- Mini Bio
- Name: Isambard Kingdom Brunel
- Born: 9th April 1806, Portsmouth, Hampshire, England
- Died: 15th September 1859, Westminster, London, England
- Resting place: Kensal Green Cemetery, London
- Alma Mater: Lycée Henri-IV and University of Caen
- Occupation: Engineer
- Specialised as: Civil engineer, Structural engineer and Marine engineer
- Marriage resume: Mary Elizabeth Horsley 1836 - 1859 (his death)
- Nickname: The little giant
- Trivia: The topmast of the Brunel designed SS Great Eastern has been re-utilised as a flagpole at the entrance to Anfield, Liverpool FC ground in north west England
"The railway now is in progress. I am thus engineer to the finest work in England. A handsome salary, on excellent terms with my directors & all going smoothly. But what a fight we have had, & how near defeat, & what a ruinous defeat it would have been"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
"Cornwall is such that no railway can be constructed at moderate expense without either sacrificing all consideration for the interest of localities & the position of the population to the mere choice of levels, or without steep gradient and sharp curves"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
"My confidence in the shield is not only undiminished—it is, on the contrary, tried with its full effect, & it is manifest now that it will soon replace us in good ground, & in a safe situation. No top staves have given way. That is our real protection"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
"Of all the wonderful feats I have performed, since I have been in this part of the world, I think yesterday I performed the most wonderful. I produced unanimity among 15 men who were all quarrelling about that most ticklish subject - taste"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
"Colonel Thompson recommends, that upon new lines we should be limited to a speed of 20 miles an hour. Now it may be difficult to convince the committee, but, with every respect for Colonel Thompson, the suggestion to us appears absurd"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
"I made experiments upon the portion of railway laid on Wormwood Scrubs. These experiments were made for my own private satisfaction, and not made public in any way. They satisfied me of the mechanical practicability of the system"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
"If you attempt to fix a maximum, the maximum must either be so far beyond what they will usually carry as to be perfectly useless, because they hardly ever exceed it, or it will be so low as to be a positive hindrance and cause of danger"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
"It is to be presumed that they will give the result of their enquiries; or, in other words, embarrass and shackle the progress of improvement to-morrow by recording and registering as law the prejudices or errors of to-day"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
"Experience has led me to prefer what some may consider a more superficial, but what I should call a more general and broader view, and more capable of embracing all the conditions of the question—a practical view"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
"I object very much to giving evidence upon the abstract point of the applicability of a particular system, and thus furnishing general opinions which others are to apply as they may choose to particular cases"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
"I must observe that no man can be more sensible than I am of the great advantage it would be to me as a civil engineer to be better acquainted with geology, as well as with many other branches of science"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
"If we must have heroes and wars whereinto make them, there is no war so brilliant as a war with the wrong, no hero so fit to be sung, as he who has gained the bloodless victory of truth and mercy"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
"It is in vain to attempt to make workmen more perfect; it is in vain to attempt to trust to any new regulations in such a manner as to expect, that when a new accident occurs, they shall all apply"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
"The real source of danger, and the only one which there is any hope of removing, is in a complication of imperfections in a great number of the mechanical parts of the system"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
"I have found that there is not a single substance we have to deal with, from cast-iron to clay, which should not practically be treated strictly as a yielding elastic substance"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
"In forming all my plans I have looked to the perfection of the surface on which the carriages are to run, as the great and ultimate desideratum"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
" I see no reason why the ordinary construction of rails, chairs, and sleepers should not be equally applicable to the wide gauge as to the narrow"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
"Any part I have taken in examining into the system has been purely from the desire which I always feel to forward good inventions"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
"When I have formed a decided opinion, no fear of the consequences ever prevents my expressing it"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
"No legislation will make a man have more presence of mind, or, I believe, make him more cautious"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
"It is impossible to make the men perfect; the men will always remain the same as they are now"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
"No locomotive line that I have been connected with has been equally free from accidents"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
"I am going to design... a Station after my own fancy; that is, with engineering roofs"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
"On the 12th March the Elephant engine, a good engine, took down 216 tons gross"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
"Plan without fear or compromise"Isambard Kingdom Brunel
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The Legacy of Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Undoubtedly one the the greatest Victorian engineers, his designs of both civil and mechanical engineering have stood the test of time with his greatest legacy being the Great Western Railway that linked London with the south-west and west of England and most of Wales.
