Brunel: A Victorian Genius

In his lifetime, Isambard Kingdom Brunel towered over his profession. Today he remains one of the most famous engineers in history. Ray Sturdy's talk to a packed audience at Wade Street Church was a fact-filled exploration of the life and achievements of one of our most famous Victorians. He was born in Portsea, near Portsmouth in 1806, of a French father and English mother. The Brunels were wealthy farmers from Hacqueville, between Paris and Rouen. Marc Brunel's restless spirit saw him announce at an early age that he wanted to become an engineer. Family connections saw him enroled in a college at Rouen, where he quickly learned engineering drawing, maths and geometry. Duly equipped, he joined the French Navy, the start of a six year career. His royalist sympathies meant that a return, at least in the short term, to France was out of the question, so he left the navy to settle in New York, where he carved out a career as a state surveyor. By 1799, for reasons unexplained, he decided to sail for England and start a new career. Here, he was reunited with Sophia Kingdom, a good friend from his Rouen College days. They quickly married and settled in London.

Marc's career was boosted when he successfully developed a system for manufacturing pulley or rigging blocks for the Royal Navy. In the days of sailing ships, at least 200 such blocks were required for the average ship. An individual could make six per week. Marc's new machine made 100 in the same time. The authorities started to take notice of this innovative engineer. As his fame spread, he relocated from Portsmouth back to London in 1807 and young Isambard spent his formative years at a nearby college learning drawing, engineering and maths, just like his father. Marc's career now blossomed as he developed a variety of steam powered machines to improve traditional processes from sawing wood to cannon boring. In 1822, at sixteen, Isambard left school and joined his father's office as a junior.

There had been a number of failed attempts to bore a tunnel under the Thames, the only option available to allow tall masted ships to pass up the river. Marc, with Isambard's increasing help, devised a successful process to bore not one, but two parallel pedestrian tunnels from Rotherhide to Wapping. Nothing like this had been attempted before. The problems encountered meant they had to devise new methods of working, requiring new machinery which the Brunels had to develop. Danger was never far away. Near disaster struck when water flooded into the workings. By 1826, Isambard was Chief Engineer to the project, which was to fully occupy him until 1828 when a grand opening banquet was held in the tunnels.

By 1830, he was actively involved in the design competition for the Clifton Suspension Bridge at Bristol, eventually beating Thomas Telford's design on both cost and asthetic grounds. Started in 1832, the bridge was finally completed after a long pause by 1836. During this period, he undertook a number of other commissions but, aware of the impact of new-fangled railways, started to take an interest in linking London to Bristol (to where he had moved). This led to his appointment as Chief Engineer and Surveyor of the nascent Great Western Railway, which linked London with the major seaport of Bristol. At a time when few railways were built, Brundel's cutting edge solutions amazed his fellow engineers. Deep cuttings and tunnels, elegant brick and stone bridges and magnificent train sheds and station buildings struck awe into the population, who were previously only used to travelling along rough roads in carts and stagecoaches. His broad gauge track was innovative, but would cause headaches later. As the Great Western extended westwards, he added the magnificent and innovative Royal Albert Bridge across the Tamar, linking Devon with Cornwall; this was opened in 1859, sadly the year of his death.

For Brunel, the successful opening of the railway, taking travellers under four hours from London to Bristol, was only part of his wider vision as he looked further west, to America and the West Indies. Newer, faster boats were required for the burgeoning trade. The technical advances of the Industrial Revolution, coupled with newer, more sophisticated ways of raising loans for major schemes, meant that Brunel's design skills could be given full rein; sailing ships were not for him. His first design, the Great Western, combined sails with paddles. By 1837, it cut journey times to New York in half, at two weeks. Not content with this design, he went on to build the Great Britain. This time, wood was abandoned in favour of wrought iron and paddles gave way to an untried alternative, the propeller, one of the first large ships so equipped. At 3,675 tons, it was the largest ship afloat. Many will be familiar with this ship, which after use as a passenger vessel, was converted to a freighter on the Australia run. After many years, it ended its days dumped at the Falkland Islands. But in 1960 the ship was rescued and towed back to Bristol, its place of birth. It remains there, now restored, as yet another monument to Brunel. Still dissatisfied, Brunel embarked on the design and construction of a yet larger ship, the Great Eastern, of 27,000 tons. Its construction was to dominate the last six years of his life. Its complicated story involves bankruptcies, launching difficulties and boardroom squabbles. Some say it contributed to Brunel's death from exhaustion in 1859, at the relatively early age of 53.

Ray's talk, as fascinating as it was, could only briefly address the achievements of a truly remarkable man. Irascible, difficult to work with, highly innovative, and a risk taker were all epithets that could be applied to him. Yet he was also a happily married family man with four children, who had planned a retirement home in Devon. Sadly, that was not to be, but his enduring memorials are around us today, whether they be a railway line, a bridge or a ship. Yes, he was a one-off and truly a genius.

Roger Hockney
July 2016