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Isambard Kingdom Brunel

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Title: Isambard Kingdom Brunel  
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Subject: Great Western Railway, Bristol Temple Meads railway station, Osborne Clarke, List of British innovations and discoveries, List of English inventions and discoveries
Collection: 1806 Births, 1859 Deaths, 19Th-Century Engineers, Boat and Ship Designers, Bridge Engineers, British Railway Pioneers, Burials at Kensal Green Cemetery, Deaths from Nephritis, English Civil Engineers, English Inventors, English People of French Descent, Fellows of the Royal Society, Great Western Railway, Great Western Railway People, Lycée Henri-IV Alumni, Marine Engineers and Naval Architects, Naval Architects, People Associated with Brunel University, People from Portsmouth, People of the Industrial Revolution, Pioneers of Rail Transport, Rail Transport Designers, Structural Engineers, Viaduct Engineers, Works of Isambard Kingdom Brunel
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Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel
A 19th century man wearing a jacket, trousers and waistcoat, with his hands in his pockets and a cigar in mouth, wearing a tall stovepipe top hat, standing in front of giant iron chains on a drum.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel by the launching chains of the SS Great Eastern
by Robert Howlett, 1857 (detail)
Born (1806-04-09)9 April 1806
Portsmouth, England
Died 15 September 1859(1859-09-15) (aged 53)
London, England
Nationality British
Education Lycée Henri-IV
University of Caen
Spouse(s) Mary Elizabeth Horsley
Children Isambard Brunel Junior, Henry Marc Brunel, Florence Mary Brunel
Parents Marc Isambard Brunel
Sophia Kingdom
Engineering career
Engineering discipline Civil engineer
Structural engineer
Institution memberships Institution of Civil Engineers
Significant projects Great Western Railway
Clifton Suspension Bridge
Great Britain

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, FRS (; 9 April 1806 – 15 September 1859), was an English mechanical and civil engineer who built dockyards, the Great Western Railway, a series of steamships including the first propeller-driven transatlantic steamship and numerous important bridges and tunnels. His designs revolutionised public transport and modern engineering.

Though Brunel's projects were not always successful, they often contained innovative solutions to long-standing engineering problems. During his short career, Brunel achieved many engineering "firsts", including assisting in the building of the first tunnel under a navigable river and development of SS Great Britain, the first propeller-driven ocean-going iron ship, which was at the time (1843) also the largest ship ever built.[1][2]

Brunel set the standard for a very well built railway, using careful surveys to minimise grades and curves. This necessitated expensive construction techniques and new bridges and viaducts, and the two-mile-long Box Tunnel. One controversial feature was the wide gauge, a "broad gauge" of 7 ft 14 in (2,140 mm), instead of what was later to be known as 'standard gauge' of 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm). The wider gauge added to passenger comfort but made construction much more expensive and caused difficulties when eventually it had to interconnect with other railways using the narrower gauge. As a result of the Regulating the Gauge of Railways Act 1846, the gauge was changed to standard gauge throughout the GWR network.

Brunel astonished Britain by proposing to extend the Great Western Railway westward to North America by building steam-powered iron-hulled ships. He designed and built three ships that revolutionised naval engineering.

In 2002, Brunel was placed second in a BBC public poll to determine the "100 Greatest Britons". In 2006, the bicentenary of his birth, a major programme of events celebrated his life and work under the name Brunel 200.[3]


  • Name 1
  • Early life 2
  • Thames Tunnel 3
  • Bridges 4
  • Great Western Railway 5
  • Brunel's "atmospheric caper" 6
  • Transatlantic shipping 7
  • Renkioi Hospital 8
  • Personal life 9
  • Legacy 10
  • See also 11
  • Notes 12
  • References 13
  • Further reading 14
  • External links 15


Brunel's unique name is an amalgamation of his parents' names. He inherited the family name of his father, and his middle name is his mother's surname. This was a common name construction for the time. Brunel's first name comes from his father's middle name, which was also his preferred given name. "Isambard" is a Norman name of Germanic origin, meaning "iron-bright".[4] A cognate name is the German surname "Eisenbarth", which can still be found today among Bavarians and German-Americans.

Early life

The son of French civil engineer Sir Marc Isambard Brunel and Sophia Kingdom, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born on 9 April 1806 in Britan Street, Portsea, Portsmouth, Hampshire,[5] where his father was working on block-making machinery.[6][7] He had two older sisters, Sophia (oldest child, Sophia[8]) and Emma, and the whole family moved to London in 1808 for his father's work. Brunel had a happy childhood, despite the family's constant money worries, with his father acting as his teacher during his early years. His father taught him drawing and observational techniques from the age of four and Brunel had learned Euclidean geometry by eight. During this time he also learned fluent French and the basic principles of engineering. He was encouraged to draw interesting buildings and identify any faults in their structure.[9][10]

When Brunel was eight he was sent to Dr Morrell's boarding school in Hove, where he learned the classics. His father, a Frenchman by birth, was determined that Brunel should have access to the high-quality education he had enjoyed in his youth in France; accordingly, at the age of 14, the younger Brunel was enrolled first at the College of Caen in Normandy, then at Lycée Henri-IV in Paris.[9][11]

When Brunel was 15, his father, who had accumulated debts of over £5,000, was sent to a debtors' prison. After three months went by with no prospect of release, Marc let it be known that he was considering an offer from the Tsar of Russia. In August 1821, facing the prospect of losing a prominent engineer, the government relented and issued Marc £5,000 to clear his debts in exchange for his promise to remain in Britain.[12][13]

When Brunel completed his studies at Henri-IV in 1822, his father had him presented as a candidate at the renowned engineering school École Polytechnique, but as a foreigner he was deemed ineligible for entry. Brunel subsequently studied under the prominent master clockmaker and horologist Abraham-Louis Breguet, who praised Brunel's potential in letters to his father.[9] In late 1822, having completed his apprenticeship, Brunel returned to England.[11]

Thames Tunnel

A narrow railway tunnel with a single railway track, lit by a bright white light
The Thames Tunnel in 2005.

