Our September 2019 talk - reviewed by Rosemary Doman

Isambard Kingdom Brunel is correctly rated a genius. Third child and only son of (later 'Sir') Marc Brunel and French mother Sophie Kingdom, who narrowly escaped the terrors of the French Revolution, his first name comes from a Norman saint. He inherited his father's brilliant gifts for mathematics and design, exhibiting at a very early age the ability to draw buildings quite accurately from memory. Marc Brunel ensured his son's education fully developed his talents, sending him from school in Hove to the Henri Quatre Lycee, then apprenticing him to a foremost watchmaker, Louis Braguet. In London, at the workshop of Henry Maudsley, Isambard further honed his skills in precision engineering.

His father was a skilled inventor, but poor with money. Imprisoned for debt after the failure of timber contracts, he was rescued by friends. A tunnel begun by Richard Trevithick under the Thames was abandoned after a roof collapse at 1000 feet. In 1825 Marc Brunel began a second tunnel, with Isambard his engineer. He invented a shield to protect the workers, but sewage dripped through, causing sickness and death. Sometimes Isambard worked 20 hours a day on the project, ignoring his more patient father's warnings. The workforce escaped after a roof collapse and tidal wave, one man trapped in a shaft being rescued by Isambard himself. Taking 3 months to clear up the mess, Isambard proceeded at a more sensible pace. A huge celebration involving a feast (beer and cheese for the workmen!) and the Coldstream Guards Band took place to mark the tunnel's three quarters advance, but a week later another flood blew Isambard onto shore with a broken leg, leaving others to complete the tunnel.

Isambard turned his attention elsewhere. By 1829 he had improved and extended the Bristol Docks. In 1830 his design for the Avon Gorge Bridge was originally rejected, but accepted upon modification, an impressive 230 feet above water, 680 feet in length and 7,000 tons in weight. Inspired by travel on the new Liverpool & Manchester Railway, in 1833-1834 he built the Great Western Railway, replacing the standard track gauge of 4 ft 8½" with one of 7 ft for speed and comfort. The Chippenham to Bath tunnel of 2 miles took 6 months to build, using vast quantities of blasting powder, man and mule power.

In 1835 Isambard had married Mary Horsley. They had three children, but he was not a family man; he pursued his own interests. His ship building career began with the Great Western paddle steamer, made of oak not iron, and screw-driven for stability, but surviving for only four trips before running aground off the Isle of Man. In 1843 his much faster and larger transatlantic Great Britain was launched in Bristol, its maiden voyage being from Liverpool to New York. The ship later carried troops to the Crimea and emigrants to Australia, and it is now back in Bristol, restored. Finally, delayed by the dishonest supervisor, Scott Russell, in 1858 came his huge five-funnel 19,000 ton Leviathan, launched sideways at the sixth attempt. After unremoved funnel cladding caused an explosion costing 53 lives, it was used to lay transatlantic cabling. Isambard, a heavy smoker with high blood pressure, died in 1859 after a stroke. His statue, sculptured by Carlo Marochetti, stands on the Victoria Embankment.

Thanks to Mike Murphy for a truly informative and engaging account.

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