BIRTH AND YOUTH, 1769–1786

Sent to Gisors – Story of Dog – Punishment – Story of Portrait- Sent to St. Nicaise, Rouen — Dannecker – Talent for Drawing and Construction – Early Admiration of England — Constructs an Organ – Studies for the Navy — Constructs a Quadrant — Enters the Navy

MARC ISAMBARD BRUNEL, the subject of this memoir, was born at Hacqueville on the 25th of April, 1769.

Hacqueville is situated near Gisors, in that part of Normandy formerly called the “Vexin,” but which has since the revolution received the appellation of “the department of the Eure.” The name of Brunel is found from an early date in the ancient records of the province. The privilege of Maître des Postes of the district seems to have been an inheritance of the family. But the Brunels may claim a higher honour as having given to their country an unusual number of men remarkable for their piety and learning. They may also reckon among their distinguished members the greatest painter which France has produced. Not far from Hacqueville, at Les Andelys, is the birth-place of Nicolas Poussin, whose mother was of the family of Brunel. The father of Sir Isambard was held in high esteem not only for the simplicity and openness of his character, but for the honourable frugality with which be dispensed a narrow income, and for the prudence, tenderness, and diligence with which he educated a family of three children, viz., two sons, of whom Marc Isambard was the second, and one daughter. M. Flahaut, in an address to the civil engineers at Paris, speaks of the Brunels, Sir Isambard and his son, as having sprung from the working classes : “Sortis de la classe des artisans, ou même des ouvriers, ils n’ont dû qu’à eux-mêmes ce qu’ils ont appris.” This is an error: although we can find few things more gratifying or more instructive than the successful struggles of selftaught men of humble origin, yet we should be scarcely justified in excluding from the catalogue of fame, those who have had the moral courage to resist the enervating influences which a recognised social position only too readily produces.

Of the mother of Brunel, whose maiden name was Lefèvre, I have been able to learn little. That her early loss was long and severely felt, there seems to be no doubt. An attempt was made at the earliest period to impress on Marc Isambard the necessity of giving his mind to the acquirement of classical knowledge, as he was destined to succeed to a living in the gift of the family, which would have secured to him a sure, though comparatively humble provision. Accordingly, he was sent soon after his mother’s death, in his eighth year, to the College of Gisors, but neither grammar nor rhetoric possessed any charm for his tastes ; they therefore retained no hold on his affections. No efforts on the part of his teachers at school, no punishments inflicted by his father at home, could insure one half the attention to his classical studies that he bestowed upon the carpenter’s shop and the wheelwright’s yard in his native village.

An event may here be related which occurred during his school-days at Gisors, and which threatened to impugn his moral character at the very outset of life.

His father accompanied him to the school, after one of his vacations, taking with him the amount of the previous quarterly fees in crown pieces. The canvas bag was emptied upon the table, and the money counted to the master in presence of the boy. A receipt was given in due form ; but the money was not removed from the table until the father had taken his leave. When, however, the master, before placing it in his strong box, again counted it, some of the pieces were missing Young Brunel was questioned, but he stoutly denied all knowledge of the missing money suggesting, at the same time, that Flore might have taken them.

Now Flore was a little dog belonging to the Brunels, which had been taught many accomplishments, and which had accompanied the boy and his father to Gisors. “ A dog to take money,” exclaimed the master, “ c’est un peu trop fort!” Crown pieces, he thought, were as little capable of being swallowed as the fanciful statement of the boy. “Non, non, mon enfant, il n’est pas possible.” Still the boy persisted in denying any knowledge of the money, and begged that his father might be written to, and that he should be requested to bring Flore. At length, with some reluctance on the part of the master, a letter was despatched to Hacqueville, and in due course, father and dog made their appearance. The reason for the summons having been explained, they were shown into the room where the money had been counted on the previous day. Flore was now observed to drop her tail, and to betray symptoms of embarrassment. “ Cherche, Flore — cherche, cherche ! ” cried papa ; but Flore would not comply. The master remained suspicious. The boy looked anxious; the father a little angry. At length Flore seemed to relent; her tail no longer drooped, – her eye brightened, and she began to seek in earnest. The master was in amazement — the boy regained his confidence — the father his good humour, when Flore, producing the missing coins from the corner in which she had hidden them, solved the mystery, and at once vindicated the integrity of the boy, which her clever feat had so nearly compromised.

