1902 Encyclopedia > Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel
British engineer
(1806-59)




ISAMBARD KINGDOM BRUNEL (1806-1859), one of the most distinguished civil engineers of the age, was born at Portsmouth, April 9, 1806. He was the only son of Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, from whom he inherited some rare intellectual gifts, and to whom he owed his first education. From his earliest years he took an eager and intelligent interest in all the plans and undertakings of his father, who bad then just completed the construction of the remarkable block machinery at Portsmouth. He displayed in childhood singular powers of mental calculation, great skill and rapidity as a draughtsman, and a true feeling for art, After attending some private schools, he was sent at the age of fourteen to Paris, to study mathematics, and to recover his knowledge of French. From November 1820 to August 1822 he studied at the College Henri Quatre; and in holiday intervals he used to visit the engineering works going on in Paris, and send his father drawings and descriptions of them. In 1823 he entered his father's office as assistant-engineer, just at the time when the project of the Thames Tunnel began to occupy the attention of Sir Isambard; and from 1825, when the work was begun, till 1828, when it waa stopped by an irruption of the river, he displayed a singular energy, inventiveness, and power of application in that struggle of science against natural obstacles on a vast scale. He had even then the power, which distinguished him in later years, of doing almost without sleep for many nights when work was pressing. During the later part of the contest which ended by a second irruption in January 1828, he was both nominal and actual resident engineer of the Thames Tunnel. Left for nearly two years without regular professional occupation, Brunel employed himself in scientific researches, enjoying intercourse with Babbage, Faraday, and other friends. In November 1829 he sent in designs and plans For the projected Suspension. Bridge over the Avon at Clifton. In consequence of objections raised by Telford, the referee of the bridge committee, Brunel's plans were rejected. But on a second competition, early in 1831, he sent in a new design, and this was accepted. Brunel was appointed engineer to the trustees, and the works were begun in 1836. Delay had been caused by want of funds, and from the same cause the works were afterwards suspended for some years, and were not completed during Brunel's lifetime. In March 1833, Brunel, at the age of twenty-seven, attained one of the highest professional positions by his appointment as engineer of the newly-projected Great Western Railway. For several years his energies were taxed to the utmost by the conflict with obstructive landowners and short-sighted critics; but he showed himself equal to the occasion, not only as a professional man, but as a persuasive negotiator. For solidity of construction and for skill and beauty of design the Great Western Railway, though one of the first made in England, holds a very high place. Among the triumphs of the engineer are the Hanwell Viaduct, the Maidenhead Bridge, and the Box Tunnel, at the time the longest in the world; and, on extensions of the line, the great bridges at Chepstow and Saltash. The now notorious "battle of the gauges" took its rise from Brunel's introduction of the broad gauge on this line. In 1846 he resigned his office as engineer of the Great Western Railway. In 1844 he had recommended the adoption of the Atmospheric System on the South Devon Railway, but after a year's trial this system was abandoned. The last and greatest of Brunel's railway works was the Royal Albert Bridge of the Cornwall Railway, crossing the River Tamar at Saltash. This work, sanctioned by parliament in 1845, was constructed between 1853 and 1859. In addition to the ardu- ous labours of railway engineering, Mr Brunel had taken a leading part in the systematic development of ocean steam navigation. As early as October 1835 he had suggested, to the amusement of the directory of the Great Western Railway, that they should "make it longer, and have a steamboat to go from Bristol to New York, and call it the Great Western." The project was taken up, and the "Great Western" steamship was designed by Brunel, and built at Bristol under his superintendence. It was much longer than any steamer of the day, and was the first steamship built to make regular voyages across the Atlantic. While the vessel was building a controversy was raised about the practicability of Brunel's scheme, Dr Lardner asserting dogmatically that the voyage could not be made, and backing his assertion with an array of figures. His view was widely accepted, but the work went on, and the voyage was accomplished in 1838. A greater work was at once undertaken, and the "Great Britain" was built. This was the first large iron steamship, the largest ship afloat at that time, and the first large ship in which the screw-propeller was used. She made her first voyage from Liverpool to New York in August and September 1845; but in the following year was carelessly run upon the rocks in Dundrum Bay on the coast of Ireland. After lying there nearly a year without material damage she was got off and was employed in the Australian trade. Brunel soon after began to meditate a vaster project still, the construction of a vessel large enough to carry all the coal required for a long voyage out, and if coal could not be had at the out port, then to carry enough also for the return voyage. It seemed to him, further, that a great increase of size would give many advantages for navigation. During his connection as engineer with the Australian Mail Company he worked out into a practical shape his conception of a "great ship;" and in 1852 his scheme was laid before the Directors of the Eastern Steam Navigation Company. It was adopted, the projector was appointed their engineer, and after much time occupied about contracts and specifications, the work was begun in December 1853. Immense difficulties in the progress of construction caused delays from time to time. The operations of launching was several times attempted in. vain ; but at length the gigantic vessel, the now familiar "Great Eastern," was got afloat (31st January 1858). Much remained to be done to complete the ship ; and her engineer, over- worked and worn out with the worry of the launching processes, broke down and did not live to see her sail on her first voyage. In addition to the great works already described, Brunel was employed in the construction of many docks and piers. The first of these was the Monkwearmouth Docks, for which he made the designs in 1831. The construction, after a new design, was begun in 1834. He was afterwards engaged in works of the same kind at Bristol, Plymouth, Briton Ferry, and Brentford, and on a pier at Milford Haven. He was a zealous promoter of the Great Exhibition of 1851, and was a member of the committee on the section of machinery and of the building committee. He paid much attention to the subject of improvement of large guns, and designed a floating gun-carriage for the attack on Cronstadt in the Russian war (1854); he also designed and superintended the construction of the hospital buildings at Renkioi, on the Dardanelles (1855). The genius, energy, and industry of Brunel in his profession were not more remarkable than the high moral tone which characterized his whole life, and, the fascinating qualities which gave him immense personal influence, and made him the delight of the social circle. With single-hearted truthfulness he devoted himself to his chosen work; he was singularly free from professional jealousy, and was always ready to commend and help others. 'With robust health, which he enjoyed through many years, he had the two invaluable qualities of good spirits and good temper. In his relations with his subordinates he was considerate and kindly, at the same time that he demanded faithful service according to a high standard. He cared nothing for popularity. He enjoyed the beauties of a fine landscape, and was an enthusiastic lover of the fine arts. In the course of his busy life he several times went to Italy and Switzerland; and in 1847 he bought a small estate in Devonshire, to make his home there. The pressure of business, however, did not allow him to spend much of his time in the country. In 1830 Brunel was elected E.R.S., and he was afterwards a member of many other scientific societies. In 1857 the honorary, degree of D.C.L. was conferred on him by the university of Oxford. In July 1836 he married; he left two sons and a daughter surviving him. For the sake of his health he spent the winter of 1858-59 in Egypt, returning to England in May. He was on board his "great ship" on the 5th September 1859, and the same day was attacked with paralysis. The ship sailed on her first voyage on the 7th, and her great projector passed away on the 15th of the month. His remains were interred in Kensal Green Cemetery. In 1870 appeared The Life of I. K. Brunel, C.E., by his son Isambard Brunel, of Lincoln's Inn, chancellor of the diocese of Ely. (W. L. K. C.)







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