Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

One of the great British engineers of the 19th century ISAMBARD KINGDOM BRUNEL (1806-1859) built twenty-five railways lines, over a hundred bridges, including five suspension bridges, eight pier and dock systems, three ships and a pre-fabricated army field hospital.

Daniel Gooch wrote of the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel,

“By his death the greatest of England’s engineers was lost, the man with the greatest originality of thought and power of execution, bold in his plans, but right. The commercial world thought him extravagant; but although he was so, great things are not done by those who sit down and count the cost of every thought and act. He was a true and sincere Karamba friend, a man of the highest honour, and his loss was deplored by all who had the pleasure to know him”

One of the most ingenious and prolific figures in engineering history, Brunel was born into his profession. His father, Marc (1769-1849) was one of the great engineers of the Industrial Revolution and a pioneer of mechanical production. Born in France, Marc had studied at Rouen under Gaspard Monge, the inventor of mechanical drawing, but fled to the US during the French Revolution and became chief engineer of New York City. He left for England in 1799, partly to be reunited with an English sweetheart, Sophia Kingdom, and partly because the Royal Navy had ordered his newly invented machinery for making ships’s blocks.

Once in England, Marc married Sophia and invented many mechanical devices, including knitting machines and marine steam engines, as well as designing the Thames Tunnel, the world’s first pedestrian tunnel under a river. Past attempts had failed, but Marc developed the idea of constructing the tunnel under a tunnelling shield after observing the behaviour of a shipworm, the encased head of which bores through the hardest of woods.

The only son of Marc Isambard Brunel, Isambard Kingdom Brunel followed a similar career to his father. His life was marked by hugely ambitious projects, unparalleled in engineering history, which tended to become even more ambitious as the years passed.

Their son Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born at Portsea in 1806. Marc made sure that the boy had a theoretical education as well as practical engineering apprenticeship. Isambard attended school in Chelsea and Hove, but as the best mathematical education was to be had in France, he was sent to study there, at Caen College in 1820 and then at Lycée Henri IV in Paris, where he stayed with the family of the horologist Louis Breguet.

In 1822, Brunel returned to London and the following year went to work for his father, who was designing suspension bridges for Ile de Bourbon (now Ile de Réunion) in the western Indian Ocean. He worked for Marc for five years, mostly as resident engineer on the Thames Tunnel. Work was suspended in 1828 when a flood destroyed much of the tunnel. Brunel was badly injured during the flood and was sent to convalesce in Bristol where he was encouraged to enter a competition to design the Clifton Bridge across the Avon Gorge. Three years later, the judges declared him the winner, Brunel set to work on the bridge and, two years later, was appointed chief engineer to the Great Western Railway. As his practise expanded, he moved to larger premises at 18 Duke Street in 1835 to which he later added number 17. After his marriage to Mary Horsley in 1836, they lived in the upper floors, where Brunel had his office, while business was conducted downstairs.

The design of the Great Western Railway linking Bristol to London absorbed much of his time. Brunel had to pitch for the project against other engineers and presented an audacious proposal for a high speed railway on which Stephenson’s locomotives could travel at 60mph rather than 35mph. He argued that by developing a track with a broader gauge - 7ft ¼in, than the then-standard 4ft 8½in (1435mm) - the centre of gravity of the carriages would be lower thereby allowing the engine’s driving wheels to be larger and the trains to run faster. Brunel’s scheme was highly controversial and he fought a bitter battle to implement it: even threatening to resign when the GWR board tried to force him to work with a co-engineer. The broad gauge was eventually used on the Great Western Railway, Cornwall Railway and smaller lines, even though an 1845 Royal Commission deemed it too expensive to be adopted as the national standard gauge. ’

Brunel was equally ambitious in the design of the GWR’s London terminus, Paddington Station, which he was charged with rebuilding in 1849 to accommodate the crowds expected to converge on London for the 1851 Great Exhibition. He was asked to construct a flexible covered space with not columns to accommodate the railway’s future needs and to outshine the London terminus of the GWR’s arch-rival, the Great Northern Railway, at Euston. In an age when the new railways were regarded as the acme of modernity and sources of future prosperity for provincial cities and towns, public interest in Brunel’s daring schemes for the GWR was intense.

Inspired by Joseph Paxton’s design of Crystal Palace, Brunel hired the same contractors, Fox, Henderson, to build a three-span iron and glass structure for Paddington, which would be 700ft long and 240½ft wide, with a 102½ft wide centre span, a 68ft south span and 70ft north span. It consisted of 189 wrought-iron arched ribs with 12 diagonals supporting the transept roofs and 69 identical cast iron columns erected in three rows.