Building mighty dreams
April 9, 2008 5:44 AM   Subscribe

Today is the 202nd birthday of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of the world's greatest engineers and a personal hero. I gaped at the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol when the shock of recognition dawned on my jetlagged brain. This was the man that laid the foundation for Britain's global economic might, built the first underwater tunnel, Paddington Station and inspired engineers everywhere. His legacy lives on in his works, a university, a museum or two among others.
posted by infini (34 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, great post!
posted by orthogonality at 5:48 AM on April 9, 2008

Whenever I disembark from a train in Paddington Station, I feel like I've stepped into the Industrial Revolution. It's a pretty cool place, even if it's not the most beautiful station.

Also, bears.
posted by grouse at 5:53 AM on April 9, 2008

/doffs foot-high top hat

/strolls off singing "It's a big one, what a big one... oh cor blimey what a size!"
posted by Pallas Athena at 5:55 AM on April 9, 2008

Now *that* is a well-researched post. Bravo!
posted by notsnot at 5:56 AM on April 9, 2008

Clarkson loves Brunel - Youtube 1 2 3 4 5 6
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 5:58 AM on April 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Awesome, thanks for this! I've heard of Brunel (and what a great name he has) many times and he sounded fab, but I've never looked him up on his own.

I was going to comment that he disdained mathematics and designed what you might call "intuitively" but I think I must be thinking of someone else because I don't see that mentioned anywhere. Perhaps I mean Thomas Telford?

Anyway, the tunnel under the Thames has got to have been one of the more outrageous ideas ever conceived. I mean....digging under a river?? And the whole thing is so Rube Goldberg and yet so elegant. You have to dig and push and build all at the same time. It's like extremely low speed drilling where the drill bit is the tunnel you want to leave behind.
posted by DU at 5:58 AM on April 9, 2008

I was just marvelling at the Bruel £2 coin - he looks like such a badass.
posted by Flashman at 6:01 AM on April 9, 2008

Also, Brunel's father as another famous engineer. One of the men on his jobsite was Henry Maudslay, the guy who did some of the first precision engineering (i.e. machine tools). His student was Joseph Clement, the man who did most of the actual machining, and probably a lot of the mechanical design, of Babbage's Difference and Analytical Engines.

19th Century engineering is so awesome.
posted by DU at 6:03 AM on April 9, 2008

I've always loved that photo of him in front of those monsterous chain links (in the first link).

I'll be up front with everyone, I totally forgot to get Isambard Kingdom Brunel birthday cards this year.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 6:04 AM on April 9, 2008

Thanks for this beautifully sprawling post.
posted by horseblind at 6:09 AM on April 9, 2008

And lest we not forget that he also designed the Great Eastern, the largest ship in the world for some 40 years. It was critical in laying the Transatlantic telegraph cable, thereby ushering in the communications revolution that has evolved into... well... Metafilter :)
posted by benATthelocust at 6:15 AM on April 9, 2008

And of course he was the chief engineer (aged 27) of God's Wonderful Railway. The bridge at Maidenhead had the flattest and widest supporting arches of any bridge at the time.
posted by jontyjago at 6:29 AM on April 9, 2008

My engineering hero is a different fellow, but Isambard is up there. There's something pretty Promethean about the engineers of past ages, I think.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 6:31 AM on April 9, 2008

My engineering hero is a different fellow...

posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot

Can I take a guess?
posted by DU at 6:35 AM on April 9, 2008 [4 favorites]

Everytime I see a picture of the Maidenhead railway bridge my understanding of how arches work completely fails.
posted by vbfg at 6:38 AM on April 9, 2008

There's something pretty Promethean about the engineers of past ages, I think.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 6:31 AM on April 9

I like to muse fancifully that they were like the science fiction authors of their day. If Clarke's visions led to the geostationary satellite and a different kind of communication revolution then they were doing no less, imagining what did not exist into being
posted by infini at 6:40 AM on April 9, 2008

steampunk rockstar.
posted by Dave Faris at 6:48 AM on April 9, 2008

Don't forget to look at the Panoramic View of the Clifton Bridge!
posted by kozad at 6:58 AM on April 9, 2008

MeFi and MeFites at their best!
Everyone here has restored my faith!
Thank you.
posted by Dizzy at 7:16 AM on April 9, 2008

He has such a fantastic name.

