English Engineer

Born: April 9, 1806, Portsmouth, England

Died: September 15, 1859, Westminster, London, England

Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers (1829)

Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS)

1806 Born in Portsmouth, the son of Sir Marc Isambard Brunel and Sophia, nee Kingdom, on 9 April. His father, an engineer, was working there on block-making machinery for the Portsmouth Block Mills.

1820 At 14 he was sent to France to be educated at the Lycée Henri-Quatre in Paris and the University of Caen in Normandy.

1826 Brunel rose to prominence when, aged 20, he was appointed chief assistant engineer of his father’s greatest achievement, the Thames Tunnel, which runs beneath the river between Rotherhithe and Wapping. The first major sub-river tunnel, it succeeded where other attempts had failed, thanks to Marc Brunel’s ingenious tunnelling shield — the human-powered forerunner of today’s mighty tunnelling machines — which protected workers from cave-in by placing them within a protective casing.

In 1833, before the Thames Tunnel was complete, Brunel was appointed chief engineer of the Great Western Railway, one of the wonders of Victorian Britain, running from London to Bristol and later Exeter.

Brunel established his design offices at 17–18 Duke Street, London, and he lived with his family in the rooms above. Robert Pearson Brereton, who became his chief assistant in 1845, was in charge of the office in Brunel’s absence, and also took direct responsibility for major projects such as the Royal Albert Bridge as Brunel’s health declined.

On 5 July 1836, at Kensington church, he married Mary Elizabeth (1813–1881), the eldest daughter of William Horsley (1774–1858), organist and composer

Even before the Great Western Railway was opened, Brunel was moving on to his next project: transatlantic shipping. He used his prestige to convince his railway company employers to build the, at the time, by far the largest steamship in the world – The SS Great Western. She was launched on 19 July 1837 and then sailed to London where she was fitted with two side-lever steam engines from the firm of Maudslay, Sons and Field.

1843 His next ship design was even larger; the SS Great Britain was the first ocean-going ship to have an iron hull and a screw propeller and, when launched in 1843, was the largest vessel afloat.

1843 while performing a conjuring trick for the amusement of his children, Brunel accidentally inhaled a half-sovereign coin, which became lodged in his windpipe. A special pair of forceps failed to remove it, as did a machine devised by Brunel himself to shake it loose.

Eventually, at the suggestion of Marc Brunel, he was strapped to a board and turned upside-down, and the coin was jerked free. He convalesced by visiting Teignmouth and enjoyed the area so much that he purchased an estate at Watcombe in Torquay, Devon. Here he designed Brunel Manor and its gardens to be his retirement home. Unfortunately he never saw the house or gardens finished, as he died before it was completed.

1852 Building on his success with the Great Britain, Brunel turned to a third ship in 1852, even larger than her predecessors, intended for voyages to India and Australia. The SS Great Eastern (originally dubbed Leviathan) represented cutting-edge technology for her time: almost 700 ft long, fitted out with the most luxurious appointments and capable of carrying over 4,000 passengers.

1855 When he was already working on building the SS Great Eastern amongst other projects, Brunel accepted the task in February 1855 of designing and building a temporary, pre-fabricated hospital to the requirements of the War Office, that could be shipped to the Crimea and erected. In 5 months he had designed, built and shipped the pre-fabricated wood and canvas buildings that were erected, near Scutari Hospital where Nightingale was based, in the malaria-free area of Renkioi.

His designs incorporated the necessity of hygiene, providing access to sanitation, ventilation, drainage and even rudimentary temperature controls. They were feted as a great success, some sources stating that of the 1,300 (approximate) patients treated in the Renkioi temporary hospital, there were only 50 deaths. In the Scutari hospital it replaced, deaths were said to be as many as 10 times this number. Nightingale herself referred to them as “those magnificent huts.” Brunel not only designed the buildings but gave advice as to the location of placing.

The art of using pre-fabricated modules to build hospitals has been carried forward into the present day, with hospitals such as the Bristol Royal Infirmary being created in this manner.

1859 Brunel suffered a stroke, just before the SS Great Eastern made her first voyage to New York. He died ten days later at the age of 53 and was buried, like his father, in Kensal Green Cemetery in London.

He left behind his wife Mary and three children: Henry Marc Brunel (1842–1903); Isambard Brunel, Junior (1837–1902) who went in to Law; and Florence Mary Brunel (c1847–1876) who married Eton schoolmaster Arthur James and they had a daughter Celia. In 1891 Celia Brunel James married Sir Saxton Noble, second son of Sir Andrew Noble and the only Brunel descendents are from this relationship.

Many of Brunel’s original papers and designs were gathered in the Brunel Collection at the University of Bristol. The collection has now been moved to the new Brunel Institute, a joint project of the University and the SS Great Britain Trust.




Associated With

William Bell

Marc Isambard Brunel

Sophia Brunel (née Kingdom)

William Froude

William Glennie

William Hawes


Known For

Box Tunnel

Clifton Suspension Bridge

SS Great Eastern

Hungerford Bridge

Maidenhead Railway Bridge

South Devon Railway

Thames Tunnel

Wharncliffe Viaduct


Mentioned In

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