Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a British engineer who was responsible for many of the great nineteenth century engineering projects.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born on 9 April 1806 in Portsmouth, England, the first son and third child of Marc Isambard Brunel and Sophia Kingdom. He was taught draughtsmanship by his father and received his early education at schools in Chelsea and Hove. At the age of fourteen, Brunel was sent to France to study at colleges in Caen and Paris. He also spent some time in the workshop of French clockmaker Louis Bréguet before returning to England in 1822.

By this time his father had become involved in an attempt to build the first tunnel under the River Thames between Rotherhithe and Wapping, and the young Brunel soon became the chief assistant engineer on the project. In 1828, however, a serious accident in the tunnel caused the deaths of several workers and seriously injured Isambard. He spent six months recovering and by the time the project resumed, several years later, he was busy with his own projects and so had no further involvement.

The first of these solo projects was the design a bridge to span the River Avon across the Clifton Gorge in Bristol. Brunel submitted several designs into a competition run by the Bristol Society of Merchant Venturers but the adjudicator, Thomas Telford, rejected all of them in favour of a design of his own. The promoters were unhappy with this decision and ran a second competition in which one of Brunel’s designs was successful. Work began on the Clifton Suspension Bridge in 1836 but stalled when the funds ran out. The project was only completed in 1864, five years after Brunel’s death.

Before work on the bridge began, Brunel had also been appointed engineer on the new Great Western Railway (GWR). He was tasked with constructing a railway line from London to Bristol and he surveyed much of the route himself. He also designed the structures along the route including London Paddington and Bristol Temple Meads stations, the Box Tunnel through Box Hill between Bath and Chippenham and several viaducts and bridges. Extensions of the line into Wales and Cornwall also led to the building of the Chepstow and Saltash iron bridges.

Early in the GWR project, Brunel suggested that the route could be extended as far as New York by building a steamship to connect with the railway at Bristol and carry passengers onwards. This idea led to the construction of the first of Brunel’s three great steamships, each of which was the largest ever built at the time of its construction. The first ship, the SS Great Western, was wooden-hulled and driven by a paddle wheel. It commenced its maiden voyage on 8 April 1838 after a delay of several days due to a fire on board in which Brunel was injured. It arrived in New York fifteen days later with fuel to spare.

SS Great Britain by Matt Buck

SS Great Britain by Matt Buck

The second ship was even more ambitious. The SS Great Britain was larger than the SS Great Western and was constructed with a hull made of iron. Brunel also changed the method of propulsion, replacing the paddle wheel with a single screw propeller. The ship was launched on 19 July 1843 but spent the next seventeen months in Bristol docks as it was too large to exit through the locks. Like its sister ship, the SS Great Britain was a commercial success until it ran aground in Ireland in 1846. The ship now has a permanent home in Bristol.

Brunel’s third ship, the SS Great Eastern, was designed to make the trip to the Far East but was not a commercial success on that route. Larger again than his first two ships, the SS Great Eastern was iron-hulled and contained two engines, one to power a paddle wheel and another for the screw propeller. The hull was also double-skinned. After several unsuccessful attempts, the ship was finally launched on 31 January 1858 and began its maiden voyage, after fitting out, on 6 September 1589. Although it was not a great success in its primary objective, the ship was responsible for laying the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1865.

Brunel was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1830 and on 5 July 1836, he married Mary Elizabeth Horsley in Kensington. The couple set up home in Westminster and had three children: Isambard, Henry and Florence.

As well as the projects mentioned above, Brunel was also responsible for the design of the prefabricated buildings that became the Renkioi Hospital in the Crimean War. But not all of his designs were successful. An attempt to extend the GWR from Exeter to Plymouth using a system of atmospheric traction was a failure and was scrapped after just one year.

Just before the SS Great Eastern embarked on its maiden voyage Brunel suffered a stroke and he died on 15 September 1859. He was buried in Kensal Green cemetery. As a memorial, the Institution of Civil Engineers completed his unfinished Clifton Suspension Bridge and erected a statue on the Embankment in London.

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