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Isambard Kingdom Brunel

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1906 .


Aug 1935. Great Western Railway GWR Centenary.
Tomb in Kensal Green Cemetery (detail).
Tomb in Kensal Green Cemetery (detail).
Tomb in Kensal Green Cemetery (detail).

‎‎Isambard Kingdom Brunel, FRS (9 April 1806 – 15 September 1859) was a British engineer. He is best known for the creation of the Great Western Railway, a series of famous steamships, and numerous important bridges.

1806 Born in Portsmouth, the son of Sir Marc Isambard Brunel and Sophia, nee Kingdom, on 9 April. His father, an engineer, was working there on block-making machinery for the Portsmouth Block Mills.

1820 At 14 he was sent to France to be educated at the Lycée Henri-Quatre in Paris and the University of Caen in Normandy.

1826 Brunel rose to prominence when, aged 20, he was appointed chief assistant engineer of his father's greatest achievement, the Thames Tunnel, which runs beneath the river between Rotherhithe and Wapping. The first major sub-river tunnel, it succeeded where other attempts had failed, thanks to Marc Brunel's ingenious tunnelling shield — the human-powered forerunner of today's mighty tunnelling machines — which protected workers from cave-in by placing them within a protective casing.

1829 Isambard Brunel, London, Civil Engineer, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[1]

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.

Brunel established his design offices at 17–18 Duke Street, London, and he lived with his family in the rooms above. Robert Pearson 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 projects such as the Royal Albert Bridge as Brunel's health declined.

On 5 July 1836, at Kensington church, he married Mary Elizabeth (1813–1881), the eldest daughter of William Horsley (1774–1858), organist and composer

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, at the time, by far the largest steamship in the world - The SS Great Western. She was launched on 19 July 1837 and then sailed to London where she was fitted with two side-lever steam engines from the firm of Maudslay, Sons and Field.

1843 His next ship design was even larger; the SS Great Britain was the first ocean-going ship to have an iron hull and a screw propeller and, when launched in 1843, was the largest vessel afloat.

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 himself to shake it loose.

Eventually, at the suggestion of Marc Brunel, he was strapped to a board and turned upside-down, and the coin was jerked free. He convalesced by visiting 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. Unfortunately he never saw the house or gardens finished, as he died before it was completed.

1851 Living at 17 and 18 Duke Street, Westminster: Isambard K. Brunel (age 44 born Portsmouth), Civil Engineer. With his wife Mary Elizth Brunel (age 37 born Kensington) and their children; Isambard Brunel (age 13 born Westminster); Henry Mark Brunel (age 8 born Westminster); and Florence Mary Brunel (age 3 born Westminster). Also his mother Lady Sophia Brunel (age 76 born Westminster). Eleven servants.[2]

1852 Building on his success with the Great Britain, Brunel turned to a third ship in 1852, even larger than her predecessors, intended for voyages to India and Australia. The SS Great Eastern (originally dubbed Leviathan) represented cutting-edge technology for her time: almost 700 ft long, fitted out with the most luxurious appointments and capable of carrying over 4,000 passengers.

1855 When he was already working on building the SS Great Eastern amongst other projects, Brunel accepted the task in February 1855 of designing and building a temporary, pre-fabricated hospital to the requirements of the War Office, that could be shipped to the Crimea and erected. In 5 months he had designed, built and shipped the pre-fabricated wood and canvas buildings that were erected, near Scutari Hospital where Nightingale was based, in the malaria-free area of Renkioi.

His designs incorporated the necessity of hygiene, providing access to sanitation, ventilation, drainage and even rudimentary temperature controls. They were feted as a great success, some sources stating that of the 1,300 (approximate) patients treated in the Renkioi temporary hospital, there were only 50 deaths. In the Scutari hospital it replaced, deaths were said to be as many as 10 times this number. Nightingale herself referred to them as "those magnificent huts." Brunel not only designed the buildings but gave advice as to the location of placing.

The art of using pre-fabricated modules to build hospitals has been carried forward into the present day, with hospitals such as the Bristol Royal Infirmary being created in this manner.

1856 Subscribed £50 to the Smith Testimonial Fund, commemorating the work of F. P. Smith in promoting the screw propeller.

1859 Brunel suffered a stroke, just before the SS Great Eastern made her first voyage to New York. He died ten days later at the age of 53 and was buried, like his father, in Kensal Green Cemetery in London.

He left behind his wife Mary and three children: Henry Marc Brunel (1842–1903); Isambard Brunel, Junior (1837–1902) who went in to Law; and Florence Mary Brunel (c1847–1876) who married Eton schoolmaster Arthur James and they had a daughter Celia. In 1891 Celia Brunel James married Sir Saxton Noble, second son of Sir Andrew Noble and the only Brunel descendents are from this relationship.

