From The Illustrated London News, April 3, 1858, Volume 32, January – June 1858

MR. BRUNEL is the son of the eminent man known to the world as the author of the most marvelous of engineering works – the Thames Tunnel. He was born at Portsmouth, in the year 1806, while his father was engaged in fulfilling a contract with the Government for the construction of a machine, or rather a series of machines, for the manufacture of block pulleys by steam. While quite young the lad, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was taken to France for the purpose of being educated at the Collage of Henry IV, at Caen. At the conclusion of his studies, he underwent a course of training for the duties of an engineer, and returned to England in time to assist in the greatest of his father’s works – the Thames Tunnel. The young man took an active part in the undertaking, and shared in the many disappointments, the personal danger, and the final triumph of that remarkable work. From this time forward young Brunel made progression in his profession. He joined his father in his well-known experiments for the purpose of making a motive power of carbonic gas. To a certain extent the mechanical difficulties were overcome, but the cost of the machinery and difficulties of its use prevented its introduction as a substitute for steam. This investigation was an anxious labor of ten years’ duration, both father and son devoting their abilities to the task. In the meantime the subject of our Sketch was studying railway engineering, the construction of locomotives, and other matters appertaining to steam navigation. In 1888 he was appointed engineer-in-chief of the Great Western Railway, and has remained so ever since. The whole of the tunnels, bridges, and other works on this line, and others in continuation of the western route, were constructed under the immediate superintendence of Mr. Brunel. . Both bridges and tunnels were more than ordinarily difficult, on account of the broad gauge system adopted by the directors. The gauge was recommend by Mr. Brunel, but was stoutly opposed by many eminent and scientific men. The Great Western directors, however, supported their own engineer. In his report of 1838 Mr. Brunel represented that the position of the Great Western line was such that it could have no connection with any other of the man lines of railway; that it had the exclusive command of its special district; that no inconvenience would result from the diversity of gauge. as that district entirely isolated from the others, and further, that no extension of the line towards the north would be required. It was even anticipated by Mr . Brunel that, if other railways were formed, their exclusion from a connection with the Great Western line by the difference of gauge would be of advantage to the company, by securing for it a monopoly of the traffic to and from South Wales and the west of England for all time to come. The Great Western Railway was thus constructed to be independent of all other railways, and to stand apart from them in solitary grandeur. The engineer received the warm encomiums of the directors and proprietors, who considered it a bold and original thing to plant a railway which was to be more than two feet broader than any other, requiring works and plant on corresponding scale, without regard to past example and experience. Provincial patriotism was also evoked in favour of the measure; and it was anticipated that Bristol would rival, if not far outstrip, Liverpool in its railway accommodation and facilities. In Mr. Smiles’ admirable work, “The Life of George Stephenson,” we find an excellent history of this “battle of the gauges,” more especially Mr. Stephenson’s opposition to the views of Mr. Brunel on the subject. He held that the gauge which had already been adopted on the northern lines was amply sufficient for the public accommodation; that it was wide enough to admit of the most effective management of the machinery of the locomotive; that it was much safer to work over when the curves of the railway were at all sharp; that it was far more economical, taking into consideration the paying weight carried in proportion to the dead weight in the shape of rolling stock; that it would cost considerably less to maintain, in consequence of of the less weight to bear and smaller tear and wear of materials – not to mention the much smaller capital that was required to form a line upon the narrow gauge than upon the broad, the latter requiring more land, wider bridges and tunnels, broader embankments and viaducts, heavier rails, chairs, and sleepers, and more expensive engines and carriages. But his principal objection was, that, by forming the Great Western line on an exceptional gauge, the proprietors of the undertaking were virtually closing it against the public traffic from other parts of the kingdom, and rendering it a mere provincial railway or byway instead of a part of a great national system. He would not believe with Mr. Brunel that railways were to be confined to particular districts, but he held that, before long, they must become the universal highroad an well as byroads for both  goods and passengers;  and that any break in the continuity of the system by a difference of gauge would seriously detract from those great public advantages which their general adoption might reasonably be expected to confer. Mr. Stephenson said most emphatically, “It won’t do; it won’t pay: ” and circumstances have proved that he was far from being in the wrong.

However opinions may differ on the value of Mr. Brunel’s scheme with respect to the width of the gauge, they all agree in commending the general engineering works on the Great Western line. Some of the bridges are remarkable for their strength and beauty; among others may be mentioned those at Maidenhead and Chepstow, and especially the splendid construction just thrown across the Tamar.

Mr. Brunel took part in the floating end raising of the Britannia Tubular Bridge, and rendered the same friendly co-operation to Mr. Robert Stephenson in that gigantic undertaking as the latter gentleman did to Mr. Brunel in preparing the works to launch the Leviathan. Mr. Brunel has been engaged on many other works of importance. He has been employed to construct some of the most important docks on the English coast, and has conducted the engineering works of several foreign railways. The Charing-cross Suspension Bridge is a recent work of Mr. Brunel. It crosses the widest part of the Thames above London-bridge, and has the largest span in England. For lightness and elegance it is most deservedly admired.

Mr. Brunel has been F.R.S. since 1830, and member of the Council since 1844. He in Chevalier of the Legion of Honour; Vice-President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and of the Society of Arts; and is also a Fellow of the Astronomical, Geological, Geographical, and other learned Societies.

Our Portrait engraved from an admirable photograph taken by Mr. Mayall, and included in that gentleman’s interesting exhibition at the corner of Argyll-place, Regent-street.

engraving of Isambard Kingdom Brunel