Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Perhaps one of the world’s most famous engineers, Isambard Kingdom Brunel is known for his pioneering of the Great Western Railway and intriguing bridge designs. His father, Marc Brunel is responsible for the Thames river bridge.

During the “railway mania”, many prominent engineers were destined to make their mark in history, pioneering their version of a working railway, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel was among the elite. Before long, Brunel would make his mark on history for this pioneering of the Great Western Railway, connecting London to Bristol, while introducing his famous broad gauge track. Brunel’s enthusiasm and work ethic displayed toward the railway was unmatched, as he engineered one of Britain’s first trunk lines, connecting London with the west country.

Daryl Major/LBM Photography


Even today, almost two centuries after his death, the name Isambard Kingdom Brunel continues to appear on significant structures along the Great Western Railway, most notably, the Royal Albert Bridge, of which, his name is emblazoned across its structure. Brunel was quick to harness the ability and power of the steam engine, whose might was exemplified in the various Stephenson railway ventures.

Brunel’s engineering sense was so keen, that upon inspecting certain structures built by fellow engineers, he estimated that they would collapse in due time because of various structural issues, and astonishingly, they did. Due to this vast knowledge of engineering, Brunel was trusted with many high profile engineering ventures that earned him quite a fortune throughout his life.

Isambard was born to Sophia and Marc Brunel on 6 April 1806, and was the youngest of three siblings. His father, Marc Brunel is of French descent, while his mother Sophia was English. It is quite possible that young Isambard’s interest of engineering was evoked from his father, who himself was a distinguished engineer. Brunel’s father traveled to America where he became New York City’s lead engineer, and even assisted in a planned canal linking the Hudson River with Lake Champlain, however, Brunel’s designs were rejected. Upon returning to England, Brunel worked on the Thames tunnel project and various railway plans, that his son Isambard would bring to life.

Young Isambard began displaying his engineering prowess at an early age, as he excelled at math and science. Brunel’s engineering interests continued to flourish when he began drawing elaborate plans of cities throughout Britain. Differing from other prominent engineers during this time, Brunel’s father supplied him with a wholesome education, which allowed Brunel to excel in many aspects of his life. Brunel would marry Mary Horsely, and bear three children, Henry Marc Brunel, Florence Mary Brunel, and Isambard Brunel III.

Brunel entered the engineering profession at a young age, assisting his father on his Thames Tunnel project, of which his father’s patented tunneling shield was put to the test. Young Isambard assisted his father on many fronts during the tunnel construction,however, due to a flood that almost took his life, and a lack of funds, the tunnel project was suspended for seven years. Shortly after the tunnel setback, Brunel’s father raised enough funds to begin construction once more, this time completing the tunnel, allowing for pedestrian traffic to pass through.

1892 GWR Broad Gauge/break of gauge

Budding Engineer

Beginning with a prominent interest in bridge design, Brunel began to bid for contracts throughout Britain, most notably, the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Brunel submitted his designs to none other than Thomas Telford, the storied canal builder. Controversy ensued when Telford rejected the designs presented to him, and instead, proposed his own. A disgruntled Brunel wrote a letter of his opposition to the bridge committee, as he believed that Telford’s design was inferior. Additionally,  this decision sparked outrage from many engineers and the general public. Telford’s decision was reversed and Brunel was awarded the contract.

During the early nineteenth century, the port of Bristol was Britain’s premier port, however, due to the inefficiency of the Neetham Dam, the port became unreliable and fraught with delays. The dam was in complete disrepair and discouraged commerce, resulting in the newly engineered Liverpool port becoming the country’s premier port. After a consultation with other engineers, Brunel submitted his improvements to the Bristol port. However, the project went stagnate during the Bristol riots. Following the riots, and once newly formed parliament were placed, his recommendations were approved by the committee and he was given the opportunity to reinvigorate the port, which was completed in a year’s time.

