer of 2,300 tons, which gave it the capacity to carry its fuel. Although the Cunard line operating from Liverpool won the North Atlantic mail contract, Isambard Kingdom designed a further vessel, Great Britain, which was even larger, over 3000 tons. The Great Britain, which was constructed of iron, was screw-propelled. Too big to use Bristol as a homeport, the Great Britain sailed principally from Liverpool until its stranding in 1846 forced the liquidation of the GWR's associated steamship enterprise.

Isambard Kingdom undertook his design work from a London office, and it included docks at Sunderland and an Italian railway. The growth of trade with the Orient led him to design and financially sponsor an enormous iron steamship, Great Eastern, of 32,000 tons, propelled by paddles and a screw. For its construction he formed a partnership with John Scott Russell (1808–1882), who had a yard on the Thames at the Isle of Dogs. The project was marked by quarrels between its engineer and its shipbuilder as well as technical difficulties. Isambard Kingdom was dying when the Great Eastern made its maiden voyage in September 1859, surviving just long enough to learn that it had suffered an explosion in the boiler room when in the English Channel. However, the strength of the ship's structure enabled the Great Eastern to continue to sail until 1888, although never at a profit. Its construction almost financially ruined Brunel, who died on 15 September 1859.

See alsoEngineers; Railroads; Transportation and Communications.


Primary Sources

Brunel, Isambard. The Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Civil Engineer. 1870. Introduction by L. T. C. Rolt. Newton Abbot, U.K., 1971.

Gibbs, George Henry. The Birth of the Great Western Railway: Extracts from the Diary and Correspondence of George Henry Gibbs. Edited by Jack Simmons. Bath, U.K., 1971.

Secondary Sources

Brunel Noble, Celia. The Brunels, Father and Son. London, 1938.

Buchanan, R. Angus. Brunel: The Life and Times of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. London, 2002.

Rolt, L. T. C. Isambard Kingdom Brunel. London, 1957.

Philip Cottrell

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

views updated Jun 08 2018

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) was a leading English civil engineer in the railway age with an original and unprejudiced approach to problems in railway and marine engineering.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born on April 9, 1806, near Portsmouth, the only son of Marc Isambard Brunel, known for his machine for making ships' blocks and as the engineer of the Thames Tunnel. After attending the Collège Henri Quatre in Paris, Brunel served a short apprenticeship under the Paris instrument maker Louis Breguet. Brunel returned to London in 1822 and entered his father's office in 1823, where he received practical training by assisting with the Thames Tunnel until 1828.

Brunel's first important commission was the 630-foot-span Clifton suspension bridge near Bristol (1831). Unfinished in his lifetime, it was completed in 1864 as his memorial. He also built the Hungerford (London) suspension bridge (1841-1845); its wrought-iron chains were used to complete the bridge at Clifton.

Railway Engineer

In 1833 Brunel was appointed engineer for the Great Western Railway and began surveys for a line between Bristol and London. Construction of the line (1835-1841) included the famous flat-arch bridge over the Thames at Maidenhead and the 3,200-yard Box Tunnel outside Bath (through which the sun is said to shine on Brunel's birthday). With the aim of smooth, high-speed running and locomotive-fuel economy for the line, he introduced the 7-foot gage, which, while technically sound, was commercial folly. However, it was not entirely superseded by the British standard 4-foot 8 1/2-inch gage until 1892. He also designed railroad terminals and a series of bridges, culminating in the Royal Albert Bridge near Plymouth (1853-1859), which combines a tubular arch with suspension chains in the two main spans.

Designer of Steamships

In 1835 Brunel suggested, half in jest, a transatlantic steamship service. The idea found support, and the outcome was the Great Western, a timber-built paddle steamer of 2,300 tons' displacement. In April 1838 it steamed from Bristol to New York in 15 days and then maintained a regular service. His Great Britain (1839-1845) was a 3,600-ton iron-hulled, screw-driven steamship. Brunel's last great ship was the Great Eastern (1854-1859), for which he was the sole architect. Displacing 32,000 tons, the largest ship afloat, it was intended to make the round trip to Australia without recoaling. The Great Eastern had a double hull, and with engines to drive both paddles and screw, it had outstanding maneuverability. That its cost was excessive, its completion delayed, and the launch difficult was largely due to the machinations of the building contractor. Brunel never saw the trials, for he suffered a stroke and died on Sept. 15, 1859, in London. A liability to its owners, the ship showed twice the calculated fuel consumption. The Great Eastern was sold and eventually used to lay the first Atlantic telegraph cable (1865-1866).

Further Reading

Of three worthwhile biographical studies, the latest, L. T. C. Rolt, Isambard Kingdom Brunel: A Biography (1959), is the most carefully written. The others are by Brunel's son, Isambard Brunel, The Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel: Civil Engineer (1870), and by his granddaughter, Celia Brunel Noble, The Brunels, Father and Son (1938). An account of the building of the Great Eastern is James Dugan, The Great Iron Ship (1954).

Additional Sources

Pudney, John, Brunel and his world, London, Thames and Hudson 1974.

Jenkins, David, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, engineer extraordinary, Hove: Priory Press, 1977.

