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Isambard Kingdom Brunel


Isambard Kingdom Brunel was one of the greatest engineers of the Victorian period. He worked on many construction projects across the United Kingdom:
  • He worked as an assistant engineer to create a tunnel under the River Thames in London. Construction started in 1825 and a special tunnelling machine was used to protect the workers from cave-ins as they excavated through the riverbed. As this was just little more than waterlogged sediment and loose gravel, however, the excavation of the riverbed was very hazardous and two severe flooding incidents occurred. After the first incident, Brunel lowered himself down in a diving bell to throw bags filled with clay onto the tunnel roof before holding a banquet inside the tunnel to prove its safety. A few days later, on 12th January 1828, the tunnel flooded again though - six men died and Brunel himself narrowly escaped drowning trying to rescue them.The tunnel was abandoned for seven years until sufficient money was raised to finish its construction. It was finally opened to the public on 25th March 1843 and became a major tourist attraction, attracting about two million people a year, each paying a penny to pass through. At 396 metres long, it was the first tunnel in the world to have been successfully constructed underneath a navigable river.
  • Brunel was appointed the chief enginneer on the construction of the Great Western Railway between London and Bristol. Having surveyed the entire route by himself, he decided to build the line along the Thames Valley and north of the Marlborough Downs. Several: bridges, viaducts, cutaways and tunnels were built. At just under two miles long, the Box Tunnel was the longest railway tunnel in the world and was given much praise for its impressive, classical design even though the lives of about 100 men were lost during its construction. The railway opened in stages as the engineering works were completed, with the final connection to Bristol opening on 31st August 1840. Although Brunel was critisised for using a broader track gauge (width) than other railways in the UK, he did prove that it gave a much faster, comfortable ride as well as allowing for larger carriages to be used. After Brunel's death, the track was relaid using the more common standard gauge, first used by George Stephenson.
King George V exiting Box tunnel (CJ Allen, Steel Highway, 1928)
  • Brunel was keen to extend Britain's transport network by using boats to transport people across the Atlantic Ocean to New York. He designed the first coal powered ship for the Great Western Steamship Company, the SS Great Western, which became the longest ship in the world at 72 metres when it was launched on 19th July  1837. She also became the first ship to hold the Blue Riband for making the fastest Atlantic crossing by a passenger liner in just 13 days. On 19th July 1843, he then launched the SS Great Britain which is considered the first modern ship, being built of metal rather than wood, powered by an engine rather than wind or oars, and driven by propeller rather than paddle wheel. The construction of his third ship, the SS Great Eastern, proved problematic, however and soon ran over budget and behind schedule. She was eventually launched on 31st January 1858 and used in 1866 to lay the first, lasting transatlantic telegraph cable.
SS Great Britain bow view
  • Brunel's entry for a bridge to cross the River Avon won a design competition in 1831. Although construction started that same year, the work suffered many delays and the bridge wasn't officially opened until 8th December 1864, after Brunel's death. It was named the Clifton Suspension Bridge and is still used by vehicles today.