Many of Brunel's original papers and designs were gathered in the Brunel Collection at the University of Bristol. The collection has now been moved to the new Brunel Institute, a joint project of the University and the SS Great Britain Trust [3]

1860 Obituary [4]

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the only Son of the late Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, whose mechanical genius and originality of conception he largely inherited.

Young Brunel was born at Portsmouth, in the year 1806, at the period when his Father was engaged on the block machinery for the Royal Dockyard.

He received his general education at the College Henri Quatre, at Caen, where, at that time, the mathematical masters were particularly celebrated, and to his acquirements in that science may be attributed the early successes he achieved, as well as the confidence in his own resources which he displayed throughout his professional career.

On his return to England, he was, for a time, practically engaged in mechanical engineering, at the works of the late Bryan Donkin, and at the age of about twenty, he joined his Father in the construction of the Thames Tunnel, where he attained considerable experience in brickwork and the use of cements, and more especially, in meeting and providing for the numerous casualties to which that work was exposed.

The practical lessons there learned were invaluable to him; and to his personal gallantry and presence of mind, on more than one occasion, when the river made irruptions into the Tunnel, the salvation of the work was due.

One of his first great independent designs was that selected for the proposed suspension-bridge across the River Avon, from Durdham Down, Clifton, to the Leigh Woods, which he owed to the fact, that upon the reference of the competing designs to two distinguished mathematicians for the verification of the calculations, his alone was pronounced to be mathematically exact. Want of funds prevented, at that period, the carrying out of the design, which there are now some hopes of seeing executed, by transplanting to that site the present Hungerford Suspension bridge, which is itself the work of Mr. Brunel.

His introduction to Bristol led to his appointment as Engineer to the docks of that city, which he materially improved. He had been previously engaged in the construction of the old north dock at Sunderland, and subsequently, he was consulted about the design for the Bute Docks at Cardiff.

In 1833-34, he was appointed Engineer to the Great Western Railway, and whilst engaged upon it, he matured his views of the broad gauge, relative to which he sustained one of the hardest fought engineering contests on record. This work placed his reputation high among Engineers, and henceforth, his mental and physical powers were taxed almost beyond those of any other member of the profession.

His attention to all the details of even the smallest works was unremitting; and the Hanwell and Chippenham Viaducts, the Maidenhead and other masonry Bridges, the Box Tunnel, and the iron structures of the Chepstow and Tamar Bridges on the extension of the railway to the west, attest the boldness and originality of his conceptions, his taste in designing, and his skill in the use of various constructive materials.

The partial failure at the opening of the line appeared only to incite his inventive faculties, and to afford a field for the exhibition of his great powers. All the physical impediments were met and conquered, and his perseverance was ultimately crowned with success, in attaining a speed of travelling, combined with comfort and security, hitherto unrivalled.

In the attempted adaptation of the atmospheric system of propulsion to the South Devon Railway, he was, however, signally unfortunate, in spite of all the ingenuity displayed; but this failure served to bring into view a most pleasing feature of his character, for while he duly paid up all the calls upon the stake he had in the undertaking, he, at the same time, refused to accept the professional emoluments to which he was entitled.

His services were in constant demand in railway contests before Committees of the Houses of Parliament, and he was employed to construct the Tuscan portion of the Sardinian Railways, as well as to advise upon the Victorian lines in Australia, and the Eastern Bengal Railway.

Intimately, however, as the name of Isambard Brunel will ever be connected with the railway epoch in Great Britain, it is, probably, as the originator of the system of extension of the dimensions of steam vessels, that he will be best known to posterity.

The Great Western steam ship was his first innovation. In that vessel, which was much larger than any previously constructed, he had the able assistance of Mr. Paterson, of Bristol, as the shipwright and of Joshua Field, (Past-President Inst.C.E.) as the constructor of the engines, and in spite of adverse anticipations, even among practical men, the most triumphant success crowned his efforts, and demonstrated the correctness of his views.

His attention was, at that time, directed to propulsion by the screw, a subject on which F. P. Smith, (Assoc.Inst.C.E.,) had been long and patiently labouring, and the experiments made by Mr. Brunel, in his voyages on board the Archimedes, convinced him of the practicability of the adaptation of the system to large steam vessels.

He then designed the Great Britain, an iron ship, of dimensions far exceeding those of any vessel of its period; and if the first essays were not entirely successful, it must be attributed to the fact of the machinery not having been designed by those whose peculiar study it had been, to produce engines of the class required for such vessels. The disaster in Dundrum Bay demonstrated the scientific design and the practical strength of the hull of the ship, and the successful voyages since made, have proved the correctness of his original views.

He was appointed the Consulting Engineer of the Australian Steam Navigation Company, whom he advised to construct vessels of 5,000 tons burthen, to run the entire voyage to Australia, without stopping to coal. His counsels, however, were not followed.

