The 9th April marks what would be 218th birthday of the great engineer, so now is the perfect time to celebrate his life and look back at his achievements.

So, who was he?

Isambard Kingdom Brunel is considered to be one of the most ingenious and prolific figures in engineering history and is credited as being one of the greatest figures of the Industrial Revolution. He built dockyards across the country, the Great Western Railway, which continues to run to this day, a series of steam ships, including the first purpose built transatlantic steam ship and several important bridges and tunnels, which connected businesses across the nation. He even featured at number 2 in the BBC’s 100 Greatest Britons list – so let’s take a look at his beginnings and how he got to be such an important figure.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born on 9th April 1809 in Portsmouth. His rather unusual name came from his parents’ names – Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, a French civil engineer and Sophia Kingdom. He was the youngest of three children, with two older sisters, Sophia and Emma.

Brunel wasn’t the only over achiever in his family. His father, a civil engineer actually went on to become a famous inventor and is credited for creating new ways of producing pulleys for ships and boots for soldiers. He was also instrumental in creating the Thames Tunnel, which earned him a knighthood. Actually, both his parents were remarkable, they met in Paris during the French Revolution and while his father had to flee the country, his mother remained to finish her studies and ended up being accused of being a British spy. She was sent to prison for the rest of the revolution before making her way to England, where she and Marc Brunel were reunited and married.

Two years after Brunel’s birth, the family moved to London and despite the family’s money worries, their life was described as a happy one. The young Isambard’s father acted as his teacher in his early years, where he learned to speak French fluently and by the age of 8 could learn Euclidean geometry. By this time, he could also draw buildings, knew the basic principles of engineering and demonstrated an aptitude for maths and mechanics. In fact, to many he was considered to be a child genius.

At the age of 8, he was sent to boarding school in Hove and then at 14, went to the University of Caen and then the Lycée Henri IV in Paris as his father was determined that he would have access to a first class education in France. He also studied under Louis Breguet, a celebrated horologist.

While he was at university, the family’s money worries came to a head and his father was incarcerated at a debtors’ prison, where he spent three months. In order to secure his release, he told the government that he had been offered a position in Russia by the Tsar and, not wanting to lose a prominent engineer, he was released and had his debts cleared in exchange for remaining in Britain.

Interestingly, despite this, Brunel’s father went on to receive a knighthood for his work on the construction of the Thames Tunnel. His work gained the attention of Prince Albert who recommended him for the knighthood.

Brunel returned to England in 1822 having completed his education and began almost immediately to follow in his father’s footsteps. He too worked on the Thames Tunnel as an assistant engineer, and even used parts of the tunnels for inspiration and experiments. Together, he and his father designed a tunnel shield which protected workers from the possibility of the tunnel collapsing and burying them under the river. He was injured while working on the project and during his recuperation, began designing the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol.

The Thames Tunnel still remains in use today, it was eventually bought by the East London Railway Company, who incorporated it into the London Underground, though today, it is part of the overground system.

What else did he work on?

Well, perhaps his most famous construction was the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Though the final product differed slightly from the original designs, it remains in use today with around 4 million vehicles using it every year. The bridge spans over 702 ft over the River Avon and at the time of construction, was the longest bridge in the world.

There were a number of set backs in its construction, including Bristol’s Queen Square riots and he unfortunately did not live to see it completed, though it remains a very visual reminder of his legacy. The Clifton Suspension Bridge used tension cables to support the roadway, which meant it needed less materials and therefore was fairly cheap to make.

Other lasting projects created by Brunel include London’s Paddington Station, which he designed to resemble Crystal Palace and was to be the main terminal for the Great Western Railway, which Brunel was appointed Chief Engineer of in 1833. Ambitious at the time, the project aimed to connect Bristol and London via rail. Throughout the construction, Brunel personally researched the 200km route and some of his decisions, like the route between Swindon and Reading, were hugely controversial. His engineering expertise is the reason why there are a series of bridges, viaducts and tunnels along the route, including Box Hill Tunnel in Wiltshire, which at the time was the longest railway tunnel and to this day, features the original architecture. GWR continue to use the route designed by Brunel today.

