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  • Isambard Kingdom Brunel - The Celebrity Engineer

    21 November 2014 -

    If you asked most Australians their opinion on who the 100 greatest British people in history are you’d likely get an eclectic, if not sardonic, bunch of answers. I suppose that even despite the disastrous influence he had on the tragedy of Galiipoli and the fall of Singapore, Winston Churchill would probably win out, but just as likely to be on the list would be JRR Tolkein, Princess Diana, and who knows, even Amy Winehouse might get a run.

    In 2002 the erstwhile BBC, in so many ways the gatekeepers of British culture, conducted just such a poll but with some surprising results. Apart from the inclusion of John Peel, Robbie Williams, and King Henry VIII, perhaps the biggest surprise of all was that the runner up behind Churchill for the greatest of them all was not a football player, not a Beatle or a member of the Royal family, but a mechanical and civil engineer whose father was actually French. 

    In his short but productive life the flamboyantly named Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the best personification of that strange and peculiarly Victorian thing – the celebrity engineer.  He rose to prominence in the early 1800s while apprenticed to his Rouen-born father Marc on the first ever tunnel to be successfully built under a navigable river. The building of the Thames Tunnel was a marquee event at the time, replete with souvenir mugs and pennants, but due to the unstable quality of the under-river gravels and sands, it proved also to be an extremely hazardous enterprise. Many workers were injured by cave-ins and some even died as the work progressed.

    The elder Brunel, who had a history of compassionately driven invention, came to the rescue of the workers by designing a protective cast iron sleeve called The Great Shield, which was jacked along the tunnel as it proceeded. The younger Brunel became famously involved at this point when during the construction he was badly injured himself by a cave-in. The publicity around this shot him to public prominence as a brilliant and risktaking protege and set him up for a career in which the private, rather than government, funding of his ultra-ambitious projects meant that he had to work almost as hard at maintaining his magnetic position in the public mind as he did at actually building the bridges, railways and steam ships for which he has become known.

    Perhaps the most well-loved of Brunel’s functional artefacts is the Great Western Railway, which itself has spawned an extensive literature, not to mention generations of trainspotters. In fact, when it comes to nerdism, I.K.Brunel is an interesting case, fitting all the categories as a worthy progenitor of sublimated obsessions but for the fact that his enormous fame in Britain challenges the quiet marginalities in which the nerdish traditionally like to dwell. 


    The Great Western Railway, with its brilliant surveying (and despite the scotching of Brunel's revolutionary broad gauge design) was a great success, allowing Brunel to demonstrate his visionary ambition in the building of such bridges as the Maidenhead - which at the time achieved the largest span of any brick bridge - the Gatehampton - across the Thames in Berkshire - and the Box Tunnel - the longest railway tunnel of that time. An anecdote relating to the Box Tunnel, wherein the tunnel is meant to have been deliberately oriented for the rising sun to shine all the way through it on Brunel’s birthday, gives us some idea of the mystique surrounding this most creative, improvisational, and publicity-savvy of engineers.
     

    In those key years of the industrialization of the empire, with George Stephenson’s steam train and Thomas Telford’s intrepid roadmaking capturing the public mind like digital technologies do today, the next step for Isambard Kingdom Brunel ('Kingdom' was  his mother's maiden name) was to branch out into designing the first modern steam ships, specifically for Atlantic crossings.
     
    He came up with the apparently simple calculation that the load a ship carried would increase as a cube of its dimensions, whereas the resistance the ship incurred from the water it travelled through would only increase as a square of its size. This meant that a larger ship would require less fuel than a smaller ship, and to test his theory he set to designing his first ship - the longest ship in the world when it was built - the Great Western. The ship sailed from Bristol to New York in 1838 and triumphantly proved Brunel’s theory. He went on then to build other leviathan ships, the Great Britain (which ended up as an express passenger service to Australia), the Great Eastern (which was 210 metres long!), and also to trial in South Devon a strange but fascinating technology called the Atmospheric Railway, which involved using vacuum traction from a pipe on the tracks to propel its trains.

    Although now we can look back at the Atmospheric Railway as being undeniably steampunk it was nevertheless deemed outlandish by Brunel's financiers at the time and failed to catch on. Brunel’s design for pre-fabricated hospital rooms however, that could be sent to the battlefields of the Crimean War, were a lauded and life saving innovation. With respect to this concept of portable architecture Brunel was once again ahead of his time and the lives saved by his modular hospital rooms endeared him further to British hearts. As we can see from the BBC poll he remains much loved in Britain today.

     
    At Barwon Booksellers we recently acquired the library of a Brunel devotee and so we currently have excellent and difficult-to-find stock of books on him, his father Marc, on Stephenson and Telford, and other related matters. Our shelves on railways, canals, and other such subjects are bulging and in need of your assistance.  Here are some of the recently acquired highlights.

     

    We also have a nice copy, though without its dustwrapper, of E.C.Smith's  A Short History of Marine Engineering, published by Babcock &Wilcox in 1937, at $40. And scores of other books on British engineering instock.