Tag Archives: engineering

50 objects 36: Channel Tunnel rock

The Channel Tunnel collection held at Brunel consists mainly of books and of papers such as correspondence, maps, plans, meeting minutes, and photographs. There are also eclectic artefacts such as this piece of rock, in a Eurotunnel branded protective case.

ctun1The packaging reports: “This piece of Chalk Marl has been excavated from the Channel Tunnel by the service tunnel boring machine near the breakthrough point. The Chalk Marl is the lower part of the lower chalk stratum, which stretches from near Folkestone to the coast at Calais and in which the majority of the Channel Tunnel is being excavated. Its grey colour shows that it is a mixture of clay and chalk. The Channel Tunnel is being constructed in this layer because it is more waterproof and consistent with the chalk layers above it.” The information is repeated in French, and so the packets of rock could be used as souvenirs at both ends of the tunnel.

The Chalk Marl is around 100 million years old, and will have had its origin at a time when dinosaurs were still roaming the lands that would become Europe. For more about the geology of the tunnel, see this page. The machines used to create the tunnel had to be made specially, and were each designed to work with the geology of a particular section of tunnel. For more information see The Robbins Company’s page.

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Channel Tunnel Association plaque, from the same collection

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

50 objects 14: Ships

Amongst Brunel’s Special Collections are artefacts relating to Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s ship-building career.

SS Great Britain, launched in 1843, was Brunel’s second ship, innovative in a number of ways. She was the first ship to be propelled by a screw, and the first ocean-going iron ship.

Fragment of wood thought to be from SS Great Britain

Fragment of wood thought to be from SS Great Britain

She served as a passenger ship to Australia and later as a freight vessel; her working life ended in 1933, and in 1970 she was salvaged and brought home from the Falkland Islands to Bristol, where she had been built. After expert conservation, SS Great Britain is now open to visitors.

Within Special Collections is a piece of rust-stained wood thought to be a fragment of the original timber, taken from SS Great Britain at Bristol.
SS Great Eastern, begun in 1854 as a passenger liner, was the biggest ship there had ever been, and her building and launch presented a number of engineering problems for Brunel and his colleagues to solve. After suffering a number of mishaps and contributing to the bankruptcies of more than one company, Great Eastern was converted into a cable-laying ship.

Cable alleged to be from that laid by SS Great Eastern

Cable alleged to be from that laid by SS Great Eastern

A previous attempt had been made to join England and North America by cable, but the cable had failed after connection. Great Eastern, the only vessel available that had the capacity to carry the whole of the transatlantic cable, laid the successful cable in 1866. This enabled almost instant communication between Europe and the USA, with far-reaching economic and political effects.

Amongst the artefacts held at Brunel is a short section of cable thought to be from the remnants of this cable, the first of several laid by SS Great Eastern.

References and further reading:

(all websites accessed 6 April 2016)

Emmerson, George S., The Greatest Iron Ship: SS Great Eastern (London: David & Charles, 1981)

http://www.ikbrunel.org.uk

http://www.ibiblio.org/maritime/photolibrary/index.php?cat=1638

http://www.ssgreatbritain.org/

http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/theme,1440,The_first_transatlantic_cable

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/seven_wonders_gallery.shtml

The Engineer’s Corset

A blog post by Janet Goddard, writer and director of The Engineer’s Corset.

 

“I wanted the genuine voices of working people of the 1840’s to play a substantial part in The Engineer’s Corset. While I love reading histories and biographies of the Brunels and spending many a happy hour trawling through old newspapers in library archives one of the most inspirational sources in terms of listening to the voices of ordinary working people and their experiences is John Burnett’s Useful Toil.

John Burnett worked at Brunel University in the 1980’s when my father, Prof Crook, was Vice Principal and he alerted me to his work for another of my writing projects. A friend then gave me Useful Toil, she having found a copy at a car boot sale. It is one of my favourite books for dipping into whatever the reason so The Engineer’s Corset has given me the opportunity to turn my leisure pursuit into my work.

Having read the book cover to cover I came to Brunel Special Collections to look in the archive of working people’s diaries and journals kept there and while I didn’t spend as long or read as many as I would have liked – there’s always a next time – the information I gleaned has gone into the play – both in the voices of the working men and in the references the maids make to a range of fabrics and textiles and the means to keep them clean and well presented.

Horror stories of household fires and swirling skirts are also a shocking reminder of the risks women took when they dressed in highly flammable, voluminous clothing and sat of an evening in front of the fire sipping gin! Keeping up appearances is also well recorded in the working people’s voices – and it’s these forgotten voices that, along with Mary Brunel, who is always centre stage, that permeate The Engineer’s Corset and the message of the play – that history is rarely recorded as it was – and fictional interpretations can be as illuminating as factual ones. A proviso in this is to start with factual information and the Special Collection, John Burnett’s archive and Useful Toil, all entirely factual, have been the best starting off point for my fictional telling of the incident involving IK Brunel and his swallowing of a gold half sovereign in The Engineer’s Corset.”

