He’s likely the most famous engineer in history. In 2002, a BBC poll named Isambard Kingdom Brunel the second greatest Briton of all time, second only to Winston Churchill. A key player in the Industrial Revolution, Brunel helped turn Britain into a global powerhouse. Under his guidance, railway tracks were laid across England and Wales at a phenomenal rate; gravity-defying bridges were built; and the first modern ships were engineered. With his trademark top hat and cigar, Brunel became an icon of Britain’s early Victorian age – a self-made man propelling his nation forward through sheer talent and entrepreneurial spirit alone.
Yet the life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel is more than just the tale of a plucky Brit leading the steam age. The child of a French refugee father, Brunel’s life was only made possible by the explosive events reshaping the continent. His early years were marked by war, and his father’s chronic struggle with debt. And yet his talent for engineering still allowed him to ride the wave of the industrial revolution to heights that have never been matched. The Elon Musk of his day, this is the story of both Brunel the man, and the technological explosion that made his name.
Like Father, Like Son
If your mental image of Isambard Kingdom Brunel is of the quintessential British Victorian, it might come a shock to realize he was actually half-French.
Brunel’s father, Marc Brunel, came from a religious farming family in Normandy. In fact, they were so religious that Marc was originally meant to become a priest – although his talent for numbers convinced his family to instead let him train in engineering.
Still, the French Brunels were mostly about God, family and loyalty to their king.
And that was a problem because Marc came of age just as France was deciding that kings looked better without their heads. On July 14, 1789, a Parisian mob stormed the Bastille prison, firing the opening shot on the French Revolution.
When revolution broke out, Marc was serving abroad in the French Army. So he missed most of the early highlights, including the Women’s March on Versailles, and the king’s attempted Flight to Varennes. But Marc did manage to be back in Paris just in time for the summer of 1792. AKA, just in time for the merde to really hit the fan.
On August 10, 1792, a working-class insurrection engulfed Paris.
We don’t have time to go into the details here, but the upshot is that it changed the course of the revolution. Suddenly, cautious, non-murderous revolution was out, and guillotines and regicide were very much in. Amazingly, all this carnage merely provided a backdrop to Marc’s time in Paris.
1792 was the summer he fell in love.
Sophia Kingdom was from a British Navy family, the youngest of sixteen children. With remarkable bad timing, her parents had sent her to Paris that year to practice her French.
Instead, she wound up first falling in love… and then nearly losing that love to the Reign of Terror. In 1793, Marc’s royalist sympathies forced him to flee the country just ahead of Robespierre’s goon squad. He bade Sophia goodbye and hightailed it for New York, just one of many refugees fleeing madam guillotine.
Yep, refugee. So, in response to the question “what refugees have ever contributed to society”, the answer is “oh, just the friggin’ Industrial Revolution.”
While lying low in America, Marc made some contacts in the British Navy. In 1799, he traveled to Britain, married Sophia Kingdom, and started working on the Portsmouth docks. There, he developed a method for mass producing rigging blocks, something which gave the Royal Navy a much-needed edge over Napoleon’s fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar.
In recognition of his help, the Royal Navy paid Marc a handsome sum. Handsome enough for him and Sophia to at last settle down and raise a family.
On April 9, 1806, their son was born. They named him “Isambard,” after an alias Marc sometimes used. But it wouldn’t be just his name that Isambard Kingdom Brunel inherited from his father, or his diminutive stature.
It would also be a Mensa-level grasp of mathematics.
It was Marc who instilled in Brunel a love for the language of engineering. An appreciation of what it took to construct something from scratch. Neither father or son could have known it in those early years, but this love affair with engineering was destined to change the world.
Birth of an Engineer
In 1815, Napoleon’s empire collapsed, ending 26 years of French upheaval. As the monarchy was restored and the threat of revolution faded, Marc made two important decisions. The first was that he would send his son to France to study math, where the schools were superior.
The second was that he was gonna do something to help the troops.
In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, tens of thousands of veterans were returning to Britain. But rather than recognize their valor, the government was all like, “hey, thanks a bunch, now here’s a big fat pile of nothing.”
Marc was so shocked by the sight of destitute, shoeless British veterans, that he decided to build a machine for mass-producing boots for them. Unfortunately he super-overspent and the government responded by throwing him in debtor’s prison.
For young Isambard Kingdom Brunel, this was a formative experience. His father was as good an engineer as he would become, and yet here Marc was, languishing in prison because he didn’t understand business.
It was a mistake Brunel swore he’d never make.
Yet even a spell in debtor’s prison wasn’t enough to keep Marc out the engineering game. In 1825, Marc asked his son – now back in Britain and better trained than ever – to join him on a great construction project, possibly the greatest London had ever seen.
