The Engines of Our Ingenuity is a radio program that tells the story of how our culture is formed by human creativity. Written and hosted by John Lienhard and other contributors, it is heard nationally on Public Radio and produced by Houston Public Media.
Today, two larger-than-life engineers. The University of Houston’s College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
British art historian Kenneth Clark coined the term Heroic Materialism to describe the engineering of the middle 19th century. Those Victorian engineers were melodramatic artists in iron. And Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the grandest artist of them all.
His father, Marc Isambard Brunel, was born in France in 1769. He was an engineer and a royalist who fled the French Revolution. He came to America and worked here for seven years. He even became an American citizen. But he finally moved to England to marry a woman he’d met in France and known for years. His work in England defined the engineering of the post-Industrial-Revolution world. He designed an early suspension bridge, the first floating ship-landing platform, and (boldest of all) a tunnel, the first of its kind, under the Thames river. That one meant inventing a whole array of new supporting technologies.
The person he put in charge of the tunnel was his flamboyant 20-year-old son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. They began the tunnel in 1825 and completed it in 1843. A collapse killed many workers, seriously injured the younger Brunel, and halted work for seven years. Yet the completed tunnel still serves London today.
Marc Brunel was solidly creative. But Isambard Brunel brought theater and flair to what his father had begun. He took engineering to the mountaintop and became a 19th-century prototype. He built the famous two-mile-long Box Tunnel, major suspension and arch bridges, a thousand miles of railway. With each project he expanded engineering technique beyond anything known or imagined.
His crowning achievements were his steamships. In 1837 he built the paddle-driven Great Western, one of the first transatlantic steamboats in regular service. He followed it with an early screw-propeller-driven steamship, the Great Britain.
Then he bit off a mouthful not even he could chew. In 1853 he began work on the Great Eastern, the grandest ship the world had ever seen. Designed to take 4000 passengers to Australia and back without refueling, it was 700 feet long and weighed 20,000 tons.
The Great Eastern was launched in 1858, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel died of stress and over-work the next year. The ship was all it was meant to be, with one catch: it was only a quarter as fuel-efficient as Brunel had expected. That killed it as a passenger liner. But it did find its place in history when it proved to be the only ship with the carrying capacity needed to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable.
The younger Brunel really trod the world in seven-league boots of his own making. He made engineering larger than life. He set the mood of the technology of his century. Never before or since have we reached such glorious confidence in our ability to build all the way out to the far fringes of human imagination.
I’m John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.
Rolt, L.T.C., Isambard Kingdom Brunel: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1959.
Clark, K., Heroic Materialism. Civilisation. New York: Harper & Row, 1969, Chapter 13.
This is a greatly revised version of Episode 17.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2020 by John H. Lienhard, and is used with permission.