He built a few ships too

The Great Western laid the telegraph cable from the UK to the US
posted by mattoxic at 8:55 AM on April 9, 2008

Did you here about how he gave up smoking to be politically correct?
posted by surfdad at 9:21 AM on April 9, 2008

D,oh! Sorry, hear
posted by surfdad at 9:22 AM on April 9, 2008

Double D'oh! D'oh

*takes revolver, shoots head, misses*
posted by surfdad at 9:23 AM on April 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

Brunel really was a marvel. his first steamship, the SS Great Western, was the fastest ship across the atlantic for most of the next 8 years. His next ship, the SS Great Britain was the first ocean-going ship to have an iron hull and a screw propeller and, when launched in 1843, was the largest vessel afloat - at 322 feet it was over 100ft longer than her nearest rival.

His last ship, the SS Great Eastern was again the largest ship ever built in 1858, over twice the size of the SS Great Britain at a staggering 690 feet long. It was the largest ship in the world for over 40 years, originally outfitted to carry 4000 passengers. It was the first ship with a double skinned hull, a feature not seen again for a century. She suffered a 9 foot wide, 80-foot long gash in her hull in 1862 yet sailed into New york under her own steam a day later. 50 years later, a similar accident sank the Titanic.

Alas, building Great Eastern effectively killed him. The ship was beset with problems - financial, a terrible launch that took 3 months involving hydraulic rams and several fatal accidents. He suffered a stroke on board during sea trials, and died before it could make it's maiden voyage across the atlantic. Designed for a return trial to Australia, india or the far east without refueling, it couldn't compete with smaller faster ships on the Atlantic run that financial pressures forced it take, and was too big to fit through the suez canal when that opened.

A white elephant that ended it's days laying the first transatlantic telegraph cables (the only ship in the world capable of holding the entire length of cable at once), SS Great Eastern was simply a ship built decades ahead of it's time, to engineering standards that weren't bettered for most of a century.

Yes, Brunel was famous for his bridges, his tunnels and his railways, but I'll always remember him most as a ship builder without peer. That, and I studied at Brunel University!
posted by ArkhanJG at 10:24 AM on April 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Brunel University looks incredible; suddenly I'm not so proud of my dusty sandstone heap.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 11:20 AM on April 9, 2008

If you find yourself in Bristol, can I recommend a visit to the SS Great Britain, another of Brunel's engineering masterpieces - the first transatlantic ship with an iron hull - which is now a rather brilliant museum (which keeps winning awards.)
posted by Luddite at 1:23 PM on April 9, 2008

If you're a Brunel fan, he makes a cameo appearance in John Griesemer's Signal & Noise.
posted by thomas j wise at 1:57 PM on April 9, 2008

If you're a Brunel fan, he makes a cameo appearance in John Griesemer's Signal & Noise.
If you're a Brunel fan I suspect that the liberties that book takes with the historical record will set your teeth on edge (if you can set that aside, it seems to me to be a fine novel.)
posted by Luddite at 2:29 PM on April 9, 2008

Great post. Of course, now this means I'll be singing "Get a big top hat if you want to get ahead" for the rest of the day.
posted by Ranucci at 4:55 PM on April 9, 2008


I was not familiar with Brunel until quite late in life, and I lament that I wasn't aware of his works when I visited the UK. I think he gets a short shrift here in the US, in favor of Edison, Bell, and now other creators of the information age.

And what a cool middle name! Right up there with Charles Hard Townes...
posted by Tube at 6:14 PM on April 9, 2008

Let's not forget Box Hill Tunnel, which, Stonehenge-like, commemorates its creator's birthday every year.

Also, I see a couple allusions to the cartoon biography Great. There's even an Ask MeFi post looking for it. A while back, I fruitlessly looked for YouTube clips but came up dry. Could some kind soul . . . ? (Apologizes if there already is such linkage above that I missed . . .)

/joins in with Pallas Athena "It's a big one . . ."
posted by whuppy at 3:00 AM on April 13, 2008

/encores with 'It's great, you fools. And I am IKB.'
posted by whuppy at 3:04 AM on April 13, 2008

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