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"