Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Vol. 19, 1860
MR. ISAMBARD KINGDOM BRUNEL was the only Son of the late Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, whose mechanical genius and originality of conception he largely inherited. Young Brunel was born at Portsmouth, in the year 1806, at the period when his Father was engaged on the block machinery for the Royal Dockyard. He received his general education at the College Henri Quatre, at Caen, where, at that time, the mathematical masters were particularly celebrated, and to his acquirements in that science may be attributed the early successes he achieved, as well as the confidence in his own resources which he displayed throughout his professional career. On his return to England, he was, for a time, practically engaged in mechanical engineering, at the works of the late Mr. Bryan Donkin, and at the age of about twenty, he joined his Father int he construction of the Thames Tunnel, where he attained considerable experience in brickwork and the use of cements, and more especially, in meeting and providing for the numerous casualties to which that work was exposed. The practical lessons there learned were in valuable to him; and to his personal gallantry and presence of mind, on more than one occasion, when the river made irruptions into the Tunnel, the salvation of the work was due. One of his first great independent designs was that selected for the proposed suspension-bridge across the River Avon, from Durdham Down, Clifton, to the Leigh Woods, which he owed to the fact, that upon the reference of the competing designs to two distinguished mathematicians for the verification of the calculations, his alone was pronounced to be mathematically exact. Want of funds prevented, at that period, the carrying out of the design, which there are now some hopes of seeing executed, by transplanting to that site the present Hungerford Suspension-bridge, which is itself the work of Mr. Brunel.
His introduction to Bristol led to his appointment as Engineer to the docks of that city, which he materially improved. He had been previously engaged in the construction of the old north dock at Sunderland, and subsequently, he was consulted about the design for the Bute Docks at Cardiff.
In 1833-34, he was appointed Engineer to the Great Western Railway, and whilst engaged upon it, he matured his views of the broad gauge, relative to which he sustained one of the hardest-fought engineering contests on record. This work placed his reputation high among Engineers, and henceforth, his mental and physical powers were taxed almost beyond those of any other member of the profession. His attention to all the details of even the smallest works was unremitting; and the Hanwell and Chippenham Viaducts, the Maidenhead and other masonry Bridges, the Box Tunnel, and the iron structures of the Chepstow and Tamar Bridges on the extension of the railway to the west, attest the boldness and originality of his conceptions, his taste in designing, and his skill in the use of various constructive materials. The partial failure at the opening of the line appeared only to incite his inventive faculties, and to afford a field for the exhibition of his great powers. All the physical impediments were met and conquered, and his perseverance was ultimately crowned with success, in attaining a speed of travelling, combined with comfort and security, hitherto unrivalled. In the attempted adaptation of the atmospheric system of propulsion to the South Devon Railway, he was, however, signally unfortunate, in spite of all the ingenuity displayed; but this failure served to bring into view a most pleasing feature of his character, for while he duly paid up all the calls upon the stake he had in the undertaking, he, at the same time, refused to accept the professional emoluments to which he was entitled.
His services were in constant demand in railway contests before Committees of the Houses of Parliament, and he was employed to construct the Tuscan portion of the Sardinian Railways, as well as to advise upon the Victorian lines in Australia, and the Eastern Bengal Railway.
Intimately, however, as the name of Isambard Brunel will ever be connected with the railway epoch in Great Britain, it is, probably, as the originator of the system of extension of the dimensions of steam vessels, that he will be best known to posterity. The Great Western steam ship was his first innovation. In that vessel, which was much larger than any previously constructed, he had the able assistance of Mr. Paterson, of Bristol, as the ship-wright and of Mr. Joshua Field, (Past-President Inst. C.E.) as the constructor of the engines, and in spite of adverse anticipations, even among practical men, the most triumphant success crowned his efforts, and demonstrated the correctness of his views.
His attention was, at that time, directed to propulsion by the screw, a subject on which Mr. F. P. Smith, (Assoc. Inst. C.E.,) had been long and patiently labouring, and the experiments made by Mr. Brunel, in his voyages on board the Archimedes, convinced him of the practicability of the adaptation of the system to large steam vessels. He then designed the Great Britain, an iron ship, of dimensions far exceeding those of any vessel of its period; and if the first essays were not entirely successful, it must be attributed to the fact of the machinery not having been designed by those whose peculiar study it had been, to produce engines of the class required for such vessels. The disaster in Dundrum Bay demonstrated the scientific design and the practical strength of the hull of the ship, and the successful voyages since made, have proved the correctness of his original views. He was appointed the Consulting Engineer of the Australian Steam Navigation Company, whom he advised to construct vessels of 5,000 tons burthen, to run the entire voyage to Australia, without stopping to coal. His counsels, however, were not followed.
