Isambard Kingdom Brunel

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The primary thrust of this website is to illuminate the history of locomotive engineering. Thus, within this context Brunel was a complete failure, and was only redeemed by his recruitment of the brilliant Daniel Gooch. His adventure into vacuum traction was a catastrophic failure which has doomed the city of Plymouth to a poor train service to this day. His civil engineering structures were inspired, but the broad gauge was a further costly venture. One suspects that the west would have been better served by a Stephenson (father and son)/Locke system.

Note this page was originally built around part of a general literary appreciation of Tom Rolt and has been moulded to form a more general biographical/biographical study of Brunel. Thus, Rolt's influence may now appear to be excessive. Further Emmerson, an authority on John Scott Russell has written an assessment of Rolt which is hidden on the inaccessible academic scriptorium known as JSTOR

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the son of an almost as famous father, Sir Mark Isambard Brunel. He was born in Portsmouth on 9 April 1806 according to Marshall, and died in London on 15 September 1859. He was partly educated in France which reflected his father's French (Royalist) background. His engineering skills were developed on his father's great project the Thames Tunnel, where he was resident engineer: this both undermined his health and gave him an appetite for prodigeous engineering projects. His influence upon the steam locomotive was almost entirely indirect as his own efforts were eccentric (see Bryan page 43 for one of his "contributions" to locomotive history). Perhaps the greatest contribution of broad gauge locomotive development was to inspire men like Crampton and Sturrock to produce locomotives of comparable potential for the standard gauge. Brunel's main strengths were in civil engineering (the Great Western mainline, especially the Thames crossing at Maidenhead and Box Tunnel), the great bridge at Saltash, and his contributions to nautical engineering (which only met with partial success). The atmospheric railway in Devon was a disaster and the citizens of Plymouth are still denied rapid journeys to London because of Brunel's absurd aspirations. Brunel – not so great by John Miles (Rly Arch., 2007 (16) page 55 (letter). was a response to excellent photographs in Issue 15 page 17 of broad gauge, but writer (a professional engineer) condemns Brunel not for his magnificent bridges, nor for his inspired choice of route, but on the folly of the broad gauge (and Brunel's failure to perceive the essential network nature of railways) and his traction policy (his absurd steam locomotives and the atmospheric system): the latter led to a line which continues to be difficult and costly to work. More recently, Brunel is the subject of a short biography by the excellent Michael R. Bailey in Chrimes (pp. 141-6). See also letter from A.I. Stirling in J. Rly Canal Hist. Soc., 2003, 34, 376 which notes that in the light of further information he would have modified what he wrote about John Scott Russell — not considered herein as did not relate to railway activity.

Bronze figure by Baron Marochetti erected at the corner of Temple Place and Victoria Embankment in London see Backtrack, 2011, 25, 740

Bailey, Michael. I.K. Brunel — exploding the myth. Trans. Newcomen Soc., 2006, 78, 1-10. and several other papers in this swan song of the Transactions gives an excellent insight not only in the value of Brunel and his work, but into the literature which has surrounded his achievements and failures in traction policy.
Buchanan, R. Angus. Brunel: the life and times of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Hambledon & London, 2002.
Reviewed by Gordon Biddle. in J. Rly Canal Hist. Soc., 2003, 34, 259-60. who ends his review with: "This book is an important and probably final contribution to our knowledge of Brunel For the complete picture, read Rolt, Vaughan and then Buchanan."

Adrian Jarvis's commentary on Samuel Smiles partially refutes the assertion that Smiles had nothing to say about the Brunels by noting that he published an extended review of R. Beamish. Memoir of the life of Sir Marc Isambard Brunel entited 'The Brunels' in Quarterly Review, 1862 (112), 1-39.

.Three sources are examined: the classic work by Rolt (which follows), a major criticism of it by Vaughan (which although accurate and studious suffers from several defects, the most devious is to call his subject "Isambard") and Tim Bryan's work which is a highly useful entree to Brunel's life and works and includes an evaluatory bibliography with an assessment of both Rolt's and Vaughan's contributions together with further important studies. Bryan's work is far better illustrated than either Rolt or Vaughan. This page originated as a collection of material which had been intended to show the majesty of Rolt's literary skill rather than from the need to assess Brunel and his father. At the end of this page reviews of more recent studies are appended. Vaughan's more recent work is examined briefly at the end of this page.