Brunel worked for several years as an assistant engineer on the project to create a tunnel under London's River Thames between Rotherhithe and Wapping, with tunnellers driving a horizontal shaft from one side of the river to the other under the most difficult and dangerous conditions. Brunel's father, Marc, was the chief engineer, and the project was funded by the Thames Tunnel Company.[14]

The composition of the riverbed at Rotherhithe was often little more than waterlogged sediment and loose gravel. An ingenious tunnelling shield designed by Marc Brunel helped protect workers from cave-ins,[15] but two incidents of severe flooding halted work for long periods, killing several workers and badly injuring the younger Brunel.[16] The latter incident, in 1828, killed the two most senior miners, and Brunel himself narrowly escaped death. He was seriously injured, and spent six months recuperating.[17] The event stopped work on the tunnel for several years.[18]

Though the Thames Tunnel was eventually completed during Marc Brunel's lifetime, his son had no further involvement with the tunnel proper, only using the abandoned works at Rotherhithe to further his abortive Gaz experiments. This was based on an idea of his father's, but despite interest from several parties (the Admiralty included) the experiments were discontinued after 1834.

In 1865 the East London Railway Company purchased the Thames Tunnel for £200,000 and four years later the first trains passed through it. Subsequently the tunnel became part of the London Underground system, and remains in use today, originally as part of the East London Line now incorporated into the London Overground.[19]


The Clifton in Bristol to Leigh Woods in North Somerset.

Brunel is perhaps best remembered for designing the

  • "Obituary in". Archived from the original on 19 January 2008.  The Times 19 September 1859
  • Brunel biography with additional images from the Design Museum
  • "Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806–1859)". Retrieved 27 August 2009. 
  • Brunel portal
  • "Animation of Brunel's Sketchbook". Electric Pavilion. Retrieved 9 September 2009. 
  • "Brunel Archives". University of Bristol. Retrieved 9 September 2009. 
  • "Review of "The Intemperate Engineer" by Adrian Vaughan". Will Robinson. Retrieved 12 May 2011. 

External links

  • Isambard Brunel (1870; reprinted 1970, David & Charles). The Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Civil Engineer.  Written by Brunel's son
  • Celia Brunel Noble (1938). The Brunels, Father and Son.  Written by Brunel's granddaughter, it adds some family anecdotes and personal information over the previous volume
  • Sir Alfred Pugsley, ed. (1976). The Works of Isambard Kingdom Brunel: An Engineering Appreciation.  A technical presentation of Brunel's opus
  • Rob Powell (1985). Brunel's Kingdom – Photography and the Making of History. Watershed Media Centre.   A study of how early photography portrayed Victorian industry and engineering, including the celebrated picture of Brunel and the launching chains of the Great Eastern
  • Steven Brindle (2004). Paddington Station: Its history and architecture. English Heritage.  
  • Andrew Mathewson and Derek Laval (1992). Brunel's Tunnel...and where it led. Brunel Exhibition Rotherhithe.  
  • Eugene Byrne and Simon Gurr (2006). Isambard Kingdom Brunel: a graphic biography. Brunel 200. 
  • Christopher Silver (2007). Renkioi Brunel's Forgotten Crimean War Hospital. Valonia Press 2007.  
  • Derek Webb (2010). Is. Parthian Books. Children's book about the reincarnation of IKB with KeyStage 2 UK curriculum links.  

Further reading

  • Beckett, Derrick (2006). Brunel's Britain. David & Charles PLC. ISBN 978-0-7153-2360-1.
  • Billington, David P. (1985). The Tower and the Bridge: The New Art of Structural Engineering. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-02393-9.
  • Brunel, Isambard (1870). The life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, civil engineer. Longmans, Green & Co. OCLC 3202088.
  • Buchanan, R. Angus (2006). Brunel: the life and times of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Hambledon & London. ISBN 978-1-85285-525-3.
  • Davies, Ken (April 1993). The Locomotives of the Great Western Railway, part fourteen: Names and their Origins – ... Lincoln:  
  • Dumpleton, Bernard; Miller, Muriel (2002). Brunel's Three Ships. Intellect Books. ISBN 978-1-84150-800-9.
  • Gillings, Annabel (2006). Brunel (Life & Times). Haus Publishers Ltd. ISBN 978-1-904950-44-8.
  • le Fleming, H.M. (November 1960) [1953]. White, D.E., ed. The Locomotives of the Great Western Railway, part eight: Modern Passenger Classes (2nd ed.). Kenilworth:  
  • Marsden, Colin J. (November 1984). BR Locomotive Numbering. Shepperton:  
  • Nokes, George Augustus. A History of the Great Western Railway 1895 – 373 pages online at
  • Rolt, L. T. C. (1989) [1957]. Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Prentice Hall Press.  Rolt's highly acclaimed biography of Brunel is still the best and most complete
  • Adrian Vaughan (1991). Isambard Kingdom Brunel: Engineering Knight-Errant. John Murray.   Vaughan presents some interesting interpretations in this volume. His 2006 Brunel: an engineering biography (Ian Allan, ISBN 978-0-7110-3078-7) is a more orthodox interpretation with notable reproductions of engineering drawings
  • Wilson, Arthur (1994). The Living Rock: The Story of Metals Since Earliest Times and Their Impact on Civilization. Woodhead Publishing. ISBN 978-1-85573-301-5.