The Great Eastern was his crowning effort, and to the design and execution of this gigantic vessel, far surpassing in dimensions any ship hitherto constructed, he devoted all his energies. The labour was, however, too great for his physical powers, and he broke down under the wearying task; leaving to Mr. John Scott Russell, (M. Inst. C.E.,) and Messrs. Boulton and Watt, his co-operators in the construction of the hull and the engines, the actual completion of the work he had so well and so perseveringly brought up to the day of starting on the trial trip. The disasters attending the launch and the trial trip were unfortunate, but they were, perhaps, inseparable from so novel an experiment, on so gigantic a scale, and the ultimate results may be looked forward to with great interest, as whatever they maybe, the impulse given by Mr. Brunel to the construction of large-sized vessels is already felt, and must have great influence both on the mercantile marine and on the Royal Navy.
This sketch of the professional labours of Mr. Brunel is, of necessity, brief and incomplete, nor can the details be given of the numerous scientific investigations in which he was engaged ; but the devotion during two years of considerable portions of his time, to completing the experiments, made by his Father, to test the application of carbonic acid gas, as a motive power for engines, must be mentioned. His special objects of study were mechanical problems connected with railway traction and steam navigation ; and although he was not, perhaps, so sound, or so practical a mechanic as his friend, and at the same time, constant opponent, Robert Stephenson, yet his intuitive skill and ready ingenuity enabled him to arrive at satisfactory solutions. The characteristic feature of his works was their size, and his besetting fault was a seeking for novelty, where the adoption of a well-known model would have sufficed. This defect has been unfairly magnified, whenever the pecuniary results of an undertaking have not reached the preconceived standard and due allowance has not; been made for the difficulties encountered in the prosecution of a new and bold enterprise. It might, perhaps, have been as well, if a uniform gauge had been originally established for the United Kingdom, – and such will, doubtless, be the ultimate result,- but not the less must be admired the indomitable energy and consummate skill, with which Mr. Brunel and his coadjutor Mr. C. Saunders, pushed the broad gauge and its tributaries westward to Bristol, Gloucester, and through Wales, to Milford Haven, then south-west to Exeter and Plymouth, and onwards to the Land’s End ; and after invading the north-west manufacturing district of Birmingham, finally arriving at the shore of the Mersey, opposite to Liverpool. This alone would have sufficed for the lifetime of many men, and in truth, the stupendous labours undertaken by Brunel could not be performed, without overtasking the mental and physical faculties, so that eventually, they must break down.
Mr. Brunel was fervently attached to scientific inquiries; he was a good mathematician and possessed great readiness in the practical application of formula. He was elected at an unusually earl age, a Fellow of the Royal Society; he received the degree of D.C.L. from the University of Oxford; and he belonged to most of the principal scientific societies of the Metropolis, to several foreign societies, and was a Knight of the Legion of Honour. He was an old Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, which he joined as an Associate, in January, 1829; he became a Member in 1837, was elected upon the Council in 1845, and was a Vice-President from 1850 up to the time of his death. A liberal patron, as well as a discriminating judge of art, he was himself devoted to artistic pursuits, and his early drawings as well as his professional sketches attest his feeling for purity of design.
Of his private character those only who were admitted to his intimacy, could alone judge correctly. Brunel was not a demonstrative man, but there was a fund of kindness and goodness within, which only required to be aroused to stand forth in high relief. It has been well said of him by an old friend: – “In youth a more joyous, kind-hearted companion never existed. As a man, always over- worked, he was ever ready by advice, and not unfrequently, to a large extent, by his purse, to aide either professional, or private friends. His habitual caution and reserve made many think him cold and worldly, but by those who saw his exterior only, could such an opinion be entertained. His carelessness of contemporary public opinion, and his self-reliance on his own character and that of his works, were carried to a fault. He was never known to court applause. Bold and vigorous professionally, he was as modest and retiring in private life.”
Mr. Brunel was present at the trial of the engines, the day before the Great Eastern left the Thames. His health had been failing for some time previously, but on that occasion, he was seized with paralysis. He was immediately conveyed to his home, and after ten days, he expired on the 15th of SeptemberJ859. He was cut off in his fifty-fourth year, just when he had acquired the judgment which, in such a profession as that of the Civil Engineer, can only be attained by long practice and experience, and when the greatest work of his life had reached the very eve of completion. His remains were interred on the 20th of September, in Kensal Green Cemetery, in the presence of his relatives and friends, and of a large number of members of the profession. At a meeting, in November, under the presidency of the Earl of Shelbourne, it was decided, that a public monument should be erected to commemorate his great abilities, and to demonstrate the high esteem in which he was held by his private friends, and his professional brethren.