They were going to tunnel underneath the Thames.
At this point in history, London was one of the busiest ports in the world. Yet getting goods from its docks to the south of England was an unbelievable cluster headache.
First, merchandise had to be loaded onto mule-drawn carts. Then it had to be taken across London Bridge at a snail’s pace. The idea of tunneling under the Thames to forge an alternative route was not new. But it was thought to be impossible.
Now Marc and Brunel were going to make the impossible happen.
Construction on the Thames Tunnel began in 1825. Immediately, it turned into a nightmare. There were leakages, ventilation problems, floods, not to mention it was all so slow-going that it constantly teetered on the verge of financial disaster.
At one point, money got so low that Marc opened it up to tourists, hiring brass bands to play as people wandered the unfinished tunnel.
But while the tunnel was a major migraine for father and son, it would also be their making.
On Marc’s side, the difficulties led him to invent the world’s first tunneling shield, a concept still in use today. On Brunel’s side, the route to greatness was a little more twisty. In 1828 part of the tunnel ceiling collapsed and the Thames came flooding in.
Now, the Thames may be small by global river standards, but it’s still not something you want to come crashing down on your head.
Six workers were killed in the ensuring flood. It would’ve been even more, had Brunel not gone charging in to help the miners, saving lives in the process. But while Brunel being a hero was great and all, the important part is that his heroism left him injured. So badly injured that he needed over a year to convalesce.
As Marc tried fruitlessly to gather more money to drain the tunnel and continue digging, Brunel lay up at home, bored out his skull.
It was in this restive state that something caught the young man’s eye.
The city of Bristol was holding a design competition for a bridge crossing the Avon Gorge, right next to the affluent suburb of Cliffton.
So, Brunel decided to enter.
You won’t be surprised to hear he won.
The Age of Steam
Today, the Clifton Suspension Bridge is one of the icons of Victorian engineering, a vast span that’s emblematic of Bristol. If you want to know how it looked during Brunel’s lifetime, though, just concentrate very hard and picture absolutely nothing.
That’s because, like the Thames Tunnel, the Clifton Suspension Bridge was yet another Brunel project that ran completely over-budget and wound up getting abandoned.
But while the Thames Tunnel would become an albatross around Marc’s neck that dragged him down until its eventual completion in 1841, the Clifton Bridge had the opposite effect on Brunel.
Building it resulted in him being introduced to the great and good of Bristol.
And the great and good of Bristol just happened to be looking for someone to build their first railway. Here’s something you need to know about 1830s Britain. The country is in the process of going utterly railway mad.
In the early part of the 19th Century, there had been a boom in canal and road building, as the cities started to connect up.
But no sooner had most of Britain bet big on canals than everything changed.
In 1829, Robert Stephenson successfully tested his “Rocket”, effectively the first steam train. That same year, the Rocket had begun running the line between Liverpool and Manchester. Before long, the entire north was moving to the shrill whistle of steam.
Down south in Bristol, a fear began to grow that a lack of railway would soon demote them from “major port” to “assholes from hicksville.”
And that was how, in 1833, Isambard Kingdom Brunel found himself contracted by the Great Western Railway company to build the first line connecting Bristol to London.
It was an incredible project for a young man of 27.
With the Clifton Bridge running out of funds and the Thames Tunnel still stalled, Brunel knew this was his chance to make his mark. So he decided he wasn’t just going to be build a normal rail line. He was gonna go back and redesign everything from first principles.
That meant creating a new, broad gauge from his trains to run on, allowing for big, luxurious carriages.
That meant designing those same luxury carriages himself. Designing the locomotive that would pull them. It meant also designing iconic stations like London Paddington and Bristol Temple Meads. It was a huge undertaking, one that would guarantee Brunel finally stepped out from Marc’s shadow.
It was also very nearly his final job.
Brunel may have been an unmatched genius at designing stuff like Paddington Station and the Great Western line itself, but he was an absolute schmuck at designing locomotives. In the late 1830s, tests using Brunel’s engines were so disastrous that he came this close to getting his ass fired.
In the end, though, everyone figured that firing Brunel would be throwing the baby out with the mediocre locomotive, so they just made him promise to never, ever try engine design again.
And that was fine by Brunel. He already had his sights set on something much grander than mere steam trains.
He was gonna get into shipbuilding.
The Race for the Atlantic
Although Brunel married Mary Elizabeth Horsley in July, 1836, she spent most of their marriage dismissed as a mere trophy wife. There may have been a fragment of truth to this. Not matter what he might say to the contrary, Brunel’s first love wasn’t Mary, or even their children.
It was working on grand projects.
In the early days of the Great Western Railway, Brunel announced to the directors that he had a plan for an extension to the line. We love to imagine a board of stuffy old dudes with monocles asking incredulously if Brunel meant to build a line all the way into Wales?