Brunel gave meaning to aesthetic bridge design with the Royal Albert Bridge connecting the county of Devon to Cornwall across the river Tamar. It was a bold and audacious design, the author Adrian Vaughan recognised both the engineering and geographical challenges he faced:
"To describe Isambard’s approach as bold and imaginative seems like an understatement. The close tumbling hills and deep winding valleys [of Cornwall] brought out the best in him – his eye for the lie of the land and his unrivalled daring in bridge design".
Adrian Vaughan then expressed how impressed he was by the elegant design:
"The Royal Albert was [Brunel’s] masterpiece, in which he brought together his experience of riveting wrought iron, of ships, of tubular construction and of the suspension bridge principle".
When Isambard was asked how long his design would last he confidently predicted
"One hundred years" and in a testament to the integral strength of the bridge the Royal Albert is still going strong more than 160 years after its 1859 opening.
If the Royal Albert was described as an audacious design, then the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol should be described as outrageous when considering the engineering standards of the day. Those Victorians were a intrepid bunch, it seemed the greater the challenge the grander the solution and Isambard Kingdom Brunel was unwavering in taking up the gauntlet of using outlandish design to solve the biggest engineering challenges of the day.
Architecturally stunning, the Clifton Suspension Bridge is recognised as a symbol of British ingenuity. Upon enquiry to Isambard about what the bridge meant to him his riposte came with a wry smile:
"my first love, my darling". He was never rewarded with seeing the bridge completed as he passed away in 1859 just five years before its 1864 opening. He would have been interested to know that it now caters for in excess of four million motorised vehicles a year on a bridge across the River Avon that he envisaged would be used by horse-drawn carriages.
In 1959 the Clifton Suspension Bridge was listed as a Grade I-listed building under list entry number: 1205734 where it was described as:
"a remarkable engineering feat, spanning the Avon Gorge over 214m, and 75m above high water using the suspension method".
The Royal Albert Bridge may have been a ground breaking and distinctive design, but history now judges it as the hors d'oeuvre before the entrée across the Avon Gorge which is the pièce de résistance and the lasting legacy of magnificent design in the career of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Quotes About Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Mr. George T. Clark, of Dowlais was a former assistant of Brunel and he talked very highly of his work ethic:
"I never met his equal for sustained power of work. After a hard day spent in preparing and delivering evidence, and after a hasty dinner, he would attend consultations till a late hour; and then, secure against interruption, sit down to his papers, and draw specifications, write letters or reports, or make calculations all through the night"
Mr. St. George Burke, Q.C. was impressed to say:
"As a witness he could always be relied on as a perfect master of the case he had to support, and he had the rare quality of confining his answers to a simple reply to the questions put to him, without appearing as an advocate"
Researcher Roger Henley upon discovering Brunel's lost letters:
"I didn't need an introduction to that name. It was an incredible moment and a surreal feeling to realise I had in my hands original letters penned by the world's greatest engineer."
Roger Henley went on to say:
"They didn't stand out until I got to the bottom of the first letter and to my amazement realised it was signed I.K. Brunel"
The head of collections at the SS Great Britain Trust Nick Booth shared this assessment:
"It would be going too far to suggest Brunel was an environmentalist – he was a Victorian engineer, after all – and his concerns are foremost about the implications for trade"
The British television personality Jeremy Clarkson shared this interesting comparison:
"Darwin told us where we came from, but it was Brunel who took us where we wanted to go"
A scientific journal, The American Naturalist observed:
"It is stated also that the operations of the Teredo [Shipworm] suggested to Mr. Brunel his method of tunneling the Thames."
The Morning Chronicle noted:
"Brunel was the right man for the nation, but unfortunately he was not the right man for the shareholders. They must stoop who must gather gold, and Brunel could never stoop. The history of invention records no instance of grand novelties so boldly imagined and so successfully carried out by the same individual"
Speaking to an accounts committee, Sir Robert Peel stated:
"You say that really useful discoveries for preventing accidents or improving the mode of communication can only be made by persons of practical experience in the working of the railways, founded on daily observation"