Going underground

Looking at the various resources we have about London Underground is a good way of demonstrating the different ways Special Collections can be approached.

DSC00417 - CopyMaybe you’re interested in secondary sources on the history of transport in London, or the Underground, or one particular part of it? For that The East London Line and the Thames Tunnel: a brief history could be the pamphlet for you. Don’t forget that we have related primary sources, such as a diorama of the Thames Tunnel (currently on display in the Eastern Gateway Building) and some personal letters from Gilbert Blount, who worked on the building of the Tunnel. Many of the maps of the London area in Special Collections feature the lines of the Underground too.

 

 

Or perhaps you’re looking for more information about construction and engineering techniques? DSC00418 - CopyCassell’s Railways of the World (1924) includes details on the invention of the Greathead Shield, which made construction of the deep level tunnels possible. It is still known as the Tube because of the circular nature of those tunnels. Our home railways has a feature on the history and use of electricity on the Metropolitan line (the oldest tube line and the first underground railway in the world). How the Underground works is a small book containing a lot of information about the basics of operation, including construction, track, signalling, power supply, staff and stations. As part of the Channel Tunnel Association Archive, we also have advertising from tunnelling and construction companies.

DSC00415 - CopyDSC00414 - Copy

 

 

 

 

 

 

If politics is more your thing, then the pamphlet Funding London Underground: financial myths and economic realities (2000) published by a campaign on behalf of the London Underground Unions, is worth looking at. Or primary sources, such as a Bill for purchase of land in Camden and Islington around King’s Cross station.

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These aren’t the only approaches you could explore. We haven’t discussed creative writing  here, as we already have several blog posts about creative writing using Special Collections.

More information about using Special Collections for your dissertation research is also available.

Tunnel turns twenty

A blog post by Joanne Mcphie, Graduate Trainee, Library.

It could come as a surprise to know that our modern miracle of engineering, the Channel Tunnel, actually started out as a twinkle in an engineer’s eye over two hundred and twelve years ago. The speedy journey from London to Paris that we enjoy today might cause you to forget the painstakingly slow build up to the official beginning of transit on the 6th May 1994. This process can be seen in the huge collection of documents in our Channel Tunnel Association Archive, which contains everything from the details of engineer’s reports to the splendour of the Opening Day memorabilia and the overview of monographs on the history.

© Copyright Groupe Eurotunnel

© Copyright Groupe Eurotunnel

The history of the Tunnel is one of frustrated schemes and historical disruptions. Frenchman Albert Mathieu first suggested a passageway between France and England in 1802. While he had the vision, he hadn’t really considered the practicalities of such a plan and thought a tunnel could be dug through the soft chalk under the sea bed with horse-drawn stagecoaches passing through. Subsequently, though Napoleon Bonaparte was receptive to the idea initially, war between the two nations disrupted any permanent connections.

Progress continued in this stop and start vein for almost the next two hundred years. A second plan was envisioned in 1830 by another Frenchman,Thome de Gamond, who spent the next thirty years sketching maps for it, but it wasn’t until 1868 that a proper committee between the two nations was formed.

Thome de Garond's 1856 plan to cross the Channel

Following quickly (by Tunnel standards) in 1872 The Channel Tunnel Company was registered, but it was to remain largely ineffectual as it had no funding to complete research. Ground was broken in 1878-9 on both sides of the Channel, but the attempt was abandoned due to fears of French soldiers marching through the tunnel to conquer England. Although there were a few more efforts at generating interest, serious plans were not resuscitated until after the First World War. Strangely, while fears of invasion had quashed earlier endeavours, it was a belief that the Tunnel would have shortened WW1 and given the Allies an advantage that gave rise to another Parliament vote in 1930. The thought was that it would have been an excellent supply corridor, impervious to naval barrage. 1921 Booklet recommending the Tunnel

However, it was not until 1953 that military protestations were relaxed enough to seriously consider the scheme. In 1964 both the French and British government agreed that the Tunnel would be a good idea and to look into the costing and technical issues. Work began in 1970 to a mixed report in the press, but it became apparent that the cost of the Tunnel would be too high and it stopped in 1975. In 1984 the decision was taken that private investors had to be found. This opened the way for commercial companies like Eurotunnel to bid and the Tunnel became the profitable venture we know today, finally opening officially in May 1994.

The Channel Tunnel Association collection offers a comprehensive look at the history of the Tunnel, with particular information on the 1930 Parliament vote and including the papers of the Channel Tunnel Company and the Channel Tunnel Association. It includes correspondence, press cuttings articles, statistics and plans, as well as photographs and objects. 3D Tunnel PerspectiveFor more detail visit our webpage and learn more about the roots of one of Britain’s great engineering feats.

 

Next week…

we’ll be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the official opening of the Channel Tunnel by the Queen and President Mitterand on 6th May.

Look out for our display on the ground floor of the library, featuring images of items from the official opening.

 Further details about our Channel Tunnel Association Archive are available on our webpage, and there is a description of the collection on Archives Hub. Look out for further updates on our blog next week!