While Brunel was re-engineering the port at Bristol, meetings were being held for a proposed railway connecting London to Bristol. A railway board was formed and a competition was to be held to decide who to appoint engineer. Known for his work on the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the Neetham Dam, Brunel’s name was mentioned to survey the railway. Brunel disagreed with this competition, as it awarded the work to the lowest bidder. Brunel believed that the railway should take the most direct route no matter the cost. In response, the board appointed Brunel engineer for the project, thus, began the construction of the Great Western Railway.

London Paddington 1896

Transatlantic Shipping

For a short while, Brunel would try his hand at transatlantic shipping. Daunting was the task of deciding whether a steam ship could cross the Atlantic on its own, however, various technologies were instituted, including the ability of boilers to run using salt water. This company, called the Great Western Steamship Company, was to travel between the port at Bristol to New York City. The chief concern of this endeavor was whether the ships could both carry enough fuel, and still have room for various amounts of cargo.

Brunel came to the conclusion that operating the ship would consume less fuel then a smaller ship. To emphasize his theory, he offered free services on the transatlantic services. Thus, he began building the Great Western, which was 236 feet in length, and was the world’s largest ship during this time. Constructed of wood, held together by iron rivets, the ship was soon completed, and set sail on 8 April 1838, albeit a few days behind schedule due to a fire. The ship completed its crossing in 15 days, and had plenty of fuel remaining upon arrival. Brunel’s ingenuity proved that transatlantic shipping was feasible, with many soon following suit. Consequently, Brunel was contracted to build two sister ships, the Great Eastern, and the Great Britain. 

Railway Engineer

As a budding railway engineer, Brunel wanted to make his mark on the engineering world, and harness the opportunity of the Great Western Railway to do just that. He worked tirelessly for more than twenty hours daily, surveying the route his railway would take. To facilitate the building of the railway, a committee of twenty-four distinguished individuals were established. To even the tide, half were from Bristol, and half from London. Charles Saunders, secretary for the railway committee, had a distinct admiration for the skills and engineering feats accomplished by Brunel, and was confident in his abilities as lead engineer. Throughout Brunel’s surveys, his assistant engineers, Townsend and Hughes accompanied him through much of the journey, however, upon conducting a more in depth survey, more engineers joined the brigade.

After Brunel surveyed two routes to present to parliament, he encountered great criticism for his choice. Arguments against the topology of the route was a significant criticism, as the opposition berated Brunel with great sarcasm. Following a grueling debate in parliament, the railway was given royal assent, and work could begin. This situation brought about a significant character trait of Brunel, as he stayed professional and poignant throughout the ordeal, showing his true stature of a distinguished businessman.

True to his nature, Brunel began looking past Bristol and sought to extend his railway into South Wales. Brunel acquired a significant connection in Wales, Anthony Hill, who was present at Pen-Y-Daren ironworks for the running of Trevithick’s locomotive. Thus, the Merthyr & Cardiff Railway was proposed. At this point, Brunel’s fortunes had shifted from disappointment, to inevitable success, as even Brunel himself was in disbelief. Several railway projects were taking shape, including the Bristol canal.

In Brunel’s mission to build the smoothest and quickest railway, he strongly advocated for his broad gauge of seven feet, instead of Stephenson’s gauge of 4 ft 8 1/2 in. Brunel felt that Stephenson’s gauge was too narrow for the speeds of which his railway was to be designed. However, Brunel failed to take into account conflicts connecting to other railways, and the break of gauge that would have to implemented. In the Great Western Railway Bill, it specified the use of Stephenson’s gauge, of this, Brunel fought fiercely against. Stephenson’s gauge was implemented on his early railway ventures because this was the gauge of the wagon ways of Tyneside collieries, and thus, did not feel the need to change it.

While the debate of gauge was ongoing, Brunel began deciding on which types of rail would be used on his railway. Realizing the brittleness of cast iron rails used on various Stephenson ventures, he considered the use of wrought iron rails as an alternative, as they are known to be 50% more durable. The rails would be supported upon crossties, unlike any other railway in the country.

