Brunel, Father and Son - British Engineering Genius Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Brunel, Father and Son - British Engineering Genius

2 Conversations

Marc Isambard Brunel (1769 - 1849) was born near Rouen in northern France, and as an 11-year-old he had already decided he was going to be an engineer. By the age of 24 he had completed six years in the French navy. But France was at that time caught up in the throes of revolution, and Marc Brunel was a royalist. He had to leave.

So, he sailed away to the United States, becoming chief engineer of New York City. His projects there included building the old Bowery Theater (the largest theatre in North America at that time) and many other buildings, including an arsenal, and a foundry for cannon. He was also responsible for improvements to the channel between Staten Island and Long Island, and a canal between Lake Champlain and the Hudson River.

He went to England in 1799 with plans for mechanising the manufacture of pulley-blocks for ships, which until then had been made by hand. The British government accepted his plans, and he installed machines of his design in the Portsmouth Naval Dockyard. These machine-made blocks were not only ten times more efficiently produced than the hand-made ones, but were of a much higher and more consistent quality.

In 1809, Marc Brunel was so horrified at the condition of the feet of soldiers returning from war that he decided to invent a series of machines to mass-produce boots and shoes. He filed a patent in 1810, and this was so successful that in 1812 he was persuaded by the government to expand production. At this time he decided to take out a patent in Scotland as well.

A prolific inventor, he also invented machines for sawing timber; for knitting stockings; and for printing. But in 1814, his sawmills at Battersea, London, were nearly destroyed by fire. This incident, coming on top of poor financial management by his partners, drove him into debt and in 1821 he found himself locked up in the debtors' prison. He managed, with the help of friends, to secure his release several months later.

The Thames Tunnel Project

At the beginning of the 19th Century London was a bustling city with a number of bridges spanning the River Thames. However, another crossing was needed to enable people to commute from the south side to the Port of London at Wapping on the north bank. A bridge at this point would have interfered with the busy shipping traffic, so various attempts were made to construct a tunnel. Early attempts in 1801 and 1807 failed, however, because there was no means of tunnelling through the water-bearing sand strata below the river bed. Expert engineering opinion at the time was that tunnelling under the Thames was impossible.

But not to Marc Brunel. In 1818, he designed and patented a huge device called a Tunnel Shield. In essence, it was a cylinder pushed ahead of the tunnelling equipment, to provide advance support for the tunnel roof. Something like this was needed when tunnelling in soft or unstable ground. The shield was pushed forward by hydraulic jacks, about four inches at a time. While the iron shield held up the wet sandy muck, workers lined the tunnel walls with brick.

Work on the tunnel began in 1825. It started at Rotherhithe, on the south bank, and Marc Brunel laid the first brick himself, the second being laid by his 19-year-old son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The design of the tunnel was to allow two carriages and a footpath. But construction was slow. Each foot of tunnel required 5500 bricks to be laid. On several occasions the works were flooded, and on one of these seven workers were drowned, and young Isambard himself was nearly drowned in the waters (the River Thames at that time was an open sewer). Isambard saved the lives of several men but was seriously injured himself.

During the period 1828-1835, all work on the tunnel was halted because the money had run out. Further financial aid was obtained from the government, however, and finally on March 25, 1843, the 1300 feet long and 35 feet wide tunnel was opened. There were insufficient funds available to build the ramps needed for carriages, in accordance with Marc Brunel's original design, so it opened as a foot tunnel, charging a small toll. About 50,000 people walked through the tunnel during the first two days of operation, and more than one million used it in the first four months.

But it was not a particularly pleasant experience. As the American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in 1855,

It consisted of an arched corridor of apparently interminable length, gloomily lighted with jets of gas at regular intervals... There are people who spend their lives there, seldom or never, I presume, seeing any daylight, except perhaps a little in the morning. All along the extent of this corridor, in little alcoves, there are stalls of shops, kept principally by women, who, as you approach, are seen through the dusk offering for sale multifarious trumpery. So far as any present use is concerned, the tunnel is an entire failure.

The tunnel was later adapted for railway use, and remains to this day as an important part of the East London Line on the London Underground system. It is a measure of the quality of the original construction that no major refurbishment was needed until the 1990s, some 150 years since the tunnel first opened.

