Hardware Heroes: Isambard Kingdom Brunel

There are some notable figures in history that you know of for just one single thing. They may have achieved much in their lifetimes or they may have only been famous for Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes, but through the lens of time we only know them for that single achievement. Then on the other hand there are those historic figures for whom there is such a choice of their achievements that have stood the test of time, that it is difficult to characterize them by a single one.

[Isambard Kingdom Brunel], in front of the launching chains for the Great Eastern. [Public domain]
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, in front of the launching chains for the Great Eastern. [Public domain]
Such is the case of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the subject of today’s Hardware Heroes piece. Do we remember him for his involvement in the first successful tunnel to pass beneath a river, as a builder of some of the most impressive bridges on the 19th century, the innovator in all aspects of rail engineering, the man behind the first screw-driven ocean-going iron ship, or do we remember him as all of those and more?

It is possible that if you are not British, or in particular you are not from the West of England, this is the first you’ve heard of Brunel. In which case he is best described as a towering figure of many aspects of engineering over the middle years of the 19th century. His influence extended from civil engineering through the then-emerging rail industry, to shipbuilding and more, and his legacy lives on today in that many of his works are still with us.

Engineering: The Family Trade

Brunel’s father, Marc Brunel, was an engineer and refugee from the French Revolution who found success in providing the British Navy with a mass-production system for wooden pulley blocks as used in the rigging of sailing ships. He enters this story for his grand project, the world’s first tunnel to be dug under a navigable river, beneath London’s River Thames from Rotherhithe to Wapping, and for his patented tunneling shield which made it possible to be dug.

It's easy to spot that it's the [Brunel] Museum.
It’s easy to spot that it’s the Brunel Museum.
The Thames at Rotherhithe flows over soft ground, and this caused significant problems for the project including a breach, flooding, and recovery. Brunel was his father’s on-site manager after the departure of the first incumbent due to overwork, and continued in the role until the tunnel’s eventual completion, hugely over time and budget, in 1843. The tunnel remains in use today by the London Overground railway, and its two vertical construction shafts have survived. The southern shaft  and its associated engine house are now in use as the Brunel Museum, and we took a trip there on a chilly November morning.

Visiting the Brunel Museum

The museum is not a large one, and has a primary focus on Brunel himself and the tunnel in particular. Its exhibition and video presentation are informative, but not necessarily enough to detain the visitor for too long. The reason you should visit it lies a short walk from the engine house; visitors can descend into the construction shaft itself for a tantalising glimpse at a remnant of Victorian London.

It appears that the shaft leads a double life as an event venue, being we would guess comfortably large enough to place a London bus inside it. So entry is down a modern staircase and there is some modern seating, but once you ignore those you can see some of the original features. The floor is a later addition placed above the train tracks, so periodically you can hear the London Overground beneath your feet, meanwhile the walls are the grimy Victorian brick of the shaft lining. This was laid at ground level as it descended under its own weight while the shaft was dug, and still bears the clearly visible imprint of the original 1840s double staircases that carried the foot passengers who first used the tunnel.

It’s odd, this is on one hand a grimy and relatively featureless place, yet as an engineer it’s simultaneously hallowed ground. The Brunels — both father and son — made this happen alongside the hard work of many nameless Victorian labourers. From this achievement came all the other achievements of Victorian civil engineering from Brunel and those who followed him in the Great Western Railway and his other ventures. If engineering had cathedrals, this might be one of them.

This photograph does not do justice to to the tunnel construction shaft as a space.
This photograph (taken in low light and edited) does not do justice to the tunnel construction shaft as a space.

A visit to the museum is not complete without a quick run over the road to survey the riverscape, followed by a short walk to Rotherhithe station for a trip through the tunnel itself. To be fair, other than knowing you’re in Brunel’s tunnel it’s just like any other Tube journey, however it is rumoured that when special trains are laid on for enthusiasts they turn off the train lights and leave on the tunnel lighting, allowing passengers to see some of the surviving original brickwork.