By these methods, Brunel successfully construction the first section of railway from London to Maindenhead, which opened to the public on 4 June 1838. Brunel’s chief locomotive engineer, Daniel Gooch, constructed one of the first locomotive’s to traverse the line. The very first train was hauled by the beautifully constructed “North Star” locomotive, and traveled between the two destinations in less than one hour. Brunel’s description of the maiden run were recorded in L.T.C Rolt’s biography “Isambard Kingdom Brunel”, Brunel states:

” At 11:30 we entered the carriages of the first train and, proceeding at a moderate pace, reached Maindenhead Station in 49 minutes, or at about 28 miles per hour… we returned to the line and reached Paddington (19 miles) in 34 minutes, or 33 1/2 miles an hour”

However, Brunels success did not come without failure. Brunel was heavily criticized on the ride quality of the railway, citing multiple derailments and damage to infrastructure. Brunel placed the blame on the carriage builders, as he proclaimed that they had no experience building railway carriages, and only road coaches. The root cause of the carriage issue was the thickness of the tire on the wheel, which caused the carriage to lose balance and sway uncontrollably. However, Brunel improved the situation by introducing new ballast and fitting carriages with six wheels bogey. These modifications improved ride quality greatly, which silenced many critics berating Brunel’s ingenious contributions to railway development.

An advocate of the broad gauge, Brunel soon came under harsh scrutiny due to the failure and lack of power his broad gauge locomotives suffered. Thus, even those who once held confidence in the enthusiastic engineer now doubted his abilities. Many critics of Brunel berated his use of the broad gauge, and blamed it for the failures, stating that the locomotives were too heavy. The board even suggested supplementing Brunel with another engineer, an idea Brunel vehemently opposed.

Daniel Gooch, Brunel’s locomotive engineer, upon inspection of the locomotive “North Star”, found a defect in the blast pipe, which restricted steam. Once the blast pipe was re-engineered, the locomotive’s performance improved drastically, impressing many onlookers. Brunel met with the directors in London, and were impressed with the locomotive’s improved performance, thus, approved Brunel’s broad gauge to continue westward. Yet again, Brunel defied the odds set against him, and emerged victorious.

As Brunel continued building westward, critics of the integrity of his bridge designs were evident, as many believed they would collapse in due time. However, he honed his professional engineering skills and experience into building the bridges, and was confident of their integrity and ability to withstand the weight of a train. Thus, the critics were silenced once more when the bridge performed flawlessly.

Although Brunel was now nearing Bristol, some of the most challenging engineering feats were yet to come. Particularly, the Box tunnel, the largest railway tunnel ever attempted during this time, spanning almost two miles in length. Work commenced on the tunnel in 1836, once the shafts were sunk, Brunel hired contractor, George Burge, known for his craftsmanship on railways throughout the country. Burge facilitated the work on three quarters of the tunnel, the remainder being contracted to Brewer of Bath, and Lewis of Bath. The construction of the tunnel was an intense and tumultuous undertaking, as unlike the modern day, little machinery was utilized, and the work was tedious and oftentimes dangerous for the workers.

Upon commencing railway operations through the tunnel, the line that many believed could not be achieved was now in place between London and Bristol. However, not without skepticism concerning the integrity of the tunnel. Many believed the weight and vibrations from the trains would impact the foundation of the tunnel, which made it susceptible to collapse. The public took these projections seriously, and were skeptical of traveling throughout the tunnel, even after repeatedly being reaffirmed by Brunel that the passage was safe. Wanting to put these theories to rest, Brunel invited a lead inspector from London to examine the tunnel. The inspector ruled the tunnel safe for travel, much to the chagrin of the skeptics and opponents of the railway.

With the route from London to Bristol completed, a mid-point location was now needed for a locomotive maintenance facility. Daniel Gooch suggested that Swindon be selected, thus, commenced the building of Swindon Works. A subject of controversy at Swindon was the addition a cafe inside the station building, of which the railway agreed to a contract with the restaurant management, stating every regularly scheduled train would stop at Swindon allowing passengers to have a ten minute break from their travels. Ideally, to patronize the eateries. This caused issues with passengers, as it interrupted their commutes, and eventually became a disservice to the railway. Eventually, this mandatory stop was abolished and the railway began becoming increasingly customer focused. With the initial London-Bristol stretch of iron completed, Brunel now looked towards the city of Bath, where Brunel yearned to show his engineering prowess yet again. With railway development in full swing in Britain, Brunel once again found himself in the center of a quarrel with fellow engineers over which gauge was the most efficient.

