Isambard Kingdom Brunel

An ingenious and prolific engineer who transformed 19th-century Britain.

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One of the greatest British engineers of the 19th century, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) built twenty-five railway lines, over a hundred bridges, including five suspension bridges, eight pier and dock systems, three ships and a pre-fabricated army field hospital.

‘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,’ wrote Daniel Gooch, Brunel's fellow engineer. '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.’

Like Father, Like Son

One of the most ingenious and prolific figures in engineering history, Brunel was born into his profession. His father, Marc Isambard Brunel (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 in 1796. He left for England in 1799, partly to be reunited with an English sweetheart he had met in France, Sophia Kingdom, and partly to present to the Royal Navy his newly invented machinery for making ships’ blocks, which was soon installed in Portsmouth.

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.

Their son Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born at Portsea in 1806. Marc made sure that the boy had a theoretical education as well as a 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 also stayed with the family of the prominent horologist Louis Breguet and spent some time in his workshop.

From London to Bristol

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, and Brunel set to work on the bridge. It became one of his best-known works, though during his lifetime construction was intermittent and eventually abandoned due to inadequate funds, and the project was only revived and completed after his death as a tribute to him, built to a revised design. He was also commissioned to improve the conditions of Bristol City docks, which he did with considerable success. In 1833, Brunel 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. Energetic and conscientious, Brunel involved himself in every aspect of the project from the route and track to the architecture of the stations and the decorative details. He 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 – 7 feet ¼ inches, than the then-standard 4 feet 8 ½ inches (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, but an 1845 Royal Commission deemed it less cost-effective than the widespread ‘narrow’ gauge of 4 feet 8 ½ inches, which was to be adopted as the national standard gauge, and the broad gauge railway was gradually replaced.

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 – though it was opened only in 1854. He was asked to construct a flexible covered space with no 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 & Co., to build a three-span iron and glass structure for Paddington, which would be 700 feet long and 240 ½ feet wide, with a 102 ½ feet wide centre span, a 68 feet south span and 70 feet 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.

It is difficult for us to comprehend the scale and complexity of the construction of a new railway like the Great Western or Cornwall Railway today. Among Brunel’s gifts was to understand that, if passengers were to fully appreciate the romance of the railway, its engineering had to be invisible. The trains should float over the landscape with such apparent ease that their passengers did not notice if they were climbing hills or fording water. To achieve this, Brunel and his team designed numerous viaducts, tunnels, embankments and sea defences. Many of them were considerable feats of engineering in Brunel’s time and are still in use and highly admired today, such as the Maidenhead Railway Bridge with its then unprecedentedly wide and flat arches, and the Box Tunnel, which cost the lives of nearly 100 workers and was the longest railway tunnel at the time of its completion in 1841. On the South Devon Railway designed by Brunel, the Dawlish Sea Wall stretch is one of the most renowned and celebrated sections in the country for its stunning scenery, though at the same time also one of the most vulnerable and costly to maintain.

Arguably his greatest challenge – and achievement – was on the Cornwall Railway where he designed the Royal Albert Bridge to cross the River Tamar at its narrowest point of 1,100 feet at Saltash while allowing sufficient height for sailing ships to pass underneath. Brunel’s solution was a two-span bowstring suspension bridge with a single rail track. Each of the two main spans was a wrought iron tubular arch with a profile in the form of a parabola. Sets of suspension chains hung on each side of the tube in a catenary curve with the tube’s rise equalling the dip of the chains, which counteracted the outward thrust of the arch and helped create a system where forces were all contained within the structure. To create enough room for sailing ships to pass beneath the bridge, Brunel proposed a central pier and two spans each of 465 feet, later reduced to 455 feet, with a clearance of 100 feet above mean high water.

Brunel completed his design in 1852 and construction soon began, which was not finished until 1859. There were two principal difficulties. The first was the creation of the pier in the middle of the river, which Brunel solved by designing a Great Cylinder to be floated into position and to act as a coffer dam. The second was the raising of the main spans. These were built on the Devon foreshore and floated into position. The Cornwall pier was erected first and jacked up three feet at a time to enable the brickwork on the landward pier and ironwork on the central pier to be erected beneath.

Brunel was appointed engineer of a number of regional railways in the 1840s, but consuming though his railway projects were, he devoted considerable time and energy to other projects, notably his 1855 design of a 1,000 bed pre-fabricated field hospital to be shipped for use in the Crimean War at Renkioi, and a series of steamships.

The Three Great Ships

While working on the Great Western Railway, Brunel persuaded his directors to adopt his audacious proposal – to establish a transatlantic steamship service operating from Bristol to New York as a natural extension of railway services – and he was commissioned to design and build ships for this purpose. The SS Great Western, a wooden paddle steamer, was launched at Bristol in 1837 and was to miss, by three hours, being the first ship to cross the Atlantic under steam, beaten by a rival steamship that had departed four days earlier. Nevertheless, the SS Great Western demonstrated the feasibility of transatlantic steam navigation, and became a successful model for other passenger liners. Six years later, the daringly innovative SS Great Britain took to the sea as the first large ship built of iron and equipped with a screw propeller.

By the early 1850s, Brunel determined to solve the refuelling problem by building a steamship big enough to carry all the coal required for a round trip to Australia, which came in the shape of the SS Great Eastern, a huge ship with a displacement of more than 30,000 tons. She had both paddle wheels and a screw propeller to allow her to operate in the shallow waters of the River Hoogly in India where the screw propeller would not be completely immersed.

The SS Great Eastern was built by John Scott Russell at Millwall on the Isle of Dogs with over three million iron rivets used to secure 30,000 wrought iron plates. The project was fraught with financial difficulties. Scott Russell, who had greatly underestimated the cost, went bankrupt.