Brunel, like Robert Stephenson (some glimpses of the relationship between George Stephenson and Brunel are given in Skeat's George Stephenson p. 185 et seq) had some influence on the development of the steam locomotive (mainly through the selection of the broad gauge), but like him was a civil engineer, and to a major extent a nautical engineer. Unlike Brunel's great friend, Robert Stephenson, Brunels's greatest masterpieces remain: the Royal Albert Bridge into Cornwall and the whole of the original Great Western Railway. The broad gauge was an absurdity, seen in retrospect, as was his attempt to construct an atmospheric railway. In this respect, he was like Bulleid, perhaps too clever to be a really sound engineer. Works with which he was associated included the Thames Tunnel (with his father); the Clifton suspension bridge; the Great Western Railway, notably the bridge across the Thames at Maidenhead (will the M4 crossing last as long?), Box Tunnel, Paddington Station, and the great ship, the Great Eastern.

Brunel's hidden kingdom. Geoffrey Tudor and Helen Hillard. Creative Media Publishing, 2007 describes Watcombe Estate at Torquay. Book reviewed by Peter Scowcroft in J. Rly Canal Hist, Soc., 2008, 36, 118.

Rolt's biography is one of the very few literary masterpieces to relate in any way to the history of railways.

Rolt  included notes on his sources, a bibliography and a fair index. The following extracts are intended to give some indication of  the stature of the book and of its subject:

In comparison Vaughan almost succeeds in making this climaxial operation to be little more than routine:

Isambard planned to direct the winch operators from a platform on top of the tube by means of red, white or blue flag signals given by a man standing on a platform just over Isambard's head. Each barge had a 'captain' and an 'assistant'. The assistant's task was never to take his eyes off the handsignalman and to pass on the flagged instructions to the captain who would supervise the winchmen. The truss was 'strung' like a puppet, capable of being manoeuvred in any direction. Isambard was puppet-master with 500 'stage hands', including Claxton in charge of the 'fleet' and Brereton as Resident Engineer. The audience numbered thousands.

The launch took place at 1 p.m. on 1 September 1857. When the tide raised the pontoons and lifted the truss clear of the ground, Isambard signalled the relevant winches to haul away and bring the truss out, parallel to the riverbank. The massive structure went gliding out to the centre of the river and was stopped. Ropes were cast off, others attached and the signal given to haul again. The truss swung round, the midstream end pivoting against the stone pier till the Cornish end was alongside its pier. Powerful winches then inched the ends over the stonework, the pontoons were submerged lowering the truss precisely into position, resting on hydraulic jacks.

The jacks, designed by Isambard, had a screw-thread cut in the ram with a locking nut to enable them to be secured at 'full lift' and thus insured against any failure of the hydraulic system. By these means the truss was raised 3 ft at a time and the masonry built up beneath, until the final position 100 ft above high water was reached in July 1858. Isambard, deeply involved at Millwall, supervised one 3-ft 'lift' and then left the works, including the floating and raising of the Devon span, entirely to Brereton.

To balance this comparison: Vaughan is good at capturing some of his subjects deficiences as is shown by [bold added KPJ]:

Isambard considered Gooch as no more than a Resident Engineer and awarded him a salary of £300 per annum against his own £2000. Gooch was at least Isambard's equal, not only intellectually but also in his energy and commitment to the job. He was far in advance of Isambard as a locomotive engineer. They complemented each other: the one a civil engineering genius, the other a brilliant locomotive engineer. Isambard was short of stature, passionate, wordy, some what theatrical, cultured, charming and artistic; Gooch was tall, gaunt, somewhat puritanical, of few words, without drawing-room charm, a practical man who, unlike Isambard, never stepped outside his subject. Furthermore, Gooch had no overwhelming desire for public acclaim - plain old-fashioned wealth would do for him.

Gooch's Diaries afford a modest amount of extra information.

One feature of Mr Brunel's character (and it was one that gave him a great deal of extra and unnecessary work) was, he fancied no one could anything but himself, and I [Daniel Gooch] remember his giving me a scolding for unloading these engines and getting them onto the line without consulting him as to the mode of doing it. I certainly felt no difficulty in the task There was a carriage sent by road from London which had to be got down the side of the cutting from the bridge, and he sent elaborate sketches and instructions how this was to be done. These took up a great deal of his time and of course were of no use in reality, as there was no kind of difficulty in the work, and circumstances were sure to alter his mode of doing it; but this was no doubt his mistake through life. As a rule he did not get experienced and qualified people about him, and with them it was perhaps necessary, but the work was in consequence often badly done and always expensively.