A Daniel Gooch Broad Gauge Locomotive
Chris Williams

Looking Further Westward- The Gauge Battle

During this time, Brunel was the engineer for both the Great Western Railway, and its satellite company, the Bristol and Exeter line. This line included Brunel’s broad gauge, and utilized Gooch’s 7ft class locomotives. Upon commencement of operations, a train could travel from London-Exeter in a matter of five hours. This proved monumental for Brunel, who during this time was operating the fastest trains in the world. However, drama would soon be prevalent, as many government officials decided that a more direct route would be in order, which would not pass through Bristol to reach Exeter. Brunel saw this as a threat as rival London and Southwestern Railway would secure the direct line if Brunel failed to take action. Fearing the worst, Brunel cut ties with the Bristol and Exeter Railway and began planning for the direct route, which never came to fruition until long after his death.

Brunel now looked toward Cornwall, Devon, and South Wales, in which he was to face a battle of gauges. Because these territories were untouched, discussion once again ensued concerning which gauge was to be used. Brunel first reached a dilemma when he reached Gloucester, as the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway, and the Bristol and Gloucester Railway were quickly laying iron destined for Gloucester. However, Brunel remained confident his broad gauge would emerge victorious. In spite, John Ellis, advocate of the narrow gauge and deputy chairman of the Midland Railway leased the Bristol & Birmingham railway, causing the rail through Gloucester to be the first break of gauge railway. This defeat did not deter Brunel from championing his broad gauge as the most efficient.

As the gauge battle intensified, Brunel sought to solidify his broad gauge dominance in the west, therefore, he and the commissioners assembled a challenge between broad gauge and narrow gauge, to decided which was deemed more effective. Brunel and fellow broad gauge champions used a locomotive currently in service called “Ixion”, whereas the London Midland, who championed the narrow gauge, ordered two new locomotives from the Stephenson’s. Brunel’s broad gauge locomotives outperformed the narrow gauge, however, Brunel failed to realize the numerous advancements in locomotive technology, and the fact that narrow gauge performance would soon surpass that of his broad gauge.

Much to Brunel’s frustration, the Gauge Act of 1846 was passed, ordering the standard gauge of 4 ft 8 1/2 in, and 5 ft 3 in Ireland, to be used on all railways. This response only intensified the gauge war, and caused much scrutiny among Brunel’s supporters. This decision was made on a financial standpoint, as it was less costly to lessen the broad gauge, than to widen the narrow gauge. This was due to the fact that just 274 miles of broad gauge track was laid, compared to 1,901 miles of standard gauge track throughout the country.

Anticipating further negotiations between gauges, Brunel sought to secure his argument for the broad gauge, thus, he contracted Gooch to create a locomotive that encompassed speed, and it was imperative that it was produced in a timely manner. This locomotive, Great Western, was the first locomotive to be manufactured at the new Swindon shops, and was one of the largest on the rails during this time. Various examples of this locomotive were produced and recorded new standards for speed. These locomotives solidified Brunel’s broad gauge railway into the city of Birmingham, however, it was inevitable that it would be short lived.

Broad Gauge Expansion in the West

With the gauge war settling, Brunel began to look towards Devon, and became the engineer for the South Devon Railway. While engineering this section of railway, Brunel began to be inspired by other forms of motive power, however, electric motive power was still quite in the distant future, and began experimenting with propulsion via atmospheric pressure, as this method did not require the use of a locomotive.  Brunel experimented with this form of propulsion, however, it required a method of laying a pipe along the right of way, which proved extremely costly, and tedious to construct.

This form of propulsion was tested in England on a short 1 mile stretch of track, of which, many early railway engineers were impressed with the speed and efficiency of the system. This attracted interest from Ireland’s Dublin and Kingstown Railway, as this system would solve the issue of gradients plaguing steam traction during this time. This experiment proved a success and the railway operated in this manner for a number of years. However, these railways were few and far between because of the need for pumping stations every three miles, and if one station failed, the entire railway would be interrupted.