Brunel the Railroad Builder

A modern [Brunel] statue at the GWR Paddington terminus.
A modern Brunel statue at the GWR Paddington terminus.
The tunnel may have been Brunel’s signature early work, but it is not the achievement he is most remembered for. If we were to ask a typical person in the street about him, particularly if they lived in the West of England, we’d be greeted with the instant answer: the Great Western Railway. This was the transport empire that spread westwards from London, initially to Bristol, but then further west to cover the entire West of England and Wales. Brunel was the chief engineer who laid out and surveyed its route, was responsible for its principal structures, and decided its engineering principles including its unique 7’0.25″ broad gauge.

The GWR became such an integral part of that region of the country that it stamped its culture and by extension Brunel’s presence across it. Today his name can be seen in pub signs, street signs, a university and a shopping centre, and the modern-day train operating company. Those passenger trains now cover the area with the renamed moniker GWR and the company is busy adopting the signature green livery of its ancestor.

A Trio of Bridges: Masterpieces All

It is difficult to conceive in an age when highway bridges are prefabricated and assembled in days, just how much of an achievement a single bridge could be. In Brunel’s case there are three of the many bridges he designed that stand out as engineering masterpieces, his brick arches over the Thames at Maidenhead, his twin-span Royal Albert Bridge over the Tamar at Saltash, and the Clifton Suspension Bridge over the Avon gorge just outside Bristol.

The Royal Albert Bridge, Saltash. Geof Sheppard [CC BY-SA 3.0]
The Royal Albert Bridge, Saltash. [by: Geof Sheppard CC BY-SA 3.0]
The Maidenhead bridge carries the GWR main line over the Thames, with two arches meeting at a central pier on one of the river’s islands. It is exceptional because both arches take the shape of an extremely low and wide ellipse, which in 1839 upon it opening were the widest and flattest brick arches in the world. Even today when standing under the arch it is a particularly graceful structure. Famously the GWR board were concerned that Brunel had pushed the technology of brick arches too far, so he left the wooden construction supports in place for its first winter until the river’s floods carried them away. 178 years later it still carries all the trains heading for the West of England.

The Saltash bridge carries the GWR main line to Cornwall, in the extreme south west of the country, at high level over the River Tamar. To maintain navigability for sailing ships, it takes the form of two 455-foot wrought iron trusses 100 feet above the water. Each of the trusses contains a pair of ellipses from which the track bed is suspended, giving the bridge its distinctive appearance.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge. [by Gothick CC BY-SA 3.0]
The Clifton Suspension Bridge. [Gothick CC BY-SA 3.0]
The Clifton bridge bears Brunel’s name, but as a memorial to him from the civil engineers who completed it after his death. Brunel had completed the stone towers, but the project had foundered for lack of funds in the 1830s. After Brunel’s death it was completed using chains from an earlier Brunel design that had been demolished, and finally opened in 1864. With its spectacular position over a deep gorge it remains one of the most famous views of a suspension bridge in the world, and though today it carries a fairly minor road it is well worth a visit.

Ship Building? Why Not!

The logical extension of a transport network built to serve Western British ports was to establish a shipping line, and Brunel brought his engineering expertise to the design of a series of ships for the Great Western Steamship Company. The Great Western of 1838 was a wooden-hulled paddle steamer, but the ship that followed it, the Great Britain of 1843, was the world’s first iron-hulled screw-driven steamship. As such it was the direct ancestor of all modern shipping, at a time when much of the world’s ocean-going transport still relied on sail power. Astoundingly it survived, eventually being retrieved as a hulk from the Falkland Islands in 1970 and returned to Bristol for restoration and display as a museum ship.