The holidays were devoted to drawing and carpentry. The old château, for centuries in the possession of the family, and the Château Gaillard, built by Richard Cæurde-Lion, as a frontier defence against Philip Augustus, in the neighbourhood of Les Andelys, were the favourite subjects of his pencil. This early exhibition of artistic and mechanical talent is, perhaps, only equalled by our own Smeaton, to whose mechanical aptitude the fish in the small ponds at Ansthorpe, his father’s residence, not unfrequently fell victims; the water being experimentally transferred from one pond to another for the gratification of the embryo engineer. For Smeaton mechanical design and the construction of models had also more interest than the drawing of deeds, or the engrossment of parchment, to which he had been destined by his father.

Less disposed to be guided by circumstances than the elder Smeaton had been, the father of Brunel sought to compel obedience to his wishes by the infliction of various punishments, solitary confinement being most often employed. Of one room, selected for that purpose, the boy entertained a horror. On the walls of that room hung several family portraits. Amongst them was one of a grim old gentleman, the eyes of which appeared to be always turned towards him with a stern and forbidding frown. No matter in what part of the room he took shelter, those angry eyes still rested upon him. Indignant at this imaginary persecution, he one day determined to put an end to it; and, contriving to place a chair upon the table which stood immediately beneath the picture, he climbed upon it, and by the help of his pocket-knife carefully cut out the eyes from the canvas, delighted at thus freeing himself from their stern watchfulness.

The early life of Dannecker, the celebrated sculptor, offers a similar example of the fruitless attempt to check, if not destroy, the early impulses of genius. With Dannecker it was not the wheelwright’s, but the stonemason’s yard that proved the attraction. This yard was contiguous to his father’s house, and there it was certain he would be found chipping stones when missed either from home, or from the stables of the Duke of Würtemberg, in which he was employed under his father. Punishment followed punishment to no purpose. Solitary confinement was resorted to with as little success as with Brunel. It is related that, one morning, having made his escape through the window of his prison, he presented himself, with four companions, before the duke, and prayed that they might be permitted to enter a school which the duke had recently established for the benefit of the children of his servants, and in which drawing and music, as well as the ordinary elements of knowledge, were taught free of cost. To Dannecker’s inexpressible joy, his prayer was heard, and he was at once relieved from parental tyranny and ignorance, which, although powerless to destroy the instinct of the boy, might have been productive of years of pain and sorrow to his ardent and sensitive nature.

Less fortunate than Dannecker, Brunel continued to be subjected to every repressing influence. At eleven years of age he was sent to the seminary of St. Nicaise, at Rouen – one of the numerous establishments connected with the large ecclesiastical college of that town,—still with the hope of securing him for the church. But nature was not to be turned from her course.

So strongly did his taste for drawing continue to exhibit itself, that the superior was unwilling to deprive him of the advantage of a master. His first lessons were directed to the delineation of the human figure,—and more particularly of the human countenance.  But, unable to endure the tedium of repetition, and the routine of copying each feature in detail, he produced one morning-no less to the astonishment of his master than the admiration of the superior-a finished portrait of a well-known person, in which the distinguishing traits were said to be admirably expressed.

In this early effort will be recognized the leading characteristics of Brunel’s mind,- largeness, and comprehensiveness of conception, combined with the utmost accuracy of detail. The several features, upon which routine would have pondered for weeks, as distinct and isolated facts, were at once combined, and made to serve the general purposes of a portrait, which the young artist presented to his master, as the best vindication he could offer for declining any further instruction at his hands.