It was the first tunnel ever constructed beneath a navigable river for public use. It is considered the greatest of Marc Brunel's many great achievements, and Sir Marc was knighted in 1841.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Marc Brunel had married Sophia Kingdom, and their only son was a chip off the old block. As we have seen, he was deeply involved with his father's engineering projects while still in his teens; he went on to achieve ever more ambitious engineering projects.

He was born in that great centre of naval engineering: Portsmouth, England, in 1806. At the age of 14 he was sent away to France to complete his education, and by the age of 20 he took the place of the resident engineer (by then in failing health) on his father's Thames Tunnel project.

While recuperating from the serious injuries he sustained on that project, Isambard started working on designs for a great suspension bridge over the Avon Gorge. One of his designs was eventually accepted, and the Clifton Suspension Bridge was built, though owing to financial constraints it was not completed until after his death.

Meanwhile he was working as a dock engineer, and designed a number of important docks, including those at Plymouth and Milford Haven.

The Railway Age

The railways were coming! There were already a number of designs for static engines and locomotive engines, and in the famous Rainhill trials of 1829 the Rocket locomotive, designed by George Stephenson, triumphed.

Young Isambard became fascinated by the possibilities of this new technology, and started producing various designs for locomotives - not very successfully, it must be said - and railway tracks.

Then in 1833 he became chief engineer to the Great Western Railway. In this capacity, he oversaw the laying of more than 1,000 miles (1,600km) of railway track in various parts of England, Wales and Ireland. He was also involved in the construction of railway lines in Italy, and had an advisory role in the construction of lines in Australia, and the Eastern Bengal Railway in India.

One of his innovations in the construction of railway bridges was his use of compressed-air techniques, particularly in underwater and underground projects.

The Tamar Bridge

Of all the bridges Isambard designed and built, his greatest achievement is considered to be the Tamar bridge, a railway bridge across the River Tamar near Plymouth, England. The Tamar bridge features a central pier built on a rock, some 80 feet (24m) above the high-water mark. The bridge opened in 1859, the year of his death.

The Great Ships

Not content with transporting people and goods by railway from London to Bristol, he started designing vessels to take them from England to America. The three ships which he built (the Great Western in 1837, the Great Britain in 1843, and the Great Eastern in 1858) were each the largest in the world at the date of launching.

The Great Western

The SS Great Western was a paddle vessel built of wood, and was the first transatlantic steamship in regular service. She crossed from Bristol to New York in 15 days, and remained in service for 30 years, making 30 crossings in the first eight years alone.

The Great Britain

The SS Great Britain was built of iron. She was the first large vessel to be driven by a screw propeller, and the first such vessel to cross the Atlantic. Designed to carry 250 passengers, 130 crew, and 1,200 tonnes of cargo, she made her maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York in 1845.

Like the Great Western, she remained in service for 30 years, voyaging as far afield as San Francisco, California, and making regular voyages to Australia.

In 1866, badly damaged off Cape Horn, the Great Britain managed to limp across to the Falkland Islands. There she lay for almost 100 years, refusing to rot, until salvaged by a group of enthusiasts who towed the ship to Montevideo, Uruguay.

From there she was towed all the way back to the Bristol dock where she had been made 127 years earlier. The SS Great Britain remains there to this day as a tourist attraction and a registered museum.

The Great Eastern

The SS Great Eastern was an enormous ship with both paddles and screw, and was the first ship with a double iron hull. She was built on the Thames, and was designed to carry 4000 passengers. But she had many problems, and on the 15 September, 1859, she was damaged by an explosion on board. Isambard Brunel, worn out and in failing health after years of worry and work, was told of the explosion. He died later the same day. The Great Eastern was, however, repaired, and went on to achieve fame as the ship which laid the first successful transatlantic cable.

Other Projects

Other projects Brunel worked on included improved designs for large guns, as well as a floating armoured barge used in 1854 during the Crimean War. He also designed a complete prefabricated hospital building that was shipped to the Crimea in sections, in 1855, and reassembled there for use by the celebrated nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale.

The late 18th Century and the 19th Century saw an era that bred many great innovative engineers. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the last of that particular breed, and probably the greatest.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Edited by

h2g2 Editors

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more