Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, FRS, FRSE (1769-1849) was a French-born engineer who settled in the United Kingdom. He preferred the name Isambard, but is generally known to history as Marc to avoid confusion with his more famous son Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

1769 April 25th. Born the younger son of a farmer in Normandy, initially he was set to train for the priesthood, but had a more practical mind, and became a naval officer cadet instead.

In 1793, after the French Revolution, he fled to the United States. Brunel arrived in New York on 6 September 1793, and he subsequently travelled to Philadelphia and Albany. He got involved in a scheme to link the Hudson River by canal with Lake Champlain, and also submitted a design for the new Capitol building to be built in Washington. The judges were very impressed with the design, but it was not selected. In 1796, after taking American citizenship, Brunel was appointed Chief Engineer of the city of New York. He designed various houses, docks, commercial buildings, an arsenal, and a cannon factory. No official records exist of the projects that he carried out in New York, as it seems likely that the documents were destroyed in the New York Draft Riots of 1863.

In 1799 he moved to Britain, which presented greater opportunities for the development of mass-production machinery, and which was the home of his future wife Sophia Kingdom, whom he had met in France.

1799 Married Sophia Kingdom in Holborn.

Brunel’s initial success was with a method for production of rigging blocks (pulleys) for the navy at the Portsmouth Block Mills – the first genuine industrial production line: (his collaborators included Samuel Bentham and Henry Maudslay).

He was a notable mechanical engineer, and did much to develop saw milling machinery, undertaking contracts for the British Government at Chatham and Woolwich dockyards, building on his experience at the Portsmouth Block Mills.

1806 Birth of son Isambard

1806 He built himself a sawmill in partnership with a Mr. Farthing at Battersea, London (burnt down in 1814), and designed sawmills for entrepreneurs. He developed machinery for mass producing soldiers’ boots, but before this could reach full production demand ceased due to the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Brunel subsequently was bankrupted and served time in the King’s Bench Prison in Southwark.

1807 Moved house to 4 Lindsey Road Chelsea

1812 Brunel entered a partnership with James Farthing and William Farthing and they became contractors to the army to supply boots.

1812-13 Installed a frame-saw mill in the carriage factory at Woolwich Arsenal

1821 Re-established the sawmill with two brothers named Hollingsworth and a cousin of Sophia’s called Mudge. In c1828 these sawmills were acquired by John and James Watson and Co

Designed two suspension bridges for l’île de Bourbon (now called La Réunion) on behalf of the French Government. They were constructed and assembled near Sheffield by the Milton Iron Works, who ‘proved unsatisfactory contractors’. The bridges were examined in England by M. Navier. They were shipped from Gravesend on 29 November 1823. The larger bridge had a single central tower, and had both suspension chains and under-chains, and from the central tower projected two spans of 131.7 ft. The smaller bridge had two towers and a single span of 131.7 ft. The towers comprised triangular cast iron frames on masonry bases.

His most notable achievement was the Thames Tunnel, which was built for horse-drawn traffic but due to bankruptcy was first used by pedestrians, and now carries the East London Line of the London Underground. In the construction of the tunnel he pioneered the use of the tunnelling shield, a moving framework which protected workers from tunnel collapses when working in water-bearing ground. The shield was designed by his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and built by Maudslay who also supplied the steam pumps. The tunnel was authorised by Parliament in 1824, and started in 1825, but due to technical and financial difficulties was not opened until 1843.

1823 – became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

He was knighted for his contribution to engineering in 1841 and had been made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1814.

1849 December 12th. Died.

Like his son, he is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, London.



Associated With

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Sophia Brunel (née Kingdom)

Known For

Thames Tunnel


Mentioned In

Author of

An Account of the Thames Tunnel

Observations on the effect of wind on the suspension bridge over the Menai Strait, more especially with reference to the injuries which its roadways sustained during the storm of January 1839

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