I was sitting on an ornate bench in Windsor Station when I started looking up and around me. I had just finished visiting The Queen (a loco – see two blogs down) and the rain was pattering on the roof. I marveled at the elegance of the structure and wondered who was the architect. So, coffee downed I beetled off to the ticket office to ask the name of the architect. The answer to my question from an elderly ticket clerk eager to have some company was “Brunel sir. He built the GWR (Great Western Railway) of which this station is a part. Brunel was placed second in a Beeb (BBC) poll to determine the 100 Greatest Britons you know.” Of course I didn’t know. The ticket clerk went on, “The station was originally built in 1850, and entirely rebuilt and remodeled with a new royal waiting room in 1897. And”, he said in a whisper, “This station was the scene of an attempt on Queen Victoria’s life in 1882. Lovely ain’t it.” It is as you can see below.
Inside of Windsor Station
So, I toddled off to Waterstones (an excellent chain of English bookstores) where a very young lady led me upstairs to a section that had no less than seventeen books on Brunel. “Any suggestions?”. “Well sir, this one is very popular”:
Brunel by Steven Brindle
Having read the book I have concluded that Brunel was a genius and I do not use that word lightly. There is a short passage in the book which I think is important to assess Brunel:
“Today we rather take railways for granted, noticing them most when they go wrong. They seem like part of the landscape, and it requires an effort of imagination to grasp what a vast cultural and economic achievement they represented when they were new, and what they meant to the people who built them.”
In fact, to say that Brunel e was a genius of quite breathtaking innovation and vision really is putting it mildly. His revolutionary engineering designs would change not only the face of Britain but also the world around him.
Although he is usually associated with Bristol, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born in Portsea, Portsmouth in 1806. His English mother, Sophia Kingdom, had married a refugee from the French Revolution, Marc Brunel, in 1799. Marc was already a well-known engineer and he taught his son the engineering trade from a young age. At the age of 14, Marc sent Isambard to France to continue his training where he studied watch making, which gave him a good schooling in precision engineering.
When he returned to England his father was working on an ambitious project to build a tunnel under the River Thames and Brunel joined him as his apprentice.
It was whilst working on the Thames Tunnel that Isambard had a piece of bad luck that would turn into his chance to strike out on his own and take the first steps on his road to greatness. In 1828, a flooding in the Thames Tunnel killed six workers and badly injured Brunel, who went to Bristol to recuperate.
ThamesTunne lFrom Wapping
Whilst in Bristol, he became aware of a local contest to design a bridge that was intended to cross the River Avon. Brunel began to draw up his designs for what would become the Clifton Suspension Bridge, his first major solo project, in the visionary and ingenious manner that would come to typify his attitude to engineering throughout his life. His plans were revolutionary and spectacular. The length of the bridge was to be 700 feet, longer than any bridge in existence at that time, and 245 feet above the water level.
Brunel duly won the contest and work began on the bridge in 1831 but before any major parts of this amazing feat of engineering could be constructed, the project ran out of funds. Work on the bridge was eventually re-started by admirers of Brunel shortly after his death and was completed in 1864.
Although he never lived to see his great work, his plans for the Avon Bridge announced to the world in general that a new young talent had arrived in the engineering world. His growing reputation saw Brunel appointed in 1833 as chief engineer to the most ambitious engineering project ever undertaken in Britain at that time. Although railways were not a new invention, no country in the world had a major rail network and this was the aim of the proposed Great Western Railway, which sought to connect Bristol to London, and later Exeter, by rail.
The vastness of Brunel’s achievement with his railway building cannot be overestimated. The GWR spanned 118 miles and cut the travelling time down from four days to four and a half hours. He built the Royal Albert Bridge, the Windsor Railway Bridge and the Maidenhead Railway Bridge, and also the famous Paddington Railway Station.
Royal Albert Bridge under construction
Royal Albert Bridge
As well as the construction of many viaducts, Brunel designed the Box Tunnel, at two miles long, the longest railway tunnel at the time.
Box-Tunnel when it opened in 1841
Box Tunnel in 2010
Never one to rest on his laurels, Brunel came up with an idea that was breathtaking in its audacity and revolutionary in its intention.
He proposed that people would travel to London Paddington to Wales on the railway and then cross the Atlantic to America on massive steam powered ships.
The plan was so extraordinary that one of the GWR company directors was rumoured to have muttered, “Brunel’l have us going to the moon yet.”
Brunel formed the Great Western Steamship Company and the first ship that he built was the SS Great Western, which made its maiden transatlantic voyage in 1838. The Great Western was a paddle-wheeled, wooden hulled steamship and was by far the biggest ship ever built at the time.
Five years later Brunel launched an even more remarkable craft. The SS Great Britain was a true feat of engineering genius. Weighing in at 3018 tonnes and measuring 322 feet, it was the world’s first large iron steamship. Its propulsion system was equally unique, with the screw propeller replacing the paddle wheel. The ship slashed the travelling time from Bristol to New York from 75 days to 14 days.
SS Great Britain in dry dock in Bristol
SS Great Britain First Class Dining Room
Brunel’s third ship, the SS Great Eastern was even more gigantic than its predecessors, measuring 680 feet and it was designed to be able to carry enough coal to power itself to India and back. Although a stunning technical achievement, the SS Great Eastern was too expensive to run and it was not as successful as Brunel’s previous ships.
His talents at being able to design in disciplines other than his usual trades were clearly demonstrated in 1855 when Florence Nightingale appealed for help in improving sanitation conditions in hospitals during the Crimean War. Brunel took up the call and constructed a wooden and canvas pre-fabricated hospital that so greatly improved sanitary conditions that deaths were said to have fallen by ten times the usual amount.
Just before the SS Great Eastern was to make her maiden journey in 1859, Brunel suffered a stroke. Ten days later, on 15 September, he died. He was only 53 years of age.
To have achieved so much in such a short space of time is true testimony to Brunel’s genius. His contribution to British life is immeasurable. But his legacy to modern civilization is perhaps even more profound. He revolutionised public transport through his work on the GWR and the transatlantic ships. His railways designs were copied all over the world and his maritime innovations became standard worldwide.