Isambard Kingdom Brunel: world's greatest engineer?

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Engineers are respected as inventors, designers, scientists, builders and innovative thinkers – and one of the best-known embodiments of these aptitudes is Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Famed for his achievements in railway, civil and maritime engineering in 19th century Great Britain, Brunel led an awe-inspiring life, dedicated to connecting the world through his masterpieces of iron. His works still stand today and are hailed as examples of innovation, design, entrepreneurship, and execution.

Brunel’s achievements

Born on 9 April 1806, Brunel achieved many engineering feats in his 53 years of life, earning him recognition as one of the most inventive figures in engineering history. 

Brunel built the Great Western Railway – a 124-mile railway route linking London to Bristol. The railway cut through rivers, valleys and hills using innovative viaducts, bridges and tunnels and was considered the best railway of its time. The 1.8-mile Box Hill Tunnel constructed as part of this project was the longest railway tunnel of its day.

Brunel played a part in designing the Clifton Suspension Bridge – a 700-foot bridge stretching over River Anon, which was the longest span of any bridge in the world at that time. The bridge remains in use today, with four million vehicles traversing it every year.

Branching into maritime engineering, Brunel built three of the largest and most advanced steamships of his time: the Great Western, the Great Britain and the Great Eastern. The Great Western was the first steamship purpose-built for crossing the Atlantic. The Great Britain was the largest ship of the time and regarded as the first modern steamship, powered by an engine and driven by propeller instead of a paddle wheel.

As if ships, railways, and bridges weren’t enough, Brunel added a hospital to his repertoire. In response to a public plea by Florence Nightingale, Brunel designed a pre-fabricated hospital which could be transported to Turkey and quickly constructed during the Crimean War. His design established a blueprint for how field medical facilities are built to this day.

The man behind the legend

There’s no question Brunel was immensely talented, innovative, and hard working to have left such a legacy – but who was the man behind the legend? 

Both of Brunel’s parents were imprisoned at different times in their life – his mother during the French Revolution under suspicion of being a British spy, and his father for running up debts in his work as an engineer and inventor. Luckily, his father was talented enough to have his debts cleared by the British Government after pressure from the Duke of Wellington, on the condition he remain in Britain and put his talent to use. Talent clearly ran in the family, as a young Isambard Brunel was drawing buildings and learning Euclidian geometry by the time he was eight years old. When he was 20, Brunel and his father designed and constructed the 1,300-foot Thames Tunnel, using shield technology to protect workers 75-feet under the river – an achievement that caught the attention of Prince Albert and earned Brunel’s father a knighthood.

Even great engineers have insecurities and for Brunel, it was his height which left him feeling ‘not enough’. At only five feet tall, he was known for being visibly self-conscious about his stature, often trying to appear taller by sitting up straight when on horseback or by wearing very tall top hats. Some believe this insecurity was what drove him to be an overachiever in other areas of his life.

Despite safety being a guiding principle for engineers and Brunel’s ingenious structures safely supporting millions, he put himself at great personal risk once – performing a magic trick for his children. In an incident which may well have landed his children in therapy if it were modern-day, Brunel accidentally lodged a half-sovereign coin in his windpipe, which even forceps and a specially designed machine failed to shake loose. Ever the engineer, his father suggested he be strapped to a board and turned upside down, which – barbaric as it sounds – luckily succeeded in dislodging the coin.

Not one to slow down, Brunel was 53 and testing the engines onboard the Great Eastern before its maiden voyage when he suffered a stroke. The stroke was thought to have been caused by a lifetime of heavy smoking.  He returned to his home and died 10 days later. He was survived by his wife Mary and three children – one of whom followed in his footsteps by later becoming a successful civil engineer.

Get going…and keep growing

Brunel’s personal motto ‘en avant’ translates to ‘get going’ and his accomplishments certainly point to this principle being lived out. His success derived from a lifetime of consistent innovation and action. Far from being merely a clever dreamer, he converted brilliant ideas into solid masterpieces which changed the face of the English landscape and are still serving people today. He didn’t just follow the rules – he dedicated his life to thinking outside the box, always striving for better. In his words: ‘I am opposed to the laying down of rules or conditions to be observed in the construction of bridges lest the progress of improvement tomorrow might be embarrassed or shackled by recording or registering as law the prejudices or errors of today.’ Given the scope of his achievements, it’s safe to say he applied this principle – this dedication to growth and excellence – to all areas of his work.

*This great engineer – and all he stood for – is indeed part of the inspiration behind our corporate name, which was established in 1989.