Atmospheric Piping

Because of the cost of the piping for the atmospheric pressure, Brunel’s South Devon Railway utilized locomotive traction initially, as Gooch’s steam locomotives served as the primary motive power until funds could be allocated for the atmospheric piping. Surprisingly, the atmospheric pressure model had less delays than locomotive hauled trains, much to the chagrin of the Stephenson’s, who starkly disagreed with this claim. To power his railway, Brunel began establishing pumping stations every three miles, of which, some are still present in the modern day.

The most significant blow to the atmospheric project was the facilitating of joining the atmospheric pipes together, which proved tedious, even for the stark engineering mind Brunel possessed. According to L.T.C. Rolt’s book, Brunel experimented with both a combination of beeswax and tallow, and later lime soap, however, these efforts proved meaningless, as these did not hold up to the elements, causing the pipes to separate. This final mishap proved exhaustive to Brunel, thus he alerted the commission that he planned to end his experiments with atmospheric pressure, and had the existing piping removed, and sold the pumping stations to various industries throughout Devon. Brunel realized that the potential of the locomotive was far superior to that of the atmospheric railway, and therefore, looked towards his future endeavors.

After this blunder, Brunel looked forward and began planning for his broad gauge for the South Devon, Cornwall, and West Cornwall Railways. It would be this route that would save his reputation, as his timber bridges of ingenious design proved efficient and beautifully constructed. The timber bridges served as an alternative to masonry and wrought iron, which was not available due to cost constraints. In typical Brunel architecture, he constructed these bridges to work in an efficient manner, with universal designs to prohibit prolonged delays due to repairs. Brunel’s timber bridges became a popular sight in the west country, as each line had a plethora of examples built to bridge the gap between the deep valleys.

Brad Joyce

Royal Albert and Chepstow Bridges

Upon the expansion of railways into Devon, Plymouth and Cornwall, these bridges were constructed as a result of the parliamentary approval of the Cornwall Railway. Two routes were surveyed, one being the coastal route, serving the bustling naval city of Devonport. The accompanying surveying laid out a route traversing Exeter, with connections to Dartmouth, as the land was of flat topography, and could easily accept a railway. However, recognizing the importance of a connection to Devonport, the coastal route was chosen, and Brunel was hired as engineer to traverse the winding landscape.

Although the timber bridges were suitable for many crossings, it was not suitable for the Royal Albert Bridge, spanning the River Tamar, and the Chepstow Bridge, spanning the River Wye. These were among Brunel’s finest engineering feats, and still remain today as a reminder of Brunel’s contributions to British engineering. These bridges were built as suspension bridges, and used wrought iron construction.

It was the Royal Albert Bridge, of which Brunel displayed his most ingenious engineering capabilities. Brunel encountered various instances of hardship constructing this bridge, as the depth of the water below played a significant role. Brunel surveyed the bridge by introducing an 85 foot tall iron cylinder into the River Tamar to test where solid land was located, and at which areas would be the best to support the bridge’s structure. Once surveys were completed, Brunel hired shipbuilder, Charles John Mare, as the contractor, however, he filed for bankruptcy shortly after beginning construction. Thus, Hudson and Male were hired as the new contractor. Brunel designed the bridge to consist of two arches, supported centrally by a tall beam. Upon completion in April 1859, the bridge was opened to rail traffic in May, thus ending the career of one of the world’s most storied engineers.

Unfortunately, Brunel passed away of a stroke on 15 September 1859, at the age of 53, just four months after the opening of the Royal Albert Bridge. As a tribute to his life and legacy, the Royal Albert Bridge is adorned with the words stating “I.K. Brunel, Engineer, 1859”.  Brunel’s contributions to engineering and transportation cannot be overlooked, as during his life he operated some of the quickest trains in the world, and served as an example for others to follow. Although Brunel’s life was tragically cut short, his engineering prowess will never be forgotten. He will be remembered as a humble, ingenious individual, who helped plant the seed for Britain’s future.






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