Tim Bryan
Both Rolt and Vaughan note further sources of information, but Bryan is far more thorough in his assessment. In consequence, the true researcher may wish to add:

Brunel, Isambard. The life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, civil engineer. 1870.
Ottley 5932 which notes that it contains many reports and letters.
Hay, P. Brunel: engineering giant. 1985.

Buchanan, R. Angus. Engineering dynasties in transport history. J. Rly Canal Hist. Soc., 2004, 34, 654.
Includes a very useful family tree. Buchanan also wrote the biography contained in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography..

The illustrations are especially good in Bryan's book. Chronology. Good bibliography. Poor review in Backtrack, 2001, 15, 114.

Dow, Andrew. An iconoclastic word in your ear, if I may. J. Rly Canal Hist. Soc., 2007, 35, 772-4.
Originally published in Review of the Friends of the National Railway Museum in 2006. Spurred by the title of a review under the heading: 'The man who built the world'. This related to a biography of Brunel: Dow then demolishes Brunel's claim to greatness except in nautical engineering. Amongst Brunel's failures were the broad gauge (which was mirrored overseas), locomotive engineering, and the atmospheric traction system. Moreover, the Great Western Railway did not have to traverse any major obstacles other than the Cotswolds.
Nock, O.S. Railway enthusuast's encyclopedia

Rapley, John. Brunel, genius or charlatan? The 'Atmospheric Caper' on the South Devon Railway. J. Rly Canal Hist. Soc., 2007, 35, 772-4.538-43.
The Atmospheric System had inherent limitations imposed by dependence on atmospheric pressure and were the maximum possible pressure on the piston was, in theory, about 14.7 psi, given the slight variations in barometric pressure. Calculations based on this figure give a tractive effort about double that which the pumping engines could economically achieve in practice and this proved to be about 8psi. By flogging the engines which, like BruneI's early locomotives were underboilered and hence by a greatly increased consumption of coal, the vacuum could at best be increased by about 25% if the engines and all other parts of the system were, for once, in good order. The maximum available tractive force was dictated by the cross sectional area of the vacuum pipe. In real life a 22½ inch diameter pipe was the largest that could be accommodated beneath the train using conventional rolling stock suitable for any part of the broad gauge system. Even this would have required major alterations to the track by placing the cross transoms below the longitudinal timbers which carried the rails. The first section of the line from Exeter to Newton had negligible gradients, and if the system could have been made to work it would have been under these favourable conditions. The most difficult section of the South Devon Railway lay in crossing the watershed west of Newton between the valleys of the Teign and the Dart, which could not be avoided other than by a vastly expensive and circuitous route through the South Hams.

Barnes, Martin. An inhaled gold coin. J. Rly Canal Hist. Soc.,2011, (212). 45
Medical sources for account of retrieval of gold half sovereign from I.K. Brunel's lung.

Gordon Biddle Victorian stations.
Biddle examines Brunel's contribution as an architect.

Sir Marc Isambard Brunel

Born in Hacqueville in Normandy on 25 April 1769 and died in London on 12 December 1849 (Marshall). He is important for introducing mass production for the manufacture of timber pulley blocks and a engineer of the Thames Tunnel which originally lacked a strong raison d'etre but has served as a railway tunnel (the East London Line) for a great length of time. He sired the equally great but wayward Ismabard Kingdom

More recent biographies of the Brunels

Brunel: in love with the impossible; edited by Andrew and Melanie Kelly. Bristol Cultural Development Parnership. 2006.
Martin Barnes (J. Rly Canal Hist. Soc. 2007, 35, 554) is enthusiastic (quite the most impressive and interesting book triggered by his bicentenary). Book includes 27 essays on highly specific topics, and nearly 500 illustrations, many in colour, and mostly of very high quality.

Brunel: an engineering biography. Adrian Vaughan. Ian Allan, 2006.
Martin Barnes (J. Rly Canal Hist. Soc. 2007, 35, 554): "very well written, researched and illustrated" and concluded by observing that this is a "commendable book".

