In 2002 the BBC did a poll where they named the top 100 Britons in history. It had many people you have probably heard of, including Isaac Newton, Princess Diana, John Lenon, and Queen Victoria.
The person who was ranked #2, however, is someone that many people outside of the UK might not have heard of. Yet, he really is one of the most important people when it came to the development of the modern world.
Learn more about Isambard Kingdom Brunel on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born in England in 1806.
His unique name comes from his father’s middle name, Isambard, and his mother’s last name, Kingdom.
The name Isambard was prophetic because it comes from the Old High German word Eisenbarth which meant “bright or shiny iron”.
His father, also an Engineer, was a French immigrant who fled the French Revolution and moved to England. Growing up in London he was taught by his father. He was taught how to do engineering drawings at a very early age and was doing euclidian geometry by the age of eight. He was also fluent in both French and English.
Isambard’s parents ensured that he had the best education possible and he was sent to the finest schools in France.
Once he graduated and finished his apprenticeship with a master clockmaker, he returned to England where he began one of the most incredible careers of any engineer in history.
In 1825 construction began on the Thames Tunnel. This was the first-ever tunnel to be dug underneath a body of water. His father was the chief engineer and he was hired as an assistant engineer.
The problems which they faced in digging the tunnel were numerous as they were basically cutting through loose gravel which was underneath a river. Flooding was a constant danger and many people died during the project.
In 1828 a collapse in the tunnel killed two miners and almost killed Isambard. After the collapse, Isambard went on to work on other projects, but the tunnel was completed by his father and it was later used by the London Underground. The tunnel is still in use today.
Soon after he began work designing the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. The bridge spanned 712 feet, or 214 meters, and was 249 feet or 76 meters above the River Avon. Construction began on the bridge in 1831, but they had to cease the project after riots broke out in Bristol, which caused funding to dry up.
After Brunel’s death, the bridge was completed, based on his design, and it was the longest span of any bridge in the world at the time of its construction. The bridge is still in use today.
The project for which Brunel is best known is the Great Western Railway.
The Great Western Railway was a very ambitious project which linked London to the city of Bristol in the Southwest of England. In Brunel’s vision, a customer could take a train from London to Bristol, and then once in Bristol board a ship to New York, all with the purchase of a single ticket.
The GWR wasn’t the first railway in England, but it was by far the best designed. The entire plan of the system was created by Brunel, which included everything from the route the track was laid, to the bridges, tunnels, and even the stations.
Brunel was obsessed with making the entire route as efficient as possible, which meant avoiding any unnecessary hills or valleys. The railway was often called Brunel’s billiard table for this reason.
There were several different engineering challenges in designing the railway that had to be overcome.
The Box Tunnel went through Box Hill on the route. It was built between 1838 and 1841 and was the longest railway tunnel in the world at the time of completion. It was built using nothing other than explosives and muscle. The workers went through a ton of candles per week, which was as much as the amount of explosives used.
The construction of the tunnel was so precise, that when workers from both sides met each other, their alignment was off by only 2 inches, or 50 millimeters. The tunnel is still in use today.
The Wharncliffe Viaduct was the first structural part of the railway to be completed, and the first such structure to use hollow piers to hold up the arches. The viaduct is still in use today.
The Maidenhead Railway Bridge had to cross the Thames using only two broad brick arches to allow river traffic to pass. He wasn’t allowed to put a pylon in the middle of the river. The design he created of a long, sweeping arch that was larger than any other brick arch which had ever been created. Other engineers said it would collapse and that it was impossible. The design worked, and the bridge is still in use today.
If you have visited London, you have probably experienced one of Brunel’s designs without even knowing it. The London terminus for the Great Western Railway is Paddington Station. The station has grown significantly over the years, but the core of the station which was designed by Brunel is still in use today. If you take the Heathrow Express into London, which I highly recommend, you will arrive in Paddington Station, where if you look, you can find a statue which was erected to Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
When the GWR mainline was completed, it only took about 4 hours to get from London to Bristol.
The importance of the Great Western Railway can’t be overstated. If you remember back to my episode on timezones, it was the GWR that ushered in the use of time zones, as well as many other innovations which later became the norm for railways around the world.
You would think that having had a hand in the first tunnel to go under a river, the longest bridge in the world, the longest tunnel in the world, and a host of other innovations would enough, but Brunnel also had an enormous impact on another area of engineering: shipbuilding.
He was responsible for the design of three ships, each of which was the largest ship in the world at the time of construction.
The SS Great Western launched on April 8, 1838, and was a steamship designed to travel from Bristol to New York. Made out of wood and with a paddlewheel, it was the largest steam-powered ship in the world. It arrived in New York 15 days and five hours after it left the port in England.
It missed being the first steamship to cross the Atlantic by one day. Its rival ship, the SS Sirius, arrived before it, even though it had a four-day head start. The Sirius had to burn furniture and other wood aboard the ship to make it to New York, whereas the Great Western arrived with over ? of its coal.
His next great ship was the SS Great Britain. This is considered the first modern ship. Launched in 1845, it was 322-feet or 98 meters long, again the largest ship in the world. However, there were two things about this ship which were very different than the SS Great Western.
First, its hull was made out of iron, not wood. Second, it was the first major transatlantic ship to use a propeller. Modern ship propellers are only 5% more efficient than the propeller used on the Great Britain.
It made its first transatlantic crossing in 14 days and 21 hours.
After a very odd and circuitous journey that involved being scuttled in the Falkland Islands, the ship was restored and is now in permanent dry dock in Bristol.
The final ship was the SS Great Eastern. Launched in 1858, the Great Eastern was 692 feet or 211 meters in length, not only making it the largest ship in the world, but the largest ship for almost forty years until the RMS Oceanic launched in 1899. It was six times larger than any other ship by volume at the time of its development. Whereas the SS Great Britain had a hull made of iron, the Great Eastern was made entirely of iron.
The Great Eastern was designed to travel to Australia non-stop without refueling. Financially, the ship was a disaster, as it never really found an audience for its purpose. However, if you remember back to my episode on the Transatlantic cable, it was eventually repurposed as a cable-laying ship to help connect Europe and North America by telegraph.
The Great Eastern eventually sold for scrap and the top of one of her masts is now all that remains as a flag pole outside of the Anfield football stadium in Liverpool.
The Great Eastern was named one of the Seven Wonders of the Industrial World in a 2003 BBC documentary.
After years of heavy smoking, Brunell died of a stroke in 1859 at the age of 53. His work left a lasting impact on the world both through his creations, most of which are still in use today, and the legacy he left for other engineers.
Years ago, when I first saw the BBC list, I didn’t know who Isambard Kingdom Brunell was and I wondered how he could be ranked as the second greatest Briton of all time.
After learning his story, I was left wondering why he wasn’t ranked number one.