When Brunel told them he actually wanted to open a connection to America, we can only hope a dozen monocles simultaneously popped out and dropped into a dozen cups of tea. Brunel’s vision was to build the first steamship capable of crossing the Atlantic – a feat at that time thought impossible.
Some bozos had done the calculations and concluded that any steamship trying to cross would require so much fuel that it would become too heavy to sail. But Brunel was certain they were wrong.
Now, he was gonna put his money where his mouth was.
In 1834, Brunel set about designing and building his steamer. Named the SS Great Western, the ship was a wooden-hulled paddle steamer, not unlike something you might see making its way down the Mississippi. Incredibly, Brunel did this with zero experience at shipbuilding. But rather than become a planet-sized catastrophe, it became a game-changing success.
In 1838, the finished Western made her maiden voyage to New York.
Just as Brunel had predicted, she didn’t run out of fuel, arriving in the Big Apple with over 200 tons to spare. It could’ve been the start of a lucrative new venture for the Great Western company. Had they focused on building more Westerns, they could’ve cornered the transatlantic passenger market.
But Brunel hadn’t built the Western as a means. He’d built it as proof of concept.
The real achievement would be what came next. Just one year after the Western’s maiden voyage, Brunel got to work on the SS Great Britain. We’ve heard it said that this was the first modern ship. Everything about it was a testament to the Industrial Revolution, from its iron hull, to its pioneering screw-propelled engine.
It was also big. So big that, when Brunel launched the Britain in July, 1843, it was too big to get out the Bristol Docks. It was only thanks to a record breaking high tide in December, 1844, that this monster ship was ever able to make it to the ocean.
Unfortunately, she wouldn’t spend very long at sea.
On September 22, 1846, the captain of the Britain ran her aground on the coast of Ireland – possibly while drunk. When Brunel visited the site of the disaster, he angrily exclaimed:
“(she’s) lying like a useless saucepan kicking about on a most exposed shore …with no more effort or skill applied to protect the property than the said saucepan would have received on the beach at Brighton’.
The accident and subsequent salvage operation bankrupted the Great Western Steamship company.
While their railway arm would survive, the dream of cornering the transatlantic market was over. A rival company swooped in and bought up the salvaged SS Great Britain, taking it out of Brunel’s hands forever. It was the sort of titanic failure that would’ve acted as a warning to any other inventor. A warning not to keep overreaching with mad projects, like Don Quixote tilting at some steam-powered windmill.
But did Brunel take that warning?
Ha. What do you think?
It’s a testament to Brunel’s mad genius that pretty much everything that happened to him gave him some idea for an invention. For example, in 1843 he tried to do a magic trick for his children, only to wind up accidentally swallowing a coin and getting it stuck in his windpipe.
So Brunel designed a machine that would spin him around so fast that it would shake the coin loose.
When that failed, it was Marc who saved the day by suggesting strapping Brunel to a board, holding him upside down and shaking him.
And so the coin finally came free.
But even this high-speed spinning machine would have nothing on the madness of Brunel’s next project. In 1844, the Great Western Railway finally reached the city of Exeter. By now, Brunel-built track was crawling all over the West Country, into Wales, and up from Bristol into the Midlands.
But reaching Exeter posed a problem. Beyond lay the wild expanse of Dartmoor, a place so hilly that getting normal trains to go over it would be a challenge.
But Brunel being Brunel, he decided to try anyway.
In 1843, Brunel had visited Dalkey in Ireland, where he’d seen an atmospheric railway.
And, no, that’s not a railway with a really great atmosphere, but a railway that uses a vacuum-sealed tube to propel its carriages up an impressively steep gradient. It was this that Brunel decided to build across Dartmoor. To be clear, this was an insane undertaking. The Dalkey atmospheric railway worked, but it ran a mere 3km.
By contrast, Brunel was hoping to build one that extended over 80km.
The technology was simply untested on such a scale – sort of like if the government announced out of the blue tomorrow that they were gonna build a hyperloop connecting New York and Washington, DC.
Nevertheless, Brunel insisted on it, pushing ahead at full steam – or should that be full vacuum? – despite Great Western’s protests.
Amazingly, Brunel’s gamble worked.
Well, it did at first. By early 1848, the first atmospheric railway operating on a regular timetable opened between Exeter and Newton Abbot. On good days, its trains were capable of hitting 110 kph.
For a moment, it looked like Brunel had really pulled it off.
But, no. Impressive as they were, all of Brunel’s great projects were doomed to end in failure. Almost as soon as the line had opened, the salty Devon sea air was eating away at the leather lining of the vacuum tubes, causing them to decay. When the company tried re-sealing them with grease, hungry rats chewed through them further.
