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Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Updated on December 26, 2012


Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born on 9 April 1806 in Portsmouth. His father Mark was a French engineer who had moved to England. Brunel was educated both in England and in France.

Brunel was one of the most brilliant engineers of the 19th century, responsible for the design of tunnels, bridges, railway lines and ships. He returned to England after his education and went to work for his father. His father was building a tunnel under the river Thames from Rotherhithe to Wapping, and Brunel worked with huge enthusiasm, not only in the planning but also in the tunnel with the workers. He noticed water seeping into the tunnel from the river at one point and he got in a boat and started sounding the river bed. He found he could sink a tube from his boat right through the soft material of the seabed and actually talk to the workers in the tunnel. There was a cave-in at one time and Brunel with other workers were swept away in the tidal wave. He was rescued but eight of his fellow workers were killed.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Image of the great man at Swindon Railway works
Image of the great man at Swindon Railway works

A brilliant engineer

In 1831, Brunel's brilliance won him the competition for the design of a suspension bridge across the River Avon., at Bristol. Construction began the same year but it was not completed until 1864. The bridge still stands today.

Brunel is probably best remembered for his construction of a network of tunnels, bridges and viaducts for the Great Western Railway. He was appointed their chief engineer in 1833 and he surveyed, designed and built the line that linked London to Bristol. Tremendous achievements during its construction included viaducts at Hanwell and Chippenham, the bridge at Maidenhead, the Box Tunnel and Bristol Temple Meads Station. He also devised the combination of tubular, suspension and truss bridge to cross the Wye at Chepstow and in his bridge over the River Tamar at Saltash near Plymouth.

Clifton suspension bridge

Saltash bridge

Brunel's dream

Brunel's dream was to have a passenger route from London to America. He accomplished this by building the railway from London to West Wales, the passengers then embarking on his ships to sail to America.

As well as bridges, tunnels and railways, Brunel was responsible for the design of several famous ships. The 'Great Western', launched in 1837, was the first steamship to engage in transatlantic service. The 'Great Britain', launched in 1843, was the world's first iron-hulled, screw propeller-driven, steam-powered passenger liner. She was later removed from the Falkland Islands where she had been scrapped and brought back to Bristol to be restored. She now sits proudly in the dry dock where she was originally built. The 'Great Eastern', launched in 1859, was designed in cooperation with John Scott Russell, and was by far the biggest ship ever built up to that time.

Brunel was also responsible for the redesign and construction of many of Britain's major docks, including Bristol, Cardiff and Milford Haven. He died of a stroke on 15 September 1859.

Rotherhithe tunnel


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    • scarytaff profile image

      Derek James 6 years ago from South Wales

      Thanks for reading the hub, hello,hello. I'm sure you're right, Victorians were a pretty much uncaring lot.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

      Great informative hub but I am surprised that he couldn't forsee the cavein which cost eight men's lives and I am sure nobody bothered or cared how their families will fare.