50 objects 21: a biography of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

A post by Becky Tabrar, Graduate Trainee.

As most students and members of staff are aware, Brunel University London is named after Isambard Kingdom Brunel, arguably the most famous mechanical and civil Engineer. Every graduation season countless students pose with the now infamous Brunel statue. However, how many of us know his full life story or can list all of his achievements? I for one certainly could not, and so went looking for information in the numerous biographies held on Brunel in our collections.


A selection of material on Isambard Kingdom Brunel from the Library



I.K. Brunel was born on 6th April 1806 in Portsmouth. His father was a French engineer, Marc Isambard Brunel, who invented a cast iron ‘shield’ for tunnelling purposes and used it to build the Thames Tunnel. Isambard worked as a chief assistant engineer on his father’s project, and so the Tunnel can be seen as one of his earliest achievements.

Intriguingly, the Brunel family looked upon Isambard as a ‘glorious failure’ in comparison to his father. However, with time this viewpoint changed, and Isambard was placed second, only after Sir Winston Churchill, in a 2002 BBC television programme which aimed to determine the ‘greatest ever Briton’. A look back on Isambard’s various achievements justifies this legacy.

In 1831, Brunel won a competition to design the Clifton Suspension Bridge. It was across one of Britain’s deepest gorges, the Avon Gorge, and upon completion was the longest bridge in the world. Two years later, Brunel became the chief engineer of the Great Western Railway, and developed the broad gauge railway, which was used to link London to Bristol.

From 1835, he worked for the Great Western Steamship Company, and calculated that a ship twice the size of 100ft would need less coal to fuel it. His calculations led to the Great Western, which set sail for New York in 1838 as the longest ship in the world, and the new favoured ship for passengers travelling to New York. Brunel later designed the Great Britain and Great Eastern, and his techniques are the basis for shipbuilding today.


S.S. Great Eastern, from a photograph held in Special Collections.


Isambard was a great problem solver, and so many of his solutions still inform our lives today, from the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which continues to link Bristol and Somerset, to the Great Western Mainline, which transports passengers everyday between London and the South West. Commemorations to Brunel exist in a variety of forms, including a Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe, his portrayal by Kenneth Branagh in the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, multiple film and TV portrayals, and of course Brunel University!

On that note, have you ever wondered why our university is named after Isambard Kingdom Brunel? Well, you need look no further than Dr James Topping’s book on The Beginnings of Brunel University, held in Special Collections. Dr Topping, the Vice-Chancellor of the University from 1966 until 1994, describes pleading with Middlesex County Council to name the new technical college after a famous engineer or scientist, instead of Middlesex College of Technology, which they had planned. Topping prevailed, and it was decided Brunel was a natural fit. His inventions brought the Great Western Railway to Acton in the 1830s, Brunel University’s original home, and his Wharncliffe Viaduct is located nearby.


The Library also has a collection of information on Brunel’s work, life, and character, which was set up as an education pack for schools; it includes postcards of his trains and ships, diagrams of some of his engineering work, and a page of illuminating anecdotes about the person behind the fame.

For primary sources concerning Isambard Kingdom Brunel, you should see the collections held at Bristol University Library.


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