9 April marks some 206 years since Isambard Kingdom Brunel (IKB) was born in Plymouth. He went on to become one of the world’s most famous engineers and “one of the greatest figures of the Industrial revolution [who] changed the face of the English landscape with his ground breaking designs and ingenious constructions” (Caswell 1957).
A search to find the Greatest Briton
So famous is he, that in 2002 he came second to Winston Churchill in the BBC’s quest to find the greatest Briton in history, no doubt spurred in the vote by a wide appreciation of his iconic image, in top hat and cigar, taken at an unsuccessful attempt to launch the massive steam powered Great Eastern.
It is also ironic that this second-Greatest Briton could easily not have ended up British. If Marc Isambard Brunel, his French father, had taken his new bride back to New York, or the family had moved to Russia to work for the Tsar. As the child of a French father and English mother, the teenage Isambard was studying in France at the time.
The French Revolution
At 16 years old in the early days of the French Revolution, Sophia Kingdom (IKB’s mother) was, perhaps imprudently, sent with a couple of friends to France to brush up on her French. They quickly realised that the situation was not the best and the friends retreated back to England, but Sophia was sick and stayed with a family in Rouen. There she met Marc, probably a cousin of the family, and he proposed to her before he had to flee from the Revolution to America.
As she was English, Sophia could not get the necessary papers to leave. She was actually arrested and incarcerated in a nunnery under constant threat of possible beheading as an English spy. The situation eased after the fall of Robespierre. Sophia was released and able to make her way back to the family in Rouen where, after many months, she finally got permission and the paperwork to return to England.
Engineering, marriage and prison (again)
Marc had done well in America where he had been involved in numerous construction projects, become an American citizen and was now the chief engineer of the city of New York. At dinner one evening, he heard of the difficulties the British Admiralty was having with the manufacture of sufficient quantities of marine rigging blocks. He had an idea to mechanise the process and on impulse (and no doubt a longing to see his Sophia) he sailed to England to sell his idea to the admiralty.
Within months he and Sophia were married. They stayed in England where IKB was their third surviving child, born in 1806 (and thus depriving America of a possible ‘second greatest American ever’). Eventually Marc’s block machines were commissioned and in successful production. He tended to concentrate on mechanical engineering projects and immersed his young son IKB in the intricacies of engineering design.
At the age of 14, IKB was sent to further his studies in France. Unfortunately, some of his father’s projects did not go so well and he got into debt. While IKB was studying in France his father was sent to debtor’s prison, accompanied, as was apparently normal for the times, by his wife Sophia. Her second spell in jail through no fault of her own.
Marc wrote numerous appeals to the English ‘great-and-good’ in an attempt to resurrect his fortunes, but it was only when he started making plans to head for Russia to take up employment for the Tzar that the government cancelled his debts and he was able to re-start his entrepreneurial engineering career. Perhaps again saving his son, the future ‘second greatest Britain ever’ from moving with his father to become fancifully the ‘second greatest Russian ever’.
Two years before landing in prison, Marc had patented a tunnelling shield and on his release from jail eventually persuaded enough investors to finance the construction of a tunnel under the Thames. Still a teenager, the recently returned IKB joined his father in supervising the work. A roof collapse in mid-excavation halted the project, almost ended the career of the young IKB and killed some of his fellow workers. The two Brunels (and a swath of other investors) resurrected the tunnel construction.
It was eventually completed in 1843 and visited by Victoria and Albert, some 18 years after Marc had watched the tunnelling work begin. Following completion, Marc wrote “to my dearest Sophia, I owe this triumph”. And later “Sans toi, ma chère Sophie, point de Tonnelle” which translates as ‘Without you, my dear Sophie, no Tunnel’.
With his youthful involvement in the tunnel, the legend of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s engineering accomplishments began, and these accomplishments were significant. Marc, his father had a stroke shortly after the tunnel was completed but was still able to help and advise his son with numerous other of his projects.
IKB’s works extended over miles of railways, bridges, marine works and shipping. Like his father he had a flair for the grand statement and very often his ambition exceeded the technical or commercial capabilities of the time. He had some notable and expensive failures, but his mark on the infrastructure even today arouses admiration as one gets a first glance at the Royal Albert or Clifton suspension bridges, just two of his many projects.
The BBC History Extra article notes that: “The fact is, for the century following his death, the British public was less inclined to revere Brunel than we are today.” But that “there continues to be a shared desire in a post-industrial, post-steam age to reconstruct heroes – to make public space for an iconic genius of invention and of engineering. And this energetic son of a French migrant has played that posthumous role to perfection.”
IKB suffered a stroke in 1859 and died a few days later at the age of 53.