  1. ^ Wilson (1994), pp. 202–3.
  2. ^ "Isambard Kingdom Brunel". SS Great Britain. 29 March 2006. 
  3. ^ "Home". Brunel 200. Retrieved 22 July 2009. 
  4. ^ Henry Harrison. Surnames of the United Kingdom: A Concise Etymological Dictionary. p. 230
  5. ^ Brindle, Steven (2005). Brunel: The Man Who Built the World. Weidenfield & Nicholson. p. 28.  
  6. ^ Brunel, Isambard (1870), p. 2.
  7. ^ Timbs, John (1860). Stories of inventors and discoverers in science and the useful arts, pp. 102, 285–6. London: Kent and Co. OCLC 1349834.
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  9. ^ a b c Buchanan (2006), p. 18
  10. ^ Gillings (2006), pp. 1, 11
  11. ^ a b Brunel, Isambard (1870), p. 5.
  12. ^ Gillings (2006), pp. 11–2.
  13. ^ Worth, Martin (1999). Sweat and Inspiration: Pioneers of the Industrial Age, p. 87. Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd. ISBN 978-0-7509-1660-8.
  14. ^ Dumpleton and Miller (2002), pp. 14–15
  15. ^ Aaseng, Nathan (1999). Construction: Building The Impossible (Innovators Series). The Oliver Press, Inc. pp. 36–45. ISBN 1-881508-59-5.
  16. ^ Smith, Denis (2001). Civil Engineering Heritage: London and the Thames Valley. Thomas Telford Ltd, for The  
  17. ^ Sources disagree about where Brunel convalesced; Buchanan (p. 30) says Brighton, while Dumpleton and Miller (p. 16) say Bristol and connect this to his subsequent work on the Clifton Suspension Bridge there.
  18. ^ Dumpleton and Miller (2002), p. 15
  19. ^ Bagust, Harold, "The Greater Genius?", 2006, Ian Allan Publishing, ISBN 0-7110-3175-4, (pages 97–100)
  20. ^ a b "The Clifton Suspension Bridge". Brunel 200. Retrieved 16 August 2009. 
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  23. ^ MacLeod, Donald (18 April 2006). "Higher diary". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 August 2009. 
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  25. ^ "The Hungerford Suspension Bridge", The Practical Mechanic and Engineer's Magazine, May 1845, p223
  26. ^ "Get set to pay more on suspension bridge". Bristol Evening Post. 6 January 2007. p. 12. 
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  29. ^ Lewis, Brian (18 June 2007). Brunel's timber bridges and viaducts. Hersham: Ian Allan Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7110-3218-7.
  30. ^ "History". Royal Albert Bridge. Retrieved 16 August 2009. 
  31. ^ Senior Archaeological Officer (20 September 2006). "Crossrail and the Great Western World Heritage site" (PDF). Buckinghamshire Historic Environment Forum. Buckinghamshire County Council. Retrieved 16 August 2009. 
  32. ^ "World Heritage Sites: The Tentative List of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" (PDF). Buildings, Monuments and Sites Division. Department for Culture, Media and Sport. 1999. Retrieved 16 August 2009. 
  33. ^ a b Crittal, Elizabeth (1959). "Railways". A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 4. British History Online. Retrieved 16 August 2009. 
  34. ^ "Clifton Rugby Football Club History". 
  35. ^ "Brunel 200 – Working With Visionaries". 
  36. ^ a b Pudney, John (1974). Brunel and His World. Thames and Hudson. ISBN 978-0-500-13047-6.
  37. ^ Ollivier, John (1846). The Broad Gauge: The Bane of the Great Western Railway Company.
  38. ^ Dumpleton and Miller (2002), p. 20
  39. ^ Williams, Archibald (1904). The Romance of Modern Locomotion. C. A. Pearson Ltd.
  40. ^ "Isambard Kingdom Brunel: Obituary" (fee required). The Times. 19 September 1859. Retrieved 28 August 2009. 
  41. ^ "Neyland – Brunel's railway town". Western Telegraph. 22 April 2006. Retrieved 16 August 2009. 
  42. ^ "I.K.Brunel". Retrieved 16 August 2009. 
  43. ^ "Frome Station roof". Engineering Timelines. Retrieved 27 August 2009. 
  44. ^ "Kingswear Station" (PDF). South Hams District Council. Archived from the original on 28 August 2009. Retrieved 27 August 2009. 