A contemporary picture on the Great Eastern at sea. [Public domain]
A contemporary picture on the Great Eastern at sea. [Public domain]
Brunel’s final maritime design was the 1859 Great Eastern, featuring both screw and paddle wheels as an extreme long-distance ship for the journeys from Britain to India and Australia. The famous photograph of him standing in front of an immense reel of chain is taken at its construction, they are part of its launch chains. The Great Eastern was the largest ship ever built at the time, and would not be surpassed in either size or tonnage until the years surrounding the turn of the 20th century. Upon completion its launch was unsuccessful, and it lay for a few months while a series of hydraulic rams were assembled to force it sideways into the River Thames. Its first sea trial in early September 1859 was marred by a steam explosion, which blew a substantial hole in its deck and toppled one of its funnels into the English Channel.

The pressure of the Great Eastern project had its effect on Brunel’s health, and following the Great Eastern explosion he suffered a stroke and died a few days later on the 15th of September 1859. He is buried in a rather unassuming family plot in Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

The Fails Only Make You Stronger

The projects we’ve described so far in this piece are only the larger and better known among Brunel’s work. Perhaps one day we’ll devote an entire article to his disastrous experiment with an atmospheric railway for instance, or his success with a prefabricated military hospital for the British involvement in the Crimean War. Even our talking about bridges has omitted many interesting structures, his timber viaducts, or the intersection of a canal, road, and railway bridge in a London suburb. To be an engineer like Brunel in the 19th century was to be a polymath, and this is why he’s an obvious choice for a Heroes piece.

[Brunel]'s memorial on the Embankment.
Brunel’s memorial on the Embankment.
Going back to our journey across London, there are many different possible routes over the London Transport network from the tunnel museum at Rotherhithe to the Great Western Railway terminus at Paddington, but we took one of the less obvious ones to take in one last Brunel site. A couple of stops down the line to Whitechapel and a switch to the District line (green on the Tube map), and a trundle along the Embankment to Temple station where we find after a short walk his memorial statue. It’s a modest structure though clean and not neglected, his bronze stands on a plinth looking down at a pedestrian crossing as the taxis thunder past. Pedestrians barely give it a second glance, as the Embankment is home to a large number of statues of notable people. But then you might ask yourself, why should they? This is Brunel’s monument, but it’s not the monument that matters. Every time you board an express train, every time we use a product that has been transported by rail or ship, and every journey through a tunnel under water, those are his monuments. Stand by a piece of Brunel’s work, if you want to see his real commemoration. Most of it has survived for a century and a half, how many of today’s engineers will be able to say that!

[Source for main image: Royal Museums Greenwich]

45 thoughts on “Hardware Heroes: Isambard Kingdom Brunel

  1. > The Great Western of 1838 was a wooden-hulled paddle steamer, but the ship that followed it, the Great Britain of 1843, was the world’s first iron-hulled screw-driven steamship. As such it was the direct ancestor of all modern shipping, at a time when much of the world’s ocean-going transport still relied on sail power. Astoundingly it survived, eventually being retrieved as a hulk from the Falkland Islands in 1970 and returned to Bristol for restoration and display as a museum ship.

    I think you missed a bit there? What did it survive?

    1. “She made her final voyage in 1886, after loading up with coal and leaving Penarth Dock for Panama on 8 February. After a fire on board en-route she was found on arrival at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands to be damaged beyond economic repair. She was sold to the Falkland Islands Company and used, afloat, as a storage hulk (coal bunker) until 1937, when she was towed to Sparrow Cove, 3.5 miles from Port Stanley, scuttled and abandoned…. In the Second World War, some of her iron was scavenged to repair HMS Exeter, one of the Royal Navy ships that fought the Graf Spee and was badly damaged during the Battle of the River Plate”


    2. Should be added the great Britain is restored and can be visited in Bristol. You can even go underneath it. I keep meaning to go but whenever in in Bristol I haven’t had enough time to have a right good look around.

  2. Great article! I was quite aware of Brunel, but not the details you highlighted. How about doing Maudsley and Nasmyth? Is Maudsley’s screw lathe still on display? I’d cross the pond for that.