The Great Eastern was his crowning effort, and to the design and execution of this gigantic vessel, far surpassing in dimensions any ship hitherto constructed, he devoted all his energies. The labour was, however, too great for his physical powers, and he broke down under the wearying task; leaving to John Scott Russell, (M.Inst.C.E.,) and Boulton and Watt, his cooperators in the construction of the hull and the engines, the actual completion of the work he had so well and so perseveringly brought up to the day of starting on the trial trip. The disasters attending the launch and the trial trip were unfortunate, but they were, perhaps, inseparable from so novel an experiment, on so gigantic a scale, and the ultimate results may be looked forward to with great interest, as whatever they may be, the impulse given by Mr. Brunel to the construction of large-sized vessels is already felt, and must have great influence both on the mercantile marine and on the Royal Navy.

This sketch of the professional labours of Mr. Brunel is, of necessity, brief and incomplete, nor can the details be given of the numerous scientific investigations in which he was engaged; but the devotion during two years of considerable portions of his time, to completing the experiments, made by his Father, to test the application of carbonic acid gas, as a motive power for engines, must be mentioned. His special objects of study were mechanical problems connected with railway traction and steam navigation; and although he was not, perhaps, so sound, or so practical a mechanic as his friend, and at the same time, constant opponent, Robert Stephenson, yet his intuitive skill and ready ingenuity enabled him to arrive at satisfactory solutions.

The characteristic feature of his works was their size, and his besetting fault was a seeking for novelty, where the adoption of a well-known model would have sufficed. This defect has been unfairly magnified, whenever the pecuniary results of an undertaking have not reached the preconceived standard, and due allowance has not; been made for the difficulties encountered in the prosecution of a new and bold enterprise.

It might, perhaps, have been as well, if a uniform gauge had been originally established for the United Kingdom, - and such will, doubtless, be the ultimate result,- but not the less must be admired the indomitable energy and consummate skill, with which Mr. Brunel and his coadjutor C. Saunders, pushed the broad gauge and its tributaries westward toward to Bristol, Gloucester, and through Wales, to Milford Haven, then south-west to Exeter and Plymouth, and onwards to the Land's End; and after invading the north-west manufacturing district of Birmingham, finally arriving at the shore of the Mersey, opposite to Liverpool. This alone would have sufficed for the lifetime of many men, and in truth, the stupendous labours undertaken by Brunel could not be performed, without over-tasking the mental and physical faculties, so that eventually, they must break down.

Mr. Brunel was fervently attached to scientific inquiries; he was a good mathematician and possessed great readiness in the practical application of formula. He was elected at an unusually early age a Fellow of the Royal Society; he received the degree of D.C.L. from the University of Oxford; and he belonged to most of the principal scientific societies of the Metropolis, to several foreign societies, and was a Knight of the Legion of Honour. He was an old Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, which he joined as an Associate, in January, 1829; he became a Member in 1837, was elected upon the Council in 1845, and was a Vice-President from 1850 up to the time of his death.

A liberal patron, as well as a discriminating judge of art, he was himself devoted to artistic pursuits, and his early drawings as well as his professional sketches attest his feeling for purity of design. Of his private character those only who were admitted to his intimacy, could alone judge correctly.

Brunel was not a demonstrative man, but there was a fund of kindness and goodness within, which only required to be aroused to stand forth in high relief. It has been well said of him by an old friend:- 'In youth a more joyous, kind-hearted companion never existed. As a man, always overworked, he was ever ready by advice, and not infrequently, to a large extent, by his purse, to aid either professional, or private friends. His habitual caution and reserve made many think him cold and worldly, but by those who saw his exterior only, could such an opinion be entertained. His carelessness of contemporary public opinion, and his self-reliance on his own character and that of his works, were carried to a fault. He was never known to court applause. Bold and vigorous professionally, he was as modest and retiring in private life.'

Mr. Brunel was present at the trial of the engines, the day before the Great Eastern left the Thames. His health had been failing for some time previously, but on that occasion, he was seized with paralysis. He was immediately conveyed to his home, and after ten days, he expired on the 15th of September 1859. He was cut off in his fifty-fourth year, just when he had acquired the judgement which, in such a profession as that of the Civil Engineer, can only be attained by long practice and experience, and when the greatest work of his life had reached the very eve of completion.

His remains were interred on the 20th of September, in Kensal Green Cemetery, in the presence of his relatives and friends, and of a large number of members of the profession.

At a meeting, in November, under the presidency of the Earl of Shelbourne, it was decided, that a public monument should be erected to commemorate his great abilities, and to demonstrate the high esteem in which he was held by his private friends, and his professional brethren.

Major Achievements

Brunel's achievements ignite the imagination of all technically minded Britons and he soon became one of the most famous men in the country.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. 1829 Institution of Civil Engineers
  2. 1851 Census
  3. [1] University of Bristol Library - Brunel Collection webpage
  4. 1860 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries

[2] Wikipedia