  45. ^ "Steam: Museum of the Great Western Railway". Swindon Borough Council. Retrieved 28 August 2009. 
  46. ^ Buchanan, R A (May 1992). "The Atmospheric Railway of I.K. Brunel". Social Studies of Science (PDF; fee required) (Sage Publications, Ltd.) 22 (2): 231–243.  
  47. ^ a b Dumpleton and Miller (2002), p. 22
  48. ^ Parkin, Jim (2000). Engineering Judgement and Risk. Institution of Civil Engineers. ISBN 978-0-7277-2873-9.
  49. ^ "Devon Railways". Teignmouth & Shaldon Museum. Retrieved 16 August 2009. 
  50. ^ "Brunel and The Atmospheric Caper". Devon Heritage. Retrieved 16 August 2009. 
  51. ^ "Broad Gauge Railway". Centre Guide. Didcot Railway Centre. Retrieved 16 August 2009. 
  52. ^ Buchanan (2006), pp. 57–59
  53. ^ a b Beckett (2006), pp. 171–173
  54. ^ Dumpleton and Miller (2002), pp. 34–46
  55. ^ Buchanan (2006), pp. 58–59
  56. ^ Dumpleton and Miller (2002), pp. 26–32
  57. ^ Nasmyth, James (1897). Smiles, Samuel, ed. James Nasmyth: Engineer, An Autobiography. Archived at Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 16 August 2009. 
  58. ^ Lienhard, John H (2003). The Engines of Our Ingenuity. Oxford University Press (US). ISBN 978-0-19-516731-3.
  59. ^ Chisholm 1911.
  60. ^ Dumpleton and Miller (2002), pp. 94–113
  61. ^ a b Billington (1985), pp. 50–59
  62. ^ Mortimer, John (2005). Zerah Colburn: The Spirit of Darkness. Arima Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84549-196-3.
  63. ^ Dumpleton and Miller (2002), pp. 130–148
  64. ^ "The Atlantic Cable". The New York Times. 30 July 1866. Retrieved 28 August 2009. 
  65. ^ "Report on Medical Care". British National Archives (WO 33/1 ff.119, 124, 146–7). Dated 23 February 1855.
  66. ^ "Prefabricated wooden hospitals". British National Archives (WO 43/991 ff.76–7). Dated 7 September 1855.
  67. ^ a b "Lessons from Renkioi" at the Wayback Machine (archived September 29, 2007). Hospital Development Magazine. 10 November 2005. Retrieved 2009-09-22.
  68. ^ "Palmerston, Brunel and Florence Nightingale’s Field Hospital" (PDF). Retrieved 30 November 2006.
  69. ^ "Britain's Modern Brunels". BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 30 November 2006.
  70. ^ "The 1830s". Brunel 200. Retrieved 16 August 2009. 
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  74. ^ Skempton, A; Rennison, Robert William; CoxHumphreys, Rob (2002). Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland v. 1 1500–1830. Thomas Telford Ltd. ISBN 0-7277-2939-X.
  75. ^ "Brunel Collection: Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806–1859) papers". Archives Hub. Retrieved 16 August 2009. 
  76. ^ Buchanan (2006), pp. 7–8
  77. ^ "BBC News: Brunel statue stolen from plinth". 23 August 2010. Retrieved 22 December 2012. 
  78. ^ Pollard, Richard; Pevsner, Nikolaus; Sharples, Joseph (2009). Lancashire: Liverpool and the southwest. Yale University Press. p. 397.  
  79. ^ "History". Brunel University. 2009. Retrieved 11 September 2009. 
  80. ^ "The Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Portsmouth | Our Pubs". J D Wetherspoon. 12 April 2006. Retrieved 22 December 2012. 
  81. ^ "Churchill voted greatest Briton". BBC News online. 24 November 2002. Retrieved 4 June 2009. 
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  83. ^ Tye, Stephanie (20 January 2006). "How Town was put on the map by Brunel". Swindon Advertiser. Retrieved 22 September 2009.
  84. ^ Beckett (2006), pp. 115–122
  85. ^ "A Model for the NHS?". BBC Legacies. Retrieved 30 November 2006.
  86. ^ le Fleming 1960, p. H18
  87. ^ Davies 1993, p. P127
  88. ^ Marsden 1984, p. 66
  89. ^ "2006 Brunel The Man £2 Silver Proof". Royal Mint. Archived from the original on 22 May 2006. Retrieved 16 August 2009. 
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See also