Vaughan, Adrian, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, engineering knight-errant, London: J. Murray, 1993.

The Works of Isambard Kingdom Brunel: an engineering appreciation, Cambridge Eng.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980, 1976. □

Brunel, Isambard Kingdom

views updated May 14 2018

Brunel, Isambard Kingdom (1806–59). One of the most distinguished and imaginative engineers of C19, Brunel was born in Portsmouth, Hants., son of the French-born engineer Sir Marc Isambard Brunel (1769–1849). Educated privately and at the Lycée Henri Quatre in Paris, in 1823 he entered his father's office where he was involved in the construction of the Thames Tunnel from Wapping to Rotherhithe. In 1829 he designed the suspension-bridge over the Avon at Clifton, and an amended conception of 1831 was begun in 1836, completed in 1864 after modification. He was appointed engineer for the Great Western Railway in 1833: he not only surveyed the route, but designed the Box Tunnel between Chippenham and Bath, the bridge over the Thames at Maidenhead, and introduced a limited type of standardization for the designs of station-buildings on the line between London and Bristol. He was responsible for Temple Meads Station, Bristol (1839–40), and Paddington Terminus, London (1850–5—to which M. D. Wyatt and Owen Jones contributed), as well as the Royal Albert Bridge over the Tamar at Saltash (1857–9), his most celebrated iron structure. He designed the Railway Company's town at Swindon, Wilts. (again with Wyatt); the Monkwearmouth Docks (1831), and later similar works at Plymouth and Milford Haven; a prefabricated hospital (complete with tarred wooden sewers and mechanical ventilation, for Renkioi in the Crimea (1855), possibly suggested by the success of the Crystal Palace, for he was a zealous promoter of the Great Exhibition of 1851); and ocean-going steamships (e.g. the Great Eastern (1858)) that were larger and more technically advanced than any previously known.


Binding (1997);
R. A. Buchanan (2002);
Falconer (1995);
Kentley et al. (eds.) (2000);
Noble (1938);
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004);
Pugsley (ed.) (1980);
Rolt (1957);
Skempton et al. (eds.) (2002)

Brunel, Isambard Kingdom

views updated May 23 2018

Brunel, Isambard Kingdom (1806–59). Engineer. Son of the distinguished émigré Sir Marc, Brunel was scientifically educated in Paris (unusual when the engineering profession was entered through practical pupillage) and consistently applied first principles to problems, making him more admired by subsequent engineers than contemporary shareholders. Sickness incurred at his father's Thames Tunnel (1826–8) led Brunel to convalesce at Bristol, where he gained appointments as engineer of the Clifton bridge (1829–31), the floating harbour (1830–1), and the Great Western Railway (from 1833). Brunel's engineering of the GWR demonstrated his vision and his failings: the commitment to the broad (7-feet) gauge and his own design for bolstering track promised quality and speed, but delivered inflexibility; his vision of the Atlantic crossing from Bristol encapsulated by his first two major ships, Great Western (1837) and Great Britain (1843), displayed the temptation to exceed the bounds of commercial technology proven in the outstandingly advanced Great Eastern (1858); his remarkable bridges of brick, timber, and iron; and locomotive failings from which Gooch rescued the line. A driven man, his genius produced the monitor to attack Sebastopol and the prefabricated hospital for Kronstadt, railways in Italy and India, hectored assistants and neglected pupils, and chronic overwork that contributed to early death as his two greatest achievements, the Albert bridge at Saltash and the Great Eastern, neared commissioning.

J. A. Chartres

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

views updated May 14 2018

Isambard Kingdom Brunel


English engineer who designed England's Great Western Railway and built several of the era's great steamships. Brunel began his career as an engineer on the Thames River Tunnel project, headed by his father, Marc Brunel. Isambard Brunel went on to design the River Avon suspension bridge, still in use today. One of Brunel's greatest achievements was the design and construction of the London-to-Bristol rail line, better known as the Great Western Railway, distinguished by its low-arch bridges and two-mile tunnels. His innovations in rail gauges helped reform England's locomotive industry. Brunel was also a pioneer in steam navigation, and he designed three of the world's great steamships—the Great Western (1838), the Great Britain (1845) and the Great Eastern (1858), the largest steam vessel of its time.

Brunel, Isambard Kingdom

views updated May 21 2018

Brunel, Isambard Kingdom (1806–59) English marine and railway engineer. A man of remarkable foresight, imagination and daring, Brunel revolutionized British engineering. In 1829, he designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge (completed 1864). Brunel is also famous for designing the ships Great Western (1837), the first trans-Atlantic wooden steamship, Great Britain (1843), the first iron-hulled, screw-driven steamship, and Great Eastern (1858), a steamship powered by screws and paddles, which was the largest vessel of its time.

Brunel, Isambard Kingdom

views updated May 17 2018

Brunel, Isambard Kingdom (1806–59), English engineer. He was chief engineer of the Great Western Railway. His achievements include designing the Clifton suspension bridge (1829–30) and the first transatlantic steamship, the Great Western (1838), and the Great Eastern (1858), the world's largest ship until 1899.