Isambard Kingdom Brunel

From Academic Kids

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Brunel before the launching of the Great Eastern

Isambard Kingdom Brunel (April 9, 1806September 15, 1859) was a British engineer, noted for the creation of the Great Western Railway and a series of famous steamships.


The Thames Tunnel

The son of noted engineer Sir Marc Isambard Brunel and Sophia Kingdom, Isambard K. Brunel was born in Portsmouth, England on April 9 1806. His father was working there on the block-making machinery for the Portsmouth Block Mills. The young Brunel was sent to France to be educated at the College of Caen in Normandy and the Lycée Henri-Quatre in Paris. He rose to prominence when, aged 20, he was appointed as the resident engineer of the Thames Tunnel, his father's greatest achievement. The first major river tunnel ever built, Isambard spent nearly two years trying to drive the horizontal shaft from one side to the other. Two severe incidents of flooding injured the younger Brunel and ended work on the tunnel for several years, though it was eventually completed.

The Great Western Railway

In the meantime, Brunel moved on. In 1833 he was appointed engineer of the Great Western Railway, one of the wonders of Victorian Britain. Running from London to Bristol (and a few years later, to Exeter), the Great Western contained a series of impressive achievements — viaducts, stations, and tunnels — that ignited the imagination of the technically minded Britons of the age. Brunel soon became one of the most famous men in Britain on the back of this interest.

Brunel made the controversial choice of using broad gauge of 7 ft 0.25 in (2140 mm) for the line, even though all British railways to date had used a gauge of 4 ft 8.5 in. Brunel said that this was nothing more than a carry-over from the mine railways George Stephenson had worked on prior to making the world's first passenger railway. Brunel worked out through mathematics and a series of trials that his broader gauge was the optimum railway size for providing stability and a comfortable ride to passengers (in addition to allowing for bigger carriages). The British government later however made the decision that there should be a standard gauge for all railways in the country. Despite Brunel's proof that his broad gauge was the better the decision was made to go with Stephenson's narrow gauge — mainly because they had already covered a far greater amount of the country with their railways than Brunel had and the cost of changing these tracks to conform to Brunel's standard would be enormous.

Brunel's "atmospheric caper"

Another of Brunel's interesting though ultimately unsuccessful technical innovations was the atmospheric railway, the extension of the GWR southward from Exeter towards Plymouth (technically the South Devon Railway (SDR), though supported by the GWR). Instead of using locomotives, the trains were moved by Cleggs and Samudas Patent system of atmospheric (vacuum) traction, the evacuation being done by stationary engines at a series of pumping stations. The section from Exeter to Newton (now Newton Abbot) was completed on this principle, and trains ran at approximately 20 miles per hour (32 km/h). 15 inch (381 mm) pipes were used on the level portions, and 22 inch (559 mm) pipes were intended for the steeper gradients. Unfortunately the technology required the use of leather flaps to seal the air pipes, the leather had to be kept supple by the use of tallow, and tallow is attractive to rats; the result was inevitable, and air-powered vacuum service lasted less than a year, from 1847 (experimental services began in September; operationally from February 1848) to September 10 1848. The accounts of the SDR for 1848 suggest that the atmospheric traction cost 3s 1d per mile (£0.10/km), compared to 1s 4d (£0.04/km) for conventional steam power. The pumping station at Starcross, on the estuary of the River Exe, remains as a striking landmark, and a reminder of the atmospheric railway — which is also commemorated in the name of the village pub. A section of the pipe, without the leather covers, is preserved in Didcot Railway Centre.

Transatlantic shipping

Even before the Great Western Railway was opened, Brunel was moving on to his next project — transatlantic shipping. He used his prestige to convince his railway company employers to build the Great Western, at the time by far the largest steamship in the world. It first sailed in 1837. The Great Britain followed in 1843, and was the first iron-hulled, propeller-driven ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

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SS Great Eastern shortly before her launching, 1858

Building on these successes, Brunel turned to a third ship in 1852, even larger than both of its predecessors. The Great Eastern was cutting edge technology for its time — it was the largest ship ever built until the RMS Lusitania launched in 1906 — and it soon ran over budget and over schedule in the face of a series of difficult technical problems. The ship is widely perceived as a white elephant. Though a failure at its original purpose of passenger travel, it eventually found a role as an oceanic telegraph cable-layer.


Besides the railway and steam ships, he was also involved in the construction of several lengthy bridges, including the Royal Albert Bridge near Plymouth, and an unusual telescopic bridge in Bridgwater. He also designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, but did not live to see it constructed. His colleagues and admirers in the Institution of Civil Engineers felt the bridge would be a fitting memorial, and started to raise new funds and to amend the design. Work started in 1862, and was complete by 1864, five years after Brunel's death.

Duke Street Design Office

He established his Design Offices at 17 & 18 Duke St, London, and he lived with his family in the rooms above. R.P. Brereton, who became his chief assistant in 1845, was in charge of the office in Brunel's absence, and also took direct responsibility for major construction activities such as the Royal Albert Bridge as Brunel's health declined.

Illnesses and death of Brunel

In 1843, while performing a conjuring trick for the amusement of his children, he accidentally swallowed a half-sovereign coin which became lodged in his windpipe. A special pair of forceps failed to remove it, as did a machine to shake it loose devised by Brunel himself. Eventually, at the suggestion of Sir Marc, Isambard was strapped to a board, turned upside-down, and the coin was jerked free.

Brunel suffered a stroke in 1859, just before the Great Eastern made its first voyage to New York. He died ten days later and is buried, like his father, at Kensal Green Cemetery in London. His son, Henri Marc Brunel, also enjoyed some success as a civil engineer.

Commemorating Brunel

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a plaque commemorating the Brunels

A major programme of events celebrating the life and work of Brunel is planned for the bicentennary of his birth under the name Brunel 200 (

There is an anecdote which states that Box Tunnel on the Great Western railway line is placed such that the sun shines all the way through it on Brunel's birthday. For more information, see the entry on the tunnel.

Many of Brunel's original papers and designs are now held in the Brunel collection ( at the University of Bristol.

In 1975, noted British animator Bob Godfrey was awarded an Oscar for his short Great, an irreverent look at Brunel and his times.

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IKB in bronze overlooking the River Thames at Temple, London.

Brunel was included in the top 10 of the 100 Greatest Britons poll conducted by the BBC and voted for by the public. Each of the finalists in the poll was featured in an hour-long documentary. An admiring Jeremy Clarkson wrote and presented the programme about Brunel. In the second round of voting, which concluded on November 24 2002, Brunel placed second behind Winston Churchill. There are many monuments and memorials commemorating his achievements in the GWR area, including a statue at Paddington station, and a collection of streets around St David's station in Exeter, giving access to student residences of the University of Exeter, that bear his names — Isambard Terrace, Kingdom Mews, and Brunel Close. A road and school in his home town of Portsmouth are named in his honour, as is Brunel University in West London.

See also

External links

Further reading

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