British science heroes: Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Though not always successful, Brunel’s designs revolutionised transport, and he is now remembered as one of the greatest engineers of all time

While an era of progress, the Industrial Revolution was also a time of trial and error. Those leading the way in technological advances attempted to make huge leaps forward, often resulting in failure, but sometimes incredible success.

One of the greatest of the innovators of this time was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, born at the start of the 19th century. His father, Marc, was a French civil engineer, and encouraged his son to learn arithmetic, scale drawing and geometry. At 16, he became a watchmaker’s apprentice. In 1824 Marc was appointed chief engineer of a project to construct a tunnel under the River Thames. He hired his son as an assistant engineer, who later became resident engineer.

(Image credit: Robert Howlett)

The project was fraught with disaster, witnessing several incidents of flooding, as well as financial difficulties. At one point the operation was halted for several years and the tunnel bricked up. It was eventually opened in 1843 and is still in use today as part of the London Overground network. The project transformed the young Brunel into a full-fledged engineer. In 1830 he entered a competition to design a bridge that would span across the River Avon in Bristol, and although rejected initially, he eventually persuaded the panel to appoint him as project engineer. 

Work on the Clifton Suspension Bridge commenced in June 1831, but just four months later the Queen
Square riots drove investors away. Once again a project ground to a halt. In 1833 Brunel was made chief engineer of the Great Western Railway, which would run from London to Bristol. It was then that he developed one of the most controversial ideas of his career – to use a 2.1-metre (seven-foot) gauge (distance between the tracks) rather than the standard 1.4-metre (4.6-foot) gauge. He believed that this would allow the trains to run at much higher speeds, as well as provide a more stable and comfortable journey. 

For the rest of his life the efficiency of this design was heavily contested. But none could contest the efficiency of his Great Western Steamship, which transported passengers from Bristol to New York. It was thought a steamship would not be able to carry enough fuel for the trip and have room for cargo. However, it completed its maiden voyage in 15 days, with a third of its coal remaining.

Brunel was also a fierce proponent of propeller driven ships and incorporated a propeller on his second ship, SS Great Britain. Considered the first modern ocean-going ship, it was made of metal, powered by an engine rather than wind, and driven by a propeller rather than a paddle wheel. Indeed, this vessel laid the foundations for a new era of transatlantic travel. Brunel’s personal life was a series of ups and downs too. Many say the stress of the Great Western Railway led to his early death in 1859.

Soon after Brunel’s death it was decided that all railways in the country should revert to using the standard gauge. However, funds were also raised to complete the Clifton Bridge, which was finally opened five years after Brunel’s death and is still in use to this day

The big idea

(Image source: Pixabay)

The Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol spans 214m (702ft) between two 26.2m (86ft) towers, which then was the longest bridge span in the world. In its design of chains and rods, Brunel had made a near-perfect calculation of the minimal weight required to provide maximum strength. The abutments contain a honeycomb of chambers and tunnels, some of which are 11m (36ft) high, which reduced the cost of construction without compromising strength.

This article was originally published in How It Works issue 57

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