The greater genius?. Harold Bagust. Ian Allan, 2006.
Marc Isambard Brunel. Paul Clements. Phillimore, 2006.
Anthony Burton (J. Rly Canal Hist. Soc. 2007, 35, 555) offers expert guidance on both books: Clements first appeared in 1970 and contains some absurd errors, such as the claim of visit by "Brahms" prior to his birth. The book by Bagust is far more reliable and shows that Marc Brunel had a great influence upon his son's success.

Henry Marc Brunel

Born in Westminster in 1842: died in Westminster on 7 October 1903. Second son of Isambard Kingdom. Contributor with brother, Isambard, to the Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel published in 1870. Educated at Harrow and King's College, London. Premium apprentice at Armstrong Works, then pupil of Hawkshaw where engaged in surveys for Channel Tunnel. Entered Wolfe-Barry partnership in 1878 where concerned with Barry Dock, Blackfriars Bridge, Tower Bridge and cantilever bridge at Connel Ferry. Marshall.

Emmerson on Rolt: Technology Culture, 1980, 21, 553-69.
L.T.C. Rolts biography of I.K. Bnmel, published in 1957, signaled [sic] a revival of interest in the great engineer, his contemporaries, and his times. It was exceptionally well received, has been a bestseller, and is pointed to as a model of its kind. While it is not as comprehensive as the official biography of Brunel by his son, published in 1870. it has a narrative vitality which appeals to modern readers. It is to be regretted that much of this readability is often achieved by the taking of liberties of interpretation and assumption which have more justification in a fiction writer than in a historian. Perhaps the end of popularizing the history of engineenng justifies the means; but when it leads to the character assassination of an honest man surely one has the right to protest. The man in this case is John Scott Russell—scientist, shipbuilder, naval architect, engineer, and man of affairs—who collaborated with Brunel in the design and construction of the Great Eastern. Rolt draws Russell as such a monster of deceit, treachery, and dishonesty that even if one should question half of it, Russell would remain in the mind as an unprincipled malevolent presence in Brunel's life. This characterization of Russell has of course, been uncritically accepted and even exaggerated by many of those who have since written about Brunel and his world. Thus, it does not surprise one, when the subject of John Scott Russell is raised, frequently to hear it said, "Oh Isn't he the man who made Brunel's life a hell and blew up the Great Eastern?" Rolt is the source of this. He does not accuse Russell of causing an explosion aboard the Greal Eastern, yet such is the power of his suggestion. Roll's denigration of Russell, whether it is right or wrong. has no parallel in the literature. The fact, which I now assert, that Rolt was wrong makes it all the more-regrettable,

The intemperate engineer: Isambard Kingdom Brunel in his own words. Adrian Vaughan. Ian Allan. 288pp. DTG **** Backtrack, 2011, 25, 765.
Just when you thought it was safe to venture into your local bookstore up pops another volume about the enigmatic and contradictory genius IKB. However, what we have here is not the record of great projects but Brunel's own words in a series of letters and interview transcripts from Parliamentary committees, largely relating to the GWR. So if we follow the author's claim we may feel that we are standing next to Brunel as he grapples with numerous complex issues and that we may find some new insights into his character, relationships and methods.
This is indeed a bold claim. What emerges is material that confirms the range, complexity and volume of work Brunel was involved with and how he responded to issues that involved technical and relational dimensions. We get, therefore, glimpses of Brunel's attitude to the people who worked for him, both directly as employees and indirectly as contractors (and even the navvies) as well as to systems of payment and the role of the goverrunent in framing employment law and the progress of the rail network. He was, from the text, clearly a man of strong will, often of fixed mind and difficult to fathom.
The open and plain sub-text to this book and its contents is to ask the question "was Brunel a great engineer?" The answer to that will depend on how the reader views Brunel's work and the methods he adopted to achieve his aims, set against some criteria of what makes a good, or great, engineer. If the question is about the criteria then the reader will have to ask whether or not he or she is using the lens of today or that of the mid-nineteenth century to judge this man and his work.
Adrian Vaughan's book makes no bones about asserting that we have to judge Brunel in the round, to consider his personality along with his triumphs and failures before coming to a view one way or another. It is a book to read in small chunks, with time for reflection, as you go along and to savour spur that may have been laid elsewhere in the division at this time.

Updated: 2011-11-26