While GWR was under construction, Brunel began designing a series of transatlantic steamships. Applying his theory that larger ships would require less fuel than a smaller one, he helped design and create the Great Western Steamship, which set sail in 1837. Like many of his creations, it was the largest steamship in the world. He was so convinced in his theory that he provided his services for free!
Continuing his work with steamships, he completed the SS Great Britain in 1843, the world’s first iron ship, which became influential in the design of many modern ships and can be viewed to this day in Bristol.

As well as the SS Great Britain, he is also credited with the SS Great Western, which was designed to link London to New York and the SS Great Eastern, which aimed to connect London with Sydney. Sadly, he suffered a stroke just before its maiden voyage and the ship was damaged during the journey.

It wasn’t just bridges, viaducts, railways and steam ships Brunel helped build. He was also tasked with making pre fabricated hospitals for use during the Crimean War. The British Government’s main requirement was that the construction could be easily transported and built. Brunel completed it in just 6 days and the Renkioi Hospital was considered a great success for its attention to hygiene and for being built with a large number of patients in mind. Even Florence Nightingale was impressed!

There are a host of other buildings credited to Brunel including the Royal Albert Bridge, which spanned the Tamar, Somerset Bridge, the Windsor Railway Bridge and the Maidenhead Railway Bridge, which continues to service mainline trains, even though they are much heavier now than they were when the bridge was built.

What else do we know?

Brunel was a Fellow of the Royal Society and was a family man. He married Mary Horsley, the daughter of composer William Horsley and they initially settled in London.

One time, while performing a magic trick for his children, he accidentally inhaled a coin which became lodged in his wind pipe. After forceps couldn’t remove it, he even invented a machine to shake it loose, but this didn’t work either, eventually they strapped him to a board and turned him upside down, which dislodged it. Following this, Brunel recuperated in Teignmouth, Devon. He enjoyed his stay there so much, that he purchased an estate nearby and commissioned Brunel Manor which he aimed to be his country home. However, he didn’t live long enough to see the house or gardens completed.

Brunel was a heavy smoker and suffered a stroke on 5th September 1859, just before the Great Eastern made its first voyage. He died 10 days later at just 53 and was buried at his family’s plot in Kensal Green, London. There is a window at Westminster Abbey, which commemorates him and can be viewed to this day.

Where to see Brunel’s legacy:

The Brunel Museum, Rotherhithe, London
Not only can you learn more about the man himself, but it’s also on the site where the family hosted the first underground concert party!

SS Great Britain, Great Western Dockyard, Bristol

Merseyside Maritime Museum, Royal Albert Dock, Liverpool

National Railway Museum, York

Ironbridge Gorge Museum, Telford

National Waterfront Museum, Swansea

National Museum of Wales, Cardiff

National Museum Cardiff, Cardiff

West Somerset Railway, Somerset

Somerset Heritage Centre, Taunton

Gloucestershire Archives, Gloucester

Railway Museum, Swindon

Box Tunnel, Wiltshire

Bathwick Covered Way, Bath

The Holburne Museum, Bath

Bath Golf Club, Bath

Museum of Bath at Work, Bath

St James Viaduct, Bath

Bath Spa Railway Station, Bath

Skew Bridge, Bath

Sydney Gardens, Bath

Bristol Temple Meads, Bristol

Brunel Statue, Temple Meads, Bristol

M Shed and Whapping Wharf, Bristol

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol

Underfall Yard, Bristol

Bristol Archives, Bristol

Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol

Museum of the History of Science, Oxford

Didcot Railway Centre, Oxford

Culham Station, Oxford

Thames Bridge, Maidenhead

Thames Bridge, Windsor

Brunel University, London

Three Bridges, nr Hounslow

Kensal Green Cemetery, London

Crystal Palace Museum, London

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Brunel Museum, London

Museum of London, Barbican, London

Westminster Abbey, London

Isambard Kingdom Brunel Statue, Victoria Embankment, London

Paddington Station, London

Bishop’s Bridge, Paddington, London

Historic Dockyard, Chatham, Kent

Brunel Statue, Portsmouth

St Albans Church, Portsmouth

Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter

Somerset Heritage Centre, Taunton

Great Western Railway Museum, Newton Abbot, Devon

South Devon Railway, Buckfastleigh, Devon

Welback Manor, Plymouth

Sutton Wharf, Plymouth

Saltash Heritage Museum, Plymouth

Moorswater Viaduct, Cornwall

Liskeard Viaduct, Cornwall




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