Brunel was born in 1806 in Portsmouth. He went on to become the defining Engineer of the Industrial Revolution. He was a polymath of engineering, covering all aspects of the discipline, he redefined it for the modern era. His father was a Frenchman working in the dockyards as an engineer. He helped the British in fighting Napoleons France. He was a famous engineer in his own right and was a member of the Royal Society. He taught his young son about maths and drawing, and he excelled at an early age. He was schooled in Hove, but his father was an immense influence and he worked on some of his projects.
The earliest project was the first tunnel under the Thames. It was to run between Wapping and Rotherhithe and nothing like it had been attempted before. The calculations about the geology were wrong. Instead of gravel there was silt, decaying rubbish and sewage. There were many problems and some disasters such as the tunnel becoming flooded. Brunel was in charge on site, representing his father and was a hard taskmaster by todays standards. Marc invented a new type of tunnelling shield which was to protect the workforce as they dug under the riverbed and allowed bricklayers to construct a lining behind them. The Geology defeated them and although the tunnel became part of the East London line, the project was left unfinished. This was the last effective project that Marc worked on, but Isambard was on the map.
In 1829 Brunel entered four designs in a competition to construct a bridge across the Avon at Clifton near Bristol. He wrestled with the council in Bristol over the design and eventually started building it in 1836, but the company went bust and the project was shelved during his lifetime. But by now he had been commissioned for his defining project, the London to Bristol railway.
The explosion of industry across Britain was being supplied by the new transportation system, a steam railway. Invented by George Stephenson, the first railway ran between Liverpool and Manchester. Linking the centre of industry with the Liverpool docks. Bristol had been the preeminent dockyard, but was limited in size and Liverpool was challenging it for supremacy. The railway was designed to promote Bristol and Brunel was chosen to design it. Railway mania had struck Britain, and everywhere people were seeking to link the country for trade and leisure, through the new exciting transportation system. The undertaking was to carve out the railway, through town and country and was immense. Slicing through anything that was in the way, the railway would work best in straight lines and shallow gradients.
He mapped out a route from London, by travelling on horseback and using local surveyors to measure the lie of the land. He negotiated with local landowners over the right to build through their land. His plan would take the line west through Swindon and then to Bath and on to Bristol. It missed out some important towns, but it was meant to be direct and fast. Other towns would be supplied by branch lines.
He designed the engines, but they were ultimately inadequate, and he employed Daniel Gooch, a brilliant 21-year-old mechanical engineer, to improve these. Gooch would remain a close colleague and friend throughout Brunel’s life. The line had to go through tunnels along the Avon river and Brunel had to put his mind to that process too. But this time he was tunnelling rock and needed dynamite and human muscle. It was back breaking and highly dangerous. He designed the stations, bridges and supply depots. He indulged himself in architectural adornment with varying different styles. He was seeking to build a beautiful experience for his well to-do customers travelling in comfort and style.
He had to go to Parliament to get permission to build the line. The cost of the project went up. He picked a design of track wider than Stephenson’s. He had a famous battle with the Liverpool party who would not agree that a wider track was more efficient. He was struggling to make the project work, but through tenacity and a workaholic attitude, he won the day.
He spent a great deal of time designing the bridges. He would work out the mathematics in detail to come up with an individual design for all but the most basic of structures. He recognised that all the materials he used would have some give and designed bridges based on a light and strong design that would flex with a live loading. Maidenhead railway bridge was to be the widest and flattest brick built bridge in the world. He would go on to build the Saltash bridge to Cornwall. This bridge was a unique and high structure and is still supported by a tower built off an underwater rock. The method of construction included sinking an iron cylinder, 90 feet high onto the riverbed, filling it with compressed air, to build the foundation for the tower. The iron spans were slowly jacked into position from floating pontoons on the river. He had invented Civil Engineering solutions that form the basis of this type of work to this day.
The London to Bristol line was expensive and there were many times that financial sacrifices had to be made. But it is still used to this day ad testament to Brunel’s skill and vision.
There were many more railway projects. He was appointed to many, especially in the South-West. The atmospheric railway in Devon, was based on idea of putting a tube on a track and using a steam vacuum to suck it along. He had witnessed the prototype and thought It would be a success, but he was wrong. The leather seal on the top of the tube did not work and they could not maintain the vacuum. He had to concede defeat and the loss was £400,000. But, he had created a scenic railway on the south Devon coast.
Incredibly during this busy period, he started designing ships. Traditionally marine engineering was a craft industry using wood. But there were new techniques in iron and steam power. In the 1830’s he started to design the first iron ship. It was the Great Western. It combined the strength of iron, built in sections to maintain strength, hull integrity and isolate any breaches. He used steam power to fire engines driving propellers which were much more efficient than the paddles that were currently in use. The propellers that he designed himself were 90% as efficient as the ones made today. He realised that carrying enough coal to fuel a journey was the key. The weight of the coal would prove a limiting factor; therefore, efficiency was vital. By mathematic deduction he reasoned that water resistance was they key and that reduction in surface area was the answer. The Great Western and it successfully crossed the Atlantic to New York in record time.
He deduced new techniques for using iron boxes, strengthened by different shapes of channel and angle to stiffen and distribute stresses. He harnessed the new techniques for wrought iron that would revolutionise ship production. His ideas were new and still used today. He even designed the double skin hull, which strengthened and protected ships from hull breach.
He designed and built the SS Great Britain, which was the biggest ship ever built with revolutionary techniques that changed the industry forever. He built an even bigger ship the Great Eastern. The theory being that if a ship could be bigger enough to carry sufficient coal to sail to Australia and back there would be no need for costly coaling stations throughout the world.
The Great Eastern was not a success and Brunel succumbed to illness and died soon after its construction. But it paved the way for new ship techniques and was the only vessel capable of laying the trans-Atlantic cabling that linked the UK with the USA.
He was a civil, structural, marine and mechanical engineer. He was an architect, artist and quantity surveyor, but more than that he was the embodiment of the Victorian entrepreneur. He had the courage to risk everything that he had, to design and build a transportation system fit for the burgeoning industrial revolution.
He did countless sketches and mathematical calculations, both things of beauty in their own context. He worked 18 hours a day and expected the same of his staff and workers.
His legacy is the construction he left behind us and the methods he brought to many industries. Now in an age of specialisations, it is worth noting that he put his talents into taking each new advance in technology, making it work and applying it expertly to the task that was set before him.
He was the son of an immigrant who rose to the challenge of the Industrial Revolution and powered the transportation system to link the world. His vision, commitment, genius, courage and work-rate were unmatched.