Brunel was one of the most versatile and audacious engineers of the 19th century, responsible for the design of tunnels, bridges, railway lines and ships.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born on 9 April 1806 in Portsmouth. His father Mark was a French engineer who had fled France during the revolution. Brunel was educated both in England and in France.
When he returned to England he went to work for his father. Brunel’s first notable achievement was the part he played with his father in planning the Thames Tunnel from Rotherhithe to Wapping, completed in 1843. In 1831, Brunel’s designs won the competition for the Clifton Suspension Bridge across the River Avon. Construction began the same year but it was not completed until 1864.
The work for which Brunel is probably best remembered is his construction of a network of tunnels, bridges and viaducts for the Great Western Railway. In 1833, he was appointed their chief engineer and work began on the line that linked London to Bristol. Impressive achievements during its construction included the viaducts at Hanwell and Chippenham, the Maidenhead Bridge, the Box Tunnel and Bristol Temple Meads Station. Brunel is noted for introducing the broad gauge in place of the standard gauge on this line. While working on the line from Swindon to Gloucester and South Wales he devised the combination of tubular, suspension and truss bridge to cross the Wye at Chepstow. This design was further improved in his famous bridge over the Tamar at Saltash near Plymouth.
As well as bridges, tunnels and railways, Brunel was responsible for the design of several famous ships. The ‘Great Western’, launched in 1837, was the first steamship to engage in transatlantic service. The ‘Great Britain’, launched in 1843, was the world’s first iron-hulled, screw propeller-driven, steam-powered passenger liner. The ‘Great Eastern’, launched in 1859, was designed in cooperation with John Scott Russell, and was by far the biggest ship ever built up to that time, but was not commercially successful.
Brunel was also responsible for the redesign and construction of many of Britain’s major docks, including Bristol, Monkwearmouth, Cardiff and Milford Haven.
Brunel died of a stroke on 15 September 1859.