Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806 -1859) British Engineer and Inventor.
Brunel not only developed a railway but also steamships, bridges and tunnels. His celebrated works and his contribution to engineering are still highly regarded today.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel is amongst one of the 100 Greatest Britons, placed second in a public poll. Despite his relatively short career, Brunel is recognised for developing solutions to perplexing engineering problems.
Brunel’s Personal Life
Brunel learnt his engineering craft from his father, a Frenchman and eminent engineer. From an early age, he was able to perform geometrical exercises and produce technical drawings. He was educated at boarding school and later in France where he attended a school famed for its mathematical education. Both of his parents were imprisoned when they were unable to meet their financial obligations, which were eventually repaid by the government.
Brunel married Mary Horsley, the eldest daughter of William Horsley the composer and had three children. They had homes in London and in Devon
Brunel’s Engineering Projects
Brunel helped to plan the Thames Tunnel with his father who was designated as chief engineer. He was injured during this project after a severe flooding incident when several miners were killed. The project was suspended for some time and Brunel was sent to Bristol to recover.
During his convalescence, he submitted designs for the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Following a dispute with Thomas Telford who headed the awarding committee, Brunel was awarded the contract three years later. Sadly, Brunel did not live long enough to see the bridge completed which was started in 1831. The Clifton Suspension Bridge was opened five years after Brunel’s death and is still in operation today.
Brunel also designed several steamships; The Great Western (1938) was the first of its kind built to cross the Atlantic. The Great Britain (1845) was the first ocean steamer and The Great Eastern was the largest vessel of its kind at the time.
Brunel was appointed chief engineer of the Great Western railway in 1833 and he was responsible for the design and construction of all the tunnels, bridges and viaducts along the line. A lot of his time was absorbed with this work and his ambition was to produce a faster but more comfortable ride. This controversial aim was achieved through a broader gauge, which eventually proved too expensive for a national standard. He was also appointed to design the Paddington station, the terminus of the Great Western Railway. This had to accommodate future needs of the modern railway as well as the forthcoming crowds for the Great Exhibition in 1951.
Brunel and The Crimean War
Despite his commitment to a number of innovative projects, Brunel found some time to help Britain in the battle against illness in the British Army Hospital. He designed and built a temporary pre-fabricated hospital. The building met the requirements of the War Office and was shipped to Crimea where it was re-erected. The hospital incorporated the hygienic requirements raised by Florence Nightingale, for sanitation, ventilation, drainage and basic temperature control. The death toll fell considerably and Brunel’s design is still incorporated into modern hospital buildings today.
Brunel became seriously ill in 1859 and died ten days later. His legacy as a civil engineer is evident today by a number of monuments and statues. Many locations bear his name including the Brunel University in London and films, books and TV programmes have honoured his work. His most enduring legacy however, are his designs and creations, many of which are still in use.