One of the highest honours which can be conferred upon a scientist is to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, London. Although such recognition of major contributions to “natural knowledge” is usually accorded to those in middle or later life, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who subsequently gained fame as a pioneer of railway construction, was only 24 years of age when he was elected.
At quiet an early age Isambard Kingdom Brunel showed natural aptitude as a draughtsman and this was encouraged by his father, himself an engineer of some note. In 1820, at the age of 14, he went to Paris to study as the College Henri Quatre.
Three years later, on his return from Paris, Isambard Kingdom Brunel entered the office of his father’s engineering firm. In 1825 his father was commissioned to construct a tunnel beneath the River Thames from Wapping to Rotherhithe and young Isambard Kingdom Brunel was made resident engineer in charge of the scheme. After toiling for three years, during which time the river broke through the roof on several occasions, the project was abandoned. Word was resumed much later and the tunnel, which is still used for carrying a branch of London’s Underground Railway, was completed in 1843.
But ten years earlier, in 1833, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was appointed Chief Engineer of newly founded Great Western Railway, a post he was to hold for thirteen years. It was his responsibility to design and construct the first rail route from Paddington, London to Bristol. He was an expert in designing bridges and excavating tunnels.
To make tunnelling safer he invented the shield. This enabled the workmen to dig out one section of the face at a time. They gained access to the various sections of the face through doors in the shield and as the shield incorporated its own roof supports there was less danger of roof falls.
Not only did Isambard Kingdom Brunel excel as an engineer – he was also quiet successful in negotiating personally with land owners. Although it would probably enhance the value of their property, many landlords were bitterly opposed to railways being built across their land. In consequence, enormous fees had often to be paid for the land on which the railway was built. Costly diversions were also necessary to avoid some estates. Nevertheless Isambard Kingdom Brunel succeeded in building lines with smooth curves, and, as far as possible, gentle gradients.
On the basis of sound theoretical reasoning Isambard Kingdom Brunel adopted a broad gauge (7ft. Between rails instead of 4ft. 8 1/2in. Used elsewhere in Britain) for the Great Western’s tracks. He claimed that this made for safer, faster and smoother travelling. However, it made the interchange of traffic between the Great Western and other railways very difficult. The “Battle of the Gauges” persisted for many years, but eventually in 1892 the Great Western gave in adopted the standard gauge.
To extend the line further to the west, Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed a paddle steamer to be used for regular runs across the Atlantic Ocean. Called the Great Western, this steamer in 1838 compleated its first transatlantic run in 15 days. Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed two more ships, the Great Britain and the Great Eastern. The latter was launched in 1859 a few days before his death, brought on by overwork.
Amongst the outstanding bridges which he designed was the Royal Albert Bridge which carried the railway over the river Tamer at Saltash in Cornwall. Isambard Kingdom Brunel also designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge across the Avon, be he did not live to see it erected.
Born in Portsmouth in 1806 Isambard Kingdom Brunel was an outstanding engineer, a bold designer and an exquisite draughtsman. It was his genius that gave the Great Western Railway a character which it has not altogether lost even after its merger in1948 with the other railways in Britain to form a single nationalized system.