  3. Excellent article! I had previously been aware of some of Brunel’s amazing work, but this article nicely filled in a lot of details.
    The fact that so many of his works are still standing over 150 years later is a great testament to his engineering prowess and the quality of his work.

  4. “Most of it has survived for a century and a half, how many of today’s engineers will be able to say that!”

    Well, survival of engineered structures is mostly thanks to politicians and military generals who keep human – induced destruction away from them, as well as thanks to local maintenance personnel who kept entropy at bay. Left to elements, most manufactured things thoroughly rot out within the same timeframe.

    It could be said that beautiful design + society is the best protection good engineering has against time. If you want it to last, make it loved! If we look at Brunel’s work from that point of view, then yes, he blessed it and gifted it longevity (as long as there are humans) through art.

  5. Wow – thanks for a great piece on Brunel! I live and work in Bristol, and for anyone with an interest in the history of engineering it is a real Brunel treasure trove. Jenny mentioned many of the famous Brunel-designed structures here, but here are a few lesser-known gems:

    1. Unlike at London Paddington and some of the other stations on the GWR, none of the platforms at Bristol Temple Meads railway station are in the original (1840s) locations. The original Brunel-designed station building (the “passenger shed”) is now a conference centre unfortunately. But if you ever get the chance to go in, you can’t miss the spectacular the faux-hammer-beam roof.
    2. Apparently it is possible to go inside the piers on which the towers of the Clifton Suspension Bridge are built. I’ve never done it myself though… The very fact that there are accessible voids inside the piers was only discovered a few years ago.
    3. Brunel aficionados visiting the S.S. Great Britain can take a short walk down the river to the Cumberland Basin to see a swing bridge of unique design. Sadly no longer operational, but there is a project to restore it (https://www.brunelsotherbridge.org.uk/).
    4. In the same area, you can visit the Underfall Yard where there is a wealth of information and practical demonstrations about Bristol harbour. Brunel was the consulting engineer for the harbour in the 1830s and devised a ‘scouring’ (i.e. dredging) scheme to reduce silting. The same basic scheme for flushing the silt out at the Underfall is still in use today.

    Finally, for anyone looking to know more about Brunel’s life, I’d recommend the biography by Adrian Vaughan as being the most interesting and critical of those available. Although for those after a deeper look at the engineering involved rather than than the man himself, “The Works of Isambard Kingdom Brunel: An Engineering Appreciation” edited by Pugsley is fascinating.

  6. In a clever bit of lateral thinking, the 2 spans for the bridge over the river Tamar were built at ground level, put on barges, so that the rise and fall of the tides was used to lift them into place.

    If you look at the photos, you’ll still see the holes in the central steel column, where pegs were inserted at every high tide to prevent the span from going down again.
    Then more scaffolding was put on the barges as the tide went out. so that when the tide rose again, the span would be lifted higher and higher

    1. YES! the ship’s line was a bust but not a better choice for the single most ambitious project on earth ever carried out by one man and his idea.

      HaD needs to do a series on Cyrus and the Madman. The great ship laid the first Permanent cable. Lasted into the 1930’s, unlike the first cable laid under the ocean. That is the first episode.

  7. A typically excellent article, up to your usual high standard. Thank you. What about Michael Faraday next? There is a fascinating biography of him by James Hamilton, and the Wikipedia’s “list of things named after Michael Faraday” shows what a lot of influence he had over modern life. Tesla would not have been able to build his transmission lines had not Faraday invented the transformer first.
    Anyone who likes Brunel should read Sydney Padua’s hugely ahistorical stories of his adventures with Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage!

    1. No more than any other similar figure of the time, 19th century engineering wasn’t 100% safe. But yes, very much aware of the efforts of the countless navvies, as I mention above.

  8. What formal Engineering education did Brunel receive? The Brunel university says “he studied formal Engineering” but not where. Wikipedia says he apprenticed with a watchmaker?

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.