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Spotlight - Isambard Kingdom Brunel

              by Leslie Weddell


           Isambard Kingdom Brunel  (1806-1859)


    Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the son of Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, a remarkable inventor, a former French Naval officer and, before he came to England in 1799, chief engineer of the City of New York. 

   Among Sir Marc's inventions were bridges, docks and a stocking knitting machine. I.K.Brunel's mother, Sophie Kingdom, was barely 16 when she was sent to Rouen to learn French. At the house of a mutual acquaintance, she met Sir Marc and fell in love, but the terror of the French Revolution was to keep them apart .He managed to escape but she was imprisoned in a convent at Gravelines, a convent which had a guillotine erected outside its walls.

  Fed on only black bread mixed with straw, the prisoners lived in fear of execution, but on the death of Robespierre they were freed. Sick and emaciated, Sophie made her way back to her friends who nursed her back to health and took her to England. There she was reunited with Sir Marc, they married, and their son Isambard was born in 1806.

  Brunel was educated in Paris and Caen and, at the age of 17, joined his father who was at the time engaged on the construction of the Thames Tunnel under the River Thames between Rotherhithe and Wapping. During the construction the tunnel unexpectedly flooded and Isambard risked his life when he rushed in to rescue the threatened workforce.

   On completion of the tunnel,l Isambard quickly became very interested in the new mania that was sweeping the country - the railways. When the Great Western Railway was formed. he became the company's chief engineer, building superbly designed bridges, tunnels and railway stations.

    It was at a board meeting that a member queried the length of the proposed rail line from London to Bristol and Plymouth and jokingly asked, 'Why not make it longer and have a steamboat go from Bristol to New York and call it the Great Western'? A joke it may have been, but Brunel saw the concept in a different light. In 1829 Brunel designed a suspension bridge to cross the River Avon at Clifton. His original design was rejected on the advice of Thomas Telford, but an improved version was accepted, but the project had to be abandoned because of a lack of funds.

      After being appointed chief engineer at the Bristol Docks in 1831, Brunel designed the Monkwearmouth Docks. He later went on to design and build similar docks at Plymouth, Cardiff, Brentford and Milford Haven. In March 1833, the 27 year old Isambard Brunel was appointed chief engineer of the Great Western Railway. His work on the line that linked London to Bristol helped to establish Brunel as one of the world's leading engineers. Impressive achievements on the route included the viaducts at Hanwell and Chippenham, the Maidenhead Bridge, the Box Tunnel and the Bristol Temple Meads Station. Controversially, Brunel used the broad gauge (2.2 m) instead of the standard gauge (1.55m) on the line. This created problems as passengers had to transfer trains at places such as Gloucester where the two gauges met.

   Brunel persuaded the Great Western Railway Company to let him build a steam boat to travel from Bristol to New York. The Great Western made its first voyage to New York in 1838. At that time the largest steamship in existence was 208 feet long, whereas the Great Western was 236 feet long. The journey to America took fifteen days and over the next eight years made 60 crossings. At the time, the idea of a steamship crossing the Atlantic was unheard of. 

    A Dr. Dionysius, at a meeting of the British Association in Bristol, produced calculations that showed that it was impossible for a ship to carry all the coal necessary to complete the voyage  Brunel, now a Fellow of the Royal Society, heard him out with patience and told the good doctor to 'wait and see'. Brunel was in charge of the design, the size, the building of the vessel and always had the confidence that it would succeed.

   1836 was an important year for  Brunel. Firstly, he married Mary Horsely, although her family was not too happy with the union, and secondly, work was started on his Great Western steamship at a shipyard in Bristol. Built in oak as a paddle-steamer, the Great Western was 236' long with four masts to carry sail for auxiliary power and one tall funnel.

   Launched in 1837, she was sailed round to London to have her engines mounted. During her stay she became a spectacle, and crowds were 'astonished at her magnificent proportions and her stupendous machinery'. They were equally amazed at her magnificent 75 feet long saloon decorated with painted landscapes and elaborate fabrics. 

   During the return trip to Bristol to pick up passengers, with Brunel and the company's directors on board, the Great Western suffered two mishaps. The first incident occurred when the ship ran aground on Canvey Island with no serious damage, and the second when a fire broke out in the deck-beams and planking. The fire was quickly extinguished by the chief engineer but in rushing to assist, Brunel fell 18 feet to the deck off a ladder and was laid up for several weeks.

   Typically, however, the accident did not prevent Brunel from issuing instructions regarding the repairs from his sick bed. The delay was a setback for Brunel. A small steam ship, the Sirius, commanded by a naval officer, was also attempting to be the first across the Atlantic under steam and Brunel was determined to beat her.

   After a very stormy passage, the Sirius did arrive first to a tumultuous welcome, but in doing so had to burn everything that would burn after the coal ran out. Although the Great Western sailed three days after the Sirius, she actually arrived within sight of New York on the same day. Brunel need not have felt unduly put out. The sheer size of the Great Western earned her the cheers and flag waving as she steamed up the Hudson River. Furthermore, she had only consumed three quarters of the bunker coal and proved Dr Dionysius to be wrong. The New York press were overwhelmed and one newspaper referred to her engines as "awful to behold' and the ladies’ boudoir as 'a love of a spot'.

   The last steamship that Brunel built in Bristol was the Great Britain. It had an iron hull and was fitted with a propeller with six blades. The Great Britain was designed to carry 250 passengers, 130 crew and 1,200 tonnes of cargo.

   She made her first voyage from Liverpool to New York in 1845. In 1852, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was employed by the Eastern Steam Navigation Company to build another steamship, the Great Eastern. Built on the Thames, the ship had an iron hull and two paddle wheels.

  The Great Eastern was extremely large and was designed to carry 4,000 passengers. Brunel was faced with a series of difficult engineering problems to overcome on this project and the strain of the work began to affect his health. While watching the Great Eastern in her trials, Brunel suffered a seizure. He died on 15th September, 1859 and was buried at Kensal Green cemetery five days later.


Compiled by Leslie J. Weddell


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