When construction work recommenced, Brunel faced the problem of getting his huge ship into the water. She had to be launched sideways with 21 hydraulics forcing her down – a process that took nearly three weeks. Unable to finance a voyage to Australia, the Great Eastern’s owners put her on the transatlantic run, but she was too big to compete with the smaller steamers specifically designed for the route. After a short but successful career as a cable layer – notably laying the first transatlantic cable in 1866 – she lay rusting at Milford Haven before being sold for £26,200 in 1884 as a floating music hall. Four years later she was sold to a firm of shipbreakers for £16,000 and took two years to break up – twice as long as planned.

Brunel did not live to see the Great Eastern’s demise. Early on in her construction, he became seriously ill and was ordered to travel abroad by his doctor in 1858. He returned on 6 May 1859 – days after the opening of the Royal Albert Bridge by Prince Albert – but remained in poor health. On 5 September he collapsed on the deck of the Great Eastern from a heart attack, and was too ill to join the great ship on her maiden voyage steaming down the Thames two days later. He died on 15 September, at the age of 53.

Enduring Fame

Few engineers have matched Brunel’s achievements in the scale and range of his output – from the largest steamship of the age in the SS Great Eastern, to the most ingenious railway bridge in the Royal Albert. Admittedly, his achievements cannot be seen in isolation from the contributions made by his colleagues, assistants and the many manual workers, and Brunel himself was not infallible. Some of his works, for all their technological superiority, caused serious financial difficulties to the shareholders. All the same, by the time of his death his reputation as an illustrious engineer was firmly established. His funeral at Kensal Green Cemetery was attended not only by eminent engineers, but also by several thousand railway workers paying their respects.

Brunel remains a celebrated figure today, having come second in a 2002 national poll conducted by the BBC that asked the United Kingdom public to select the greatest Briton of all time. In 2006, celebrations were held to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth, for which two special £2 coins and six special stamps were also issued. Portrayed by Kenneth Branagh, Brunel even appeared in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, symbolising the audacity and enterprise of the pioneers of the industrial age.

Image Credits

(Portrait) Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the launching chains of the Great Eastern, Robert Howlett, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Great Eastern (wheel and chain drum), Robert Howlett, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Great Eastern: Elevation from mid-Thames, Robert Howlett, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Hats © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Picture of the Hungerford Bridge, c. 1845. Leonard Bentley, Wikimedia Commons.

Mug © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.



Birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel in Portsea.


Returns to London after studying in Paris and joins the drawing office of his father, the eminent engineer, Marc Brunel.


Appointed resident engineer of the Thames Tunnel only to be seriously injured by flood damage in January 1828.


While convalescing in Bristol, enters a competition to design the Clifton Bridge across the Avon Gorge, which he wins.


Completes work on an astronomical observatory for James South in London.

Appointed engineer of dock at Monkwearmouth, Sunderland.


Appointed chief engineer of the Great Western Railway.

Submits proposal for the Great Western Railway from Bristol to London.

Designs dredging system for Bristol harbour and is appointed engineer to supervise the work


Proposes broader 7 feet gauge for the GWR track and begins a battle for acceptance with GWR board.

Starts to design the Maidenhead Bridge, Wharncliffe Viaduct and Hungerford Suspension Bridge.


Marries Mary Horsley and they move in to the floors above his office on Duke Street in Mayfair.


Launch of SS Great Western in Bristol.


Battle with the GWR board culminates in trials proving that Brunel’s broad gauge will enable locomotives to attain higher speeds.


Launch of SS Great Britain in Bristol.

Appointed engineer of the South Devon Railway. Visits Italy as engineer for Genoa – Allessandria Railway and Florence – Pistoria Railway.


Appointed surveyor and engineer of five regional railways including Monmouth & Hereford and Oxford & Rugby.


Proposes a high bridge over the River Tamar – to be completed in 1852 – and is appointed engineer of the Cornwall Railway as well as of the West Cornwall Railway.


Starts work on the design of a new Paddington Station as the London terminus of the GWR.


Completes design for the Tamar (Royal Albert) Bridge.


Signs the contract for the design, construction and launch of the ‘Great Ship’ or SS Great Eastern.


Opening of the new Paddington Station.


Commissioned by the War Office to design a pre-fabricated 1,000-bed hospital for use in the Crimean War


Begins work on the Eastern Bengal Railway in India.


Work nearing completion on both the Royal Albert Bridge and SS Great Eastern but Brunel becomes ill and is ordered to travel – to the Alps and then Egypt – by his doctor.


Opening of the Royal Albert Bridge, while Brunel is still abroad. He collapses of a heart attack on the deck of the SS Great Eastern two days before its launch and dies ten days later, on 15 September.


Brunel is named the second greatest Briton in a nationwide poll conducted by the BBC.


The 200th anniversary of the birth of Brunel is celebrated, with special coins and stamps issued.


Portrayed by Kenneth Branagh, Brunel appears in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.

Further Reading

The Intemperate Engineer: Isambard Kingdom Brunel in His Own Words

Author: Adrian Vaughan

Publisher: Ian Allen Publishing (2010)

The Works of Isambard Kingdom Brunel: An Engineering Appreciation

Editor: Alfred Pugsley

Publisher: Cambridge University Press (2011)

Brunel: 'In Love with the Impossible'

Editors: Andrew Kelly and Melanie Kelly

Publisher: ICE Publishing (2006)

Brunel: The Life and Times of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Author: Angus Buchanan

Publisher: Hambledon Continuum (2006)

Isambard Kingdom Brunel: Recent Works

Editor: Eric Kentley

Publisher: Design Museum (2000)

The Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

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