The 2013 album The Last Ship by Sting includes the song "Ballad of the Great Eastern".[93]

At the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, Brunel was portrayed by Kenneth Branagh in a segment showing the Industrial Revolution.[92]

Brunel was the subject of Great, a 1975 animated film directed by Bob Godfrey. It won the Academy Award for Animated Short Film at the 48th Academy Awards in March 1976.[91]

For the 100-year anniversary of the Royal Albert Bridge, the words "I.K. BRUNEL ENGINEER 1859" were engraved on either end to commemorate his enduring legacy. The words had become obscured by paint, but were restored by Network Rail and revealed again in 2006.[90]

In 2006 the Royal Mint struck two £2 coins to "celebrate the 200th anniversary of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his achievements".[89] The first depicts Brunel with a section of the Royal Albert Bridge and the second shows the roof of Paddington Station. The Post Office issued a set of commemorative stamps.

GWR Castle Class steam locomotive no. 5069 was named Isambard Kingdom Brunel,[86] after the engineer;[87] and BR Western Region class 47 diesel locomotive no. D1662 (later 47484) was also named Isambard Kingdom Brunel.[88] GWR's successor First Great Western has named its high-speed train power car no. 43003 "Isambard Kingdom Brunel".

FGW HST 43003 power car

Brunel is credited with turning the town of Swindon into one of the fastest growing towns in Europe during the 19th century.[83] Brunel's choice to locate the Great Western Railway locomotive sheds there caused a need for housing for the workers, which in turn gave Brunel the impetus to build hospitals, churches and housing estates in what is known today as the 'Railway Village'.[84] According to some sources, Brunel's addition of a Mechanics Institute for recreation and hospitals and clinics for his workers gave Aneurin Bevan the basis for the creation of the National Health Service.[85]

Many of Brunel's bridges are still in use. Brunel's first engineering project, the Thames Tunnel, is now part of the London Overground network. The Brunel Engine House at Rotherhithe, which once housed the steam engines that powered the tunnel pumps, now houses the Brunel Museum dedicated to the work and lives of Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.[82] Many of Brunel's original papers and designs are now held in the Brunel Institute alongside the SS Great Britain in Bristol, and are freely available for researchers and visitors.

In a 2002 public television poll conducted by the BBC to select the 100 Greatest Britons, Brunel was placed second, behind Winston Churchill.[81] Brunel's life and works have been depicted in numerous books, films and television programs. The 2003 book and BBC TV series Seven Wonders of the Industrial World included a dramatisation of the building of the Great Eastern.

A celebrated engineer in his era, Brunel remains revered today, as evidenced by numerous monuments to him. There are statues in London at Temple (pictured), Brunel University and Paddington station, and in Bristol, Plymouth, Swindon, Milford Haven and Saltash. A statue in Neyland was stolen in August 2010.[77] The topmast of the Great Eastern is used as a flagpole at the entrance to Anfield, Liverpool Football Club's ground.[78] Contemporary locations bear Brunel's name, such as Brunel University in London,[79] a shopping centre in Bletchley, Milton Keynes, and a collection of streets in Exeter: Isambard Terrace, Kingdom Mews, and Brunel Close. A road, car park, and school in his home city of Portsmouth are also named in his honour, along with one of the city's largest public houses.[80] There is an engineering lab building at the University of Plymouth named in his honour.

A bronze metal sculpture of a nineteenth century man wearing a long jacket or coat, trousers, waistcoat, with draughtsman's tools in his hands
Bronze statue of Brunel at Temple in London


He left behind his wife Mary and three children: Isambard Brunel Junior (1837–1902), Henry Marc Brunel (1842–1903) and Florence Mary Brunel (1847–1876). Henry Marc followed his father and grandfather in becoming a successful civil engineer.[75][76]

Brunel, a heavy smoker,[72] suffered a stroke in 1859, just before the Great Eastern made her first voyage to New York.[73] He died ten days later at the age of 53 and was buried, like his father, in Kensal Green Cemetery in London.[74] The grave is insignificant by the standards of the cemetery and easily missed. It lies south of the main central path, midway between the entrance and the central chapel, around 20m from the path and screened by trees.

In 1843, while performing a conjuring trick for the amusement of his children, Brunel accidentally inhaled a half-sovereign coin, which became lodged in his windpipe. A special pair of forceps failed to remove it, as did a machine devised by Brunel to shake it loose. At the suggestion of his father, Brunel was strapped to a board and turned upside-down, and the coin was jerked free.[71] He recuperated at Teignmouth, and enjoyed the area so much that he purchased an estate at Watcombe in Torquay, Devon. Here he designed Brunel Manor and its gardens to be his retirement home. He never saw the house or gardens finished, as he died before it was completed.

A cubical white marble work of masonry, approximately three feet wide, 18 inches deep and two-foot high, inscribed with names of members of the Brunel family, surrounded by marble chippings
The Brunel family grave, Kensal Green Cemetery, London

On 5 July 1836, Brunel married Mary Elizabeth Horsley (b. 1813), who came from an accomplished musical and artistic family, being the eldest daughter of composer and organist William Horsley. They established a home at Duke Street, Westminster, in London.[70]

In 1830, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Personal life

His designs incorporated the necessities of hygiene: access to sanitation, ventilation, drainage, and even rudimentary temperature controls. They were feted as a great success, with some sources stating that of the approximately 1,300 patients treated in the hospital, there were only 50 deaths.[68] In the Scutari hospital it replaced, deaths were said to be as many as 10 times this number. Nightingale referred to them as "those magnificent huts".[69] The practice of building hospitals from pre-fabricated modules survives today,[67] with hospitals such as the Bristol Royal Infirmary being created in this manner.

Brunel had been working Gloucester Docks-based William Eassrie on the launching stage for the Great Eastern, a man who had designed and built wooden prefabricated huts used in both the Australian gold rush, as well as by the British and French Armies in the Crimea. Using wood supplied by timber importers Price & Co., Eassrie fabricated 18 of the two-50 patient wards designed by Brunel, shipped directly via 16 ships from Gloucester Docks to the Dardanelles. The Renkioi Hospital was subsequently erected near Scutari Hospital, where Nightingale was based, in the malaria-free area of Renkioi.[67]

Brunel was working on the Great Eastern amongst other projects, but accepted the task in February 1855 of designing and building the War Office requirement of a temporary, pre-fabricated hospital that could be shipped to Crimea and erected there. In 5 months the team he had assembled designed, built, and shipped pre-fabricated wood and canvas buildings, providing them complete with advice on transportation and positioning of the facilities.[66]

During 1854 Britain entered into the Crimean War, and an old Turkish barracks became the British Army Hospital in Scutari. Injured men contracted a variety of illnesses—including cholera, dysentery, typhoid and malaria—due to poor conditions there,[65] and Florence Nightingale sent a plea to The Times for the government to produce a solution.