His sources of amusement differed widely from those of other children of the same age. At a time when most children can scarcely manage an ordinary knife, young Brunel was familiar with the use of the greater part of the tools found in a carpenter’s shop; and so great was his love of such tools, that he has been known to pawn his hat to gain possession of one newly exhibited in a cutler’s window at Rouen, though at the time he scarcely knew its special use. At the age of twelve he constructed various articles with the precision and elegance of a regularly educated workman. Every day showed the rapidity with which Brunel could seize upon all combinations of material forms, and exhibited some new feature in his aptitude for mechanical pursuits. The construction, the rigging, and the motive power of vessels early attracted his attention ; and the drawings of them which he executed at this period are said to have been perfect in form and detail.
Of all the mechanical operations which he witnessed in those early days, the one which excited the largest amount of interest, was the manner in which the tire of a wheel was fixed to its rim or felloe [sic]; indeed, a carriage wheel seemed, to the latest period of his life, to excite in Brunel renewed delight. Its simplicity, beauty, and perfect mechanical adaptation, always called forth his unqualified admiration.

About this time, in one of his daily visits to the quay at Rouen, his attention was more than usually excited
by two cast-iron cylinders which had been just landed, and which, when compared with his own height (for he always formed a mental scale), seemed to him gigantic. What was their use? Whence had they come? Whither were they going? These were questions to which for some time he in vain sought an answer. At length, a boatman alongside the quay, interested in the lad’s eagerness, beckoned to him and promised to give him the wished-for explanation.

It may well be conceived with what alacrity the invitation was accepted, and with what earnestness he listened to the explanations of the friendly boatman, how those cylinders were part of a fire engine (then so called) for the purpose of raising water ; that they had just arrived from England, where many such things were made. “Oh!” exclaimed Brunel, “ quand je serai grand, j’irai voir ce pays-là.”

On another occasion the superiority of the workmanship of the different parts of a carriage also recently landed from England attracted his observation. “Ah!” he exclaimed, “ qu’ils sont habiles dans ce pays-là ; j’irai le voir quand je serai grand.”

With a mind so much alive to everything into which construction entered, it was no wonder that Brunel’s imagination should have been aroused by the mechanical arrangements of musical instruments. Having taught himself the flute and the construction of the harpsichord, he conceived it to be possible to combine the effects of both in one mechanical arrangement, and this, without any knowledge of the laws of sound, or the rules of art. He thus, unconsciously, rivalled the ingenious inventions of Vaucanson, of whose name and success he was equally ignorant, and of the self-taught peasant who erected, at Moshuus in Norway, an organ, described by Sir A. de Capell Brook as “perfect in its parts, and with a variety of stops.

Our own Watt, in the early part of his career, and without any knowledge of the science of music, or correct appreciation of musical intervals, turned his mechanical skill in a similar direction. structed guitars, flutes and violins, and proposed a mode of playing on the musical glasses which should be independent of the wetted finger. In organ build also, Watt introduced many valuable improvements, such as delicate indicators and regulators of the strength of the blast ; and ultimately he was enabled to establish the theory of Daniel Bernouilli relative to the mechanism of the vibration of musical chords, and which explains the harmonious sounds that accompany all full musical notes.’ [Life of Watt, by J. P. Muirhead, M.A.]

Brunel, though he did not aspire to the construction of an organ, nor to the attainment of a knowledge of the theory of music nor of the principles of harmony, yet accomplished what was, perhaps, a more wonderful feat (considering that he was then only eleven years of age) than even that which had been performed by Watt in his twenty-third year, after long experience as a professed mechanist. Unfortunately, this interesting model of Brunel’s musical machine no longer exists, and therefore there are no means of determining how far it resembled the ingenious instrument known as the barrel organ. But these exhibitions of mechanical precocity afforded little consolation to a parent whose mind was occupied with the hope of seeing the family living held by a Brunel. “Ah! mon cher Isambard,” