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Biography of British Engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Updated on April 20, 2013

When it comes to 19th century British engineers, one name stands above the rest. Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Over the years, Brunel has earned a reputation amongst British people as one of their greatest men. He designed tunnels, bridges, viaducts. railway lines, dockyards and ships.

An Education in Engineering

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born on the 9th of April 1806 in Portsmouth, England. The foundations of his engineering career were laid down by his father.

Marc Brunel was a French engineer who had moved to England in 1799 to marry English woman called Sophia Kingdom. The family moved to London in 1808.

Marc Brunel taught young Isambard drawing and observational techniques. By the age of eight, Isambard was learning Euclidean geometry.

In England, Brunel was edicated in schools in Chelsea and Hove. At the age of 14, however, his father sent him to the college of Caen in Normandy, then to Lycée Henri-Quatre in Paris. Brunel later served an apprenticeship with master clockmaker and horologist Louis Abraham-Louis Breguet.


Thames Tunnel

Back in England, the young Brunel worked with his father as an engineering assistant. His first major achievement was assisting in the planning of the Thames Tunnel.

During this project, Brunel was badly injured in a flood in 1828. Brunel was sent to Bristol to convalesce. While there, he entered a competition to design the Clifton suspension bridge which was to cross the River Avon.


Who Designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge?

There is a blue plaque on the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol which says: "This bridge was designed in 1830 by Isambard Kingdom Brunel."

The design of the bridge is one of the achievements which for Brunel is most widely known. At the time of construction, the bridge had the longest span of any bridge in the world.

Author and historian Adrian Vaughan, author of the book The Intemperate Engineer: Isambard Kingdom Brunel in His Own Words, has suggested that the final bridge was significantly different to the one which Brunel designed.

However, Brunel's reputation as a bridge designer remains sound. In his life, he designed many bridges, including the Royal Albert Bridge, Somerset Bridge, the Windsor Railway Bridge and the Maidenhead Railway Bridge.

In 1836, Brunel married Mary Horsley. She was the daughter of a composer and organist. They set up home together in Westminster in London.


Great Western Railway

In 1883, Brunel became chief engineer of the Great Western Railway. The design of a railway line which linked Bristol to London took up much of Brunel's time. One controversial proposal that he made was for a broad gauge – 7 feet ¼ inches, than the then-standard 4 feet 8 ½ inches (1435 mm). He suggested that by doing this trains could travel at high speeds. Many opposed his idea. The broad gauge was eventually used on some railway lines. However, the 1845 Royal Commission thought that it would be too expensive to be used nationwide.

Brunel also had ambitious plans for the design of Paddington Station, the London terminus for the Great Western Railway. He was given the task of building it in 1849 to be ready for the 1851 Great Exhibition in London.

Shipbuilding to the End

As well as structures on land, Brunel was responsible for designing a number of ships. These included the Great Western, which was launched in 1837. This was the first steamship to make transatlantic voyages.

Another ship, the Great Eastern, designed with John Scott Russell, was the biggest ship ever built at the time. Early in the construction of the ship, Brunel collapsed on deck. Too ill to join the ship on its maiden voyage, He died on 15th September 1859.

The Legacy of Brunel

The legacy of Brunel has lived on. The structures he was responsible for remain here for us all to see. His reputation continues to be strong. During the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, the character of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, played by Kenneth Branagh in a section, was seen as a key figure in British 19th century history.

A 1950s biography of Brunel by Lionel Thomas Caswall Rolt, which many regard as a definitive work on the man, painted a picture of Brunel as an ambitious and determined genius. For many, he is one of the greatest people to come out of Britain. In a 2002 a public poll, which was organised by the BBC, set out to find the '100 Greatest Britons.' Brunel was placed in second place.


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    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 3 years ago from Auburn, WA

      I'm in the middle of reading a biography of Brunel and I'm shocked that I knew so little about him. I associated him with the Great Eastern and that was all. His impact was incredible. It was quite a family. Great hub. Voted up.

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      Tyler Gierke 4 years ago from Chicago IL

      very interesting hub!

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

      It seems from what you have shared abot Brunel that his second place is justified. It is quite impressive what he has accomplished. thanks for sharing him with us.

      Sending Angels to you today :) ps