Renkioi Hospital

Great Eastern was built at John Scott Russell's Napier Yard in London, and after two trial trips in 1859, set forth on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York on 17 June 1860.[62] Though a failure at her original purpose of passenger travel, she eventually found a role as an oceanic telegraph cable-layer. Under Captain Sir James Anderson, the Great Eastern played a significant role in laying the first lasting transatlantic telegraph cable, which enabled telecommunication between Europe and North America.[63][64]

In 1852 Brunel turned to a third ship, larger than her predecessors, intended for voyages to India and Australia. The Great Eastern (originally dubbed Leviathan) was cutting-edge technology for her time: almost 700 ft (210 m) long, fitted out with the most luxurious appointments, and capable of carrying over 4,000 passengers. Great Eastern was designed to cruise non-stop from London to Sydney and back (since engineers of the time misunderstood that Australia had no coal reserves), and she remained the largest ship built until the start of the 20th century. Like many of Brunel's ambitious projects, the ship soon ran over budget and behind schedule in the face of a series of technical problems.[60] The ship has been portrayed as a white elephant, but it has been argued by David P. Billington that in this case Brunel's failure was principally one of economics—his ships were simply years ahead of their time.[61] His vision and engineering innovations made the building of large-scale, propeller-driven, all-metal steamships a practical reality, but the prevailing economic and industrial conditions meant that it would be several decades before transoceanic steamship travel emerged as a viable industry.[61]

A group of ten men in nineteenth century dark suits, wearing top hats, observing something behind the camera
Brunel at the launch of the Great Eastern with John Scott Russell and Lord Derby

Brunel had become convinced of the superiority of propeller-driven ships over paddle wheels. After tests conducted aboard the propeller-driven steam tug Archimedes, he incorporated a large six-bladed propeller into his design for the 322-foot (98 m) Great Britain, which was launched in 1843.[57] Great Britain is considered the first modern ship, being built of metal rather than wood, powered by an engine rather than wind or oars, and driven by propeller rather than paddle wheel. She was the first iron-hulled, propeller-driven ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean.[58] Her maiden voyage was made in August and September 1845, from Liverpool to New York. In 1846, she was run aground at Dundrum, County Down. She was salvaged and employed in the Australian service.[59] And today she is fully preserved and open to the public in Bristol, UK.

When it was built, the Great Western was the longest ship in the world at 236 ft (72 m) with a 250-foot (76 m) keel. The ship was constructed mainly from wood, but Brunel added bolts and iron diagonal reinforcements to maintain the keel's strength. In addition to its steam-powered paddle wheels, the ship carried four masts for sails. The Great Western embarked on her maiden voyage from Avonmouth, Bristol, to New York on 8 April 1838 with 600 long tons (610,000 kg) of coal, cargo and seven passengers on board. Brunel himself missed this initial crossing, having been injured during a fire aboard the ship as she was returning from fitting out in London. As the fire delayed the launch several days, the Great Western missed its opportunity to claim title as the first ship to cross the Atlantic under steam power alone. Even with a four-day head start, the competing Sirius arrived only one day earlier and its crew was forced to burn cabin furniture, spare yards and one mast for fuel. In contrast, the Great Western crossing of the Atlantic took 15 days and five hours, and the ship arrived at her destination with a third of its coal still remaining, demonstrating that Brunel's calculations were correct. The Great Western had proved the viability of commercial transatlantic steamship service, which led the Great Western Steamboat Company to use her in regular service between Bristol and New York from 1838 to 1846. She made 64 crossings, and was the first ship to hold the Blue Riband with a crossing time of 13 days westbound and 12 days 6 hours eastbound. The service was commercially successful enough for a sister ship to be required, which Brunel was asked to design.[53][55][56]

The Great Eastern in 1866.
An old photograph showing a large iron paddlewheel ship being launched sideways, with workmen thrusting large baulks of timber under a large drum of iron chains
Great Eastern shortly before launch in 1858

In 1835, before the Great Western Railway had opened, Brunel proposed extending its transport network by boat from Bristol across the Atlantic Ocean to New York City. The Great Western Steamship Company was formed by Thomas Guppy for that purpose. It was widely disputed whether it would be commercially viable for a ship powered purely by steam to make such long journeys. Technological developments in the early 1830s—including the invention of the surface condenser, which allowed boilers to run on salt water without stopping to be cleaned—made longer journeys more possible, but it was generally thought that a ship would not be able to carry enough fuel for the trip and have room for a commercial cargo. Brunel formulated the theory that the amount a ship could carry increased as the cube of its dimensions, whereas the amount of resistance a ship experienced from the water as it travelled only increased by a square of its dimensions. This would mean that moving a larger ship would take proportionately less fuel than a smaller ship. To test this theory, Brunel offered his services for free to the Great Western Steamship Company, which appointed him to its building committee and entrusted him with designing its first ship, the Great Western.[52] [53][54]

A crowd of people watch a large black and red ship with one funnel and six masts adorned with flags
Launch of the Great Britain in 1843

Maiden voyage of the Great Western in April 1838

Transatlantic shipping

A section of the pipe, without the leather covers, is preserved at the Didcot Railway Centre.[51]

The system never managed to prove itself. The accounts of the SDR for 1848 suggest that atmospheric traction cost 3s 1d (three shillings and one penny) per mile compared to 1s 4d/mile for conventional steam power (because of the many operating issues associated with the atmospheric, few of which were solved during its working life, the actual cost efficiency proved impossible to calculate). A number of South Devon Railway engine houses still stand, including that at Totnes (scheduled as a grade II listed monument in 2007 to prevent its imminent demolition, even as Brunel's bicentenary celebrations were continuing) and at Starcross, on the estuary of the River Exe, which is a striking landmark, and a reminder of the atmospheric railway, also commemorated as the name of the village pub.[49][50]

It has been suggested that the whole project was an expensive flop. In Brunel's favour, it has been noted that he had the courage to call a halt to the venture instead of struggling on with it at greater cost.