By 1849, the atmospheric railway was in such a bad shape that Brunel himself recommended scrapping it altogether and starting again with regular track.
It was a colossal waste of money, one that Brunel was wholly responsible for. Yet it was in the aftermath of this disaster that we see some of Brunel’s greatness. Always a moral man, Brunel personally paid for the atmospheric railway’s failures out of his own pocket, rather than making Great Western pick up the tab.
Once that was done, he didn’t give up on his Devon line, but kept right on working at it, eventually extending track all the way into Cornwall via the breathtaking Royal Albert Bridge.
Big ideas and zany schemes aside, Brunel was a tireless engineer of the ordinary; one who linked up so much of west and middle Britain in his lifetime that it helped make the nation an industrial powerhouse.
While the railroads of America would be built by robber barons like Cornelius Vanderbilt who cheated and swindled, Brunel laid Britain’s tracks while never losing sight of his moral compass.
We know which of those guys we personally prefer.
The Last Dream
As more and more of Britain vanished beneath his railtrack, Brunel began to turn his mind back to his greatest failure. The SS Great Britain had been ambitious, but not overly so. What if the reason it was seen as such a failure wasn’t because Brunel had aimed too high, but too low?
What if, next time, he built something even bigger?
The result of that crazed thought was the SS Great Eastern, the single biggest shipbuilding project ever undertaken. Brunel’s plan was to build a ship that could make it all the way from Britain to India without having to stop and refuel. Maybe even further.
But Brunel realized that he alone couldn’t build such a leviathan. So he called in expert shipbuilder John Scott Russell to help him.
In no time at all, the two ambitious men would grow to despise one another.
Work began on the Eastern in 1854 at London’s Isle of Dogs.
Everything about the project was so vast that it challenged everything Brunel knew about engineering. For example, Brunel figured out that a headlong launch into the Thames would be impossible for a ship this size, so they’d have to launch her sideways.
Unfortunately, when the time came in 1857, the Eastern was so heavy that she distorted the slipway, resulting in the massive ship becoming stuck halfway. Just to get the damn thing into the river, Brunel was forced to invent a “battery of hydraulic presses” that would nudge the Eastern out its rut.
This was even harder than it sounds. By 1857, Brunel was suffering from kidney disease, a condition which left him in chronic pain.
Yet finish his hydraulic presses he did. Before long, the SS Great Eastern was finally afloat.
The biggest ship in human history – a record she would hold for four decades – began her maiden voyage in early September, 1859. Brunel himself was on the deck to witness what should have been his greatest triumph.
But, as we’ve seen time and again in this video, Brunel’s grandest projects were always destined to end in some kind of disaster. Still, no-one could’ve predicted just how great a disaster would accompany the Eastern’s launch.
Stood on the deck of his monster ship that blustery day, Isambard Kingdom Brunel suffered a massive stroke – some say a seizure – and collapsed. Although he clung to life for another few days, his body was really just delaying the inevitable.
Brunel died on September 15, 1859. He was 53 years old.
In the wake of Brunel’s death, his patrons in Bristol went on a fundraising drive, determined to build a suitable monument in his honor. That monument became the Clifton Suspension Bridge, finally finished to Brunel’s original designs in 1864. It would become the engineer’s lasting legacy in the city.
But what about in the rest of the world?
At the moment Brunel died, he was considered a great engineer, but also one plagued by hubris, who wasted his talents on unworkable projects like the atmospheric railway. The Victorians actually considered his father, Marc, to have been the better engineer, despite his own flaws. Against the guy who’d invented the tunnel shield, Brunel was a mere dreamer.
But time moves on, and fashions change. As the dour Victorian era gave way to the 20th Century, people began to realize just how inspiring a dreamer can be. Before long, Brunel’s maddest projects came to be recognized not as failures, but as heroic attempts to shape the future.
Today, Isambard Kingdom Brunel is no longer seen as one Victorian engineer among many. He’s the Victorian engineer, the man who was to the steam age what Da Vinci was to the Renaissance.
While the truth is a little more complicated, there’s no doubt that Brunel deserves this reassessment. Here was the child of a refugee father, from a family saddled with debt, who nonetheless managed to transform the face of Britain, making it into a modern industrial power.
He may not have been the father of the Industrial Revolution, or even its main contributor. But Isambard Kingdom Brunel showed humanity what it was capable of. For that reason alone, he deserves his place as one of the greatest Britons in history.
Oxford National Dictionary of Biography: https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-3773?rskey=6FomLJ&result=2
Interesting podcast on his life: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04nvbp1
SS Great Britain accident: https://www.ssgreatbritain.org/about-us/blog/re-floating-ss-great-britain