The technology required the use of leather flaps to seal the vacuum pipes. The natural oils were drawn out of the leather by the vacuum, making the leather vulnerable to water, rotting it and breaking the fibres when it froze during the winter of 1847. It had to be kept supple with tallow, which is attractive to rats. The flaps were eaten, and vacuum operation lasted less than a year, from 1847 (experimental service began in September; operations from February 1848) to 10 September 1848.[48] Deterioration of the valve due to the reaction of Tannin and Iron Oxide has been cited as the last straw that sank the project, as the continuous valve began to tear from its rivets over most of its length, and the estimated replacement cost of £25,000 was considered prohibitive.

The section from Exeter to Newton (now Newton Abbot) was completed on this principle, and trains ran at approximately 68 miles per hour (109 km/h).[47] Pumping stations with distinctive square chimneys were sited at two-mile intervals.[47] Fifteen-inch (381 mm) pipes were used on the level portions, and 22-inch (559 mm) pipes were intended for the steeper gradients.

Though unsuccessful, another of Brunel's interesting use of technical innovations was the atmospheric railway, the extension of the Great Western Railway (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 Clegg and Samuda's patented system of atmospheric (vacuum) traction, whereby stationary pumps sucked air from a pipe placed in the centre of the track.[46]

A short section of iron pipe, about one foot diameter, with a slot in the upper surface
A section of the actual pipe in the Swindon Steam Railway Museum

Exterior in woodland. a short section of railway line on wooden sleepers with a cast iron pipe of approximately one foot diameter, running inline with the rails
A reconstruction of Brunel's atmospheric railway, using a segment of the original piping at Didcot Railway Centre

Brunel's "atmospheric caper"

Overall, there were negative views as to how society viewed the railways. Some landowners felt the railways were a threat to amenities or property values and others requested tunnels on their land so the railway could not be seen.[36]

The great achievement that was the Great Western Railway has been immortalised at Swindon Steam Railway Museum[45] and the Didcot Railway Centre. The Didcot Railway Centre is notable for having a reconstructed segment of 7 ft 14 in (2,140 mm) Brunel gauge track, as well as a very rare working steam locomotive in the same gauge.

The present London Paddington station was designed by Brunel and opened in 1854. Examples of his designs for smaller stations on the Great Western and associated lines which survive in good condition include Mortimer, Charlbury and Bridgend (all Italianate) and Culham (Tudorbethan). Surviving examples of wooden train sheds in his style are at Frome[43] and Kingswear.[44]

After Brunel's death the decision was taken that standard gauge should be used for all railways in the country. Despite the Great Western's claim of proof that its broad gauge was the better (disputed by at least one Brunel historian), the decision was made to use Stephenson's standard gauge, mainly because this had already covered a far greater amount of the country. However, by May 1892 when the broad gauge was abolished the Great Western had already been re-laid as dual gauge (both broad and standard) and so the transition was a relatively painless one. At the original Welsh terminus of the Great Western railway at Neyland, sections of the broad gauge rails are used as handrails at the quayside, and a number of information boards there depict various aspects of Brunel's life. There is also a larger than life bronze statue of him holding a steamship in one hand and a locomotive in the other.[41][42]

Brunel's achievements ignited the imagination of the technically minded Britons of the age, and he soon became quite notable in the country on the back of this interest.[40]

The initial group of locomotives ordered by Brunel to his own specifications proved unsatisfactory, apart from the North Star locomotive, and 20-year-old Daniel Gooch (later Sir Daniel) was appointed as Superintendent of Locomotive Engines. Brunel and Gooch chose to locate their locomotive works at the village of Swindon, at the point where the gradual ascent from London turned into the steeper descent to the Avon valley at Bath.

Drawing on Brunel's experience with the Thames Tunnel, the Great Western contained a series of impressive achievements—soaring viaducts such as the one in Ivybridge, specially designed stations, and vast tunnels including the Box Tunnel, which was the longest railway tunnel in the world at that time.[38] There is an anecdote that the Box Tunnel may have been deliberately oriented so that the rising sun shines all the way through it on Brunel's birthday.[39]

Inside a large building, a life size figure of a man in his late forties, dressed in nineteenth century jacket, trousers and waistcoat, with a prominent watch-chain across his chest. He wears a tall black stove-pipe hat, has long sideburns and has a cigar in his mouth. An old steam locomotive in the background.
A wax sculpture of Brunel, Swindon Steam Railway Museum

[37] and thus greater freight capacity.carriages and a stable and comfortable ride to passengers. In addition the wider gauge allowed for larger [36] Brunel made two controversial decisions: to use a

In 1833, before the Thames Tunnel was complete, Brunel was appointed chief engineer of the Great Western Railway, one of the wonders of Victorian Britain, running from London to Bristol and later Exeter.[33] The company was founded at a public meeting in Bristol in 1833, and was incorporated by Act of Parliament in 1835. It was Brunel's vision that passengers would be able to purchase one ticket at London Paddington and travel from London to New York, changing from the Great Western Railway to the Great Western steamship at the terminus in Neyland, South Wales.[33] He surveyed the entire length of the route between London and Bristol himself, with the help of many including his Solicitor Jeremiah Osborne of Bristol Law Firm Osborne Clarke who on one occasion rowed Isambard Kingdom Brunel down the River Avon himself to survey the bank of the river for the route.[34][35]

In the early part of Brunel's life, the use of railways began to take off as a major means of transport for goods. This influenced Brunel's involvement in railway engineering, including railway bridge engineering.

The interior of a large railway station with a curved roof supported by iron girders, supported by iron columns, four diesel trains standing at platforms, passengers on the platforms, in the distance daylight can be seen and the scene is illuminated by natural light through the centre section of the roof
Paddington station, still a mainline station, was the London terminus of the Great Western Railway.

Track gauges
By transport mode
Tram · Rapid transit
Miniature · Scale model
By size (list)
Graphic list of track gauges

  Fifteen inch 381 mm (15 in)

  Two foot and
600 mm
597 mm
600 mm
603 mm
610 mm
(1 ft 11 12 in)
(1 ft 11 58 in)
(1 ft 11 34 in)
(2 ft)
  750 mm,
Two foot six inch,
800 mm
750 mm
760 mm
762 mm
800 mm
(2 ft 5 12 in)
(2 ft 5 1516 in)
(2 ft 6 in)
(2 ft 7 12 in)
  Swedish three foot,
900 mm,
Three foot
891 mm
900 mm
914 mm
(2 ft11 332 in)
(2 ft 11 716)
(3 ft)
  Metre 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 38 in)
  Three foot six inch,
Cape, CAP, Kyōki
1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in)
  Four foot six inch 1,372 mm (4 ft 6 in)

  Standard 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in)

Five foot
1,520 mm
1,524 mm
(4 ft 11 2732 in)
(5 ft)
  Irish 1,600 mm (5 ft 3 in)
  Iberian 1,668 mm (5 ft 5 2132 in)
  Indian 1,676 mm (5 ft 6 in)
  Brunel 2,140 mm (7 ft 14 in)
Change of gauge
Break-of-gauge · Dual gauge ·
Conversion (list· Bogie exchange · Variable gauge
By location
North America · South America · Europe
World map, rail gauge by region

Great Western Railway

Several of Brunel's bridges over the Great Western Railway might be demolished because the line is to be electrified, and there is inadequate clearance for overhead wires. Buckinghamshire County Council is negotiating to have further options pursued, in order that all nine of the remaining historic bridges on the line can be saved.[31][32]

Brunel designed the Royal Albert Bridge in 1855 for the Cornwall Railway, after Parliament rejected his original plan for a train ferry across the Hamoaze—the estuary of the tidal Tamar, Tavy and Lynher. The bridge (of bowstring girder or tied arch construction) consists of two main spans of 455 ft (139 m), 100 ft (30 m) above mean high spring tide, plus 17 much shorter approach spans. Opened by Prince Albert on 2 May 1859, it was completed in the year of Brunel's death.[30]

Throughout his railway building career, but particularly on the South Devon and Cornwall Railways where economy was needed and there were many valleys to cross, Brunel made extensive use of wood for the construction of substantial viaducts;[29] these have had to be replaced over the years as their primary material, Kyanised Baltic Pine became uneconomical to obtain.

a bridge spanning a river at high level, the bridge deck supported in the centre by curved tubular metal girders
The Royal Albert Bridge spanning the river Tamar at Saltash.

Brunel designed many bridges for his railway projects, including the Royal Albert Bridge spanning the River Tamar at Saltash near Plymouth, Somerset Bridge (an unusual laminated timber-framed bridge near Bridgwater[27]), the Windsor Railway Bridge, and the Maidenhead Railway Bridge over the Thames in Berkshire. This last was the flattest, widest brick arch bridge in the world and is still carrying main line trains to the west, even though today's trains are about ten times heavier than in Brunel's time.[28]

The Clifton Suspension Bridge still stands, and over 4 million vehicles traverse it every year.[26]

In May 1845 Hungerford Bridge, a suspension footbridge across the Thames near Charing Cross Station in London, was opened. Its central span was 676.5 ft, and its cost was £106,000.[25] It was replaced by a new railway bridge in 1859, and the suspension chains were used to complete the Clifton Suspension Bridge.[20]

Brunel did not live to see the bridge finished, although his colleagues and admirers at the Institution of Civil Engineers felt it would be a fitting memorial, and started to raise new funds and to amend the design. Work recommenced in 1862 and was completed in 1864, five years after Brunel's death.[21] In 2011 it was suggested, by historian and biographer Adrian Vaughan, that Brunel did not design the bridge, as eventually built, as the later changes to its design were substantial.[24] His views reflected a sentiment stated fifty two years earlier by Tom Rolt in his 1959 book Brunel. Re-engineering of suspension chains recovered from an earlier suspension bridge was one of many reasons given why Brunel's design could not be followed exactly.

Work on the Clifton bridge started in 1831, but was suspended due to the Queen Square riots caused by the arrival of Sir Charles Wetherell in Clifton. The riots drove away investors, leaving no money for the project, and construction ceased.[22][23]

a red brick built bridge with shallow arches spanning a river, viewed from the front of a small boat
The Maidenhead Railway Bridge, at the time the largest span for a brick arch bridge.

Afterwards, Brunel wrote to his brother-in-law, the politician Benjamin Hawes: "Of all the wonderful feats I have performed, since I have been in this part of the world, I think yesterday I performed the most wonderful. I produced unanimity among 15 men who were all quarrelling about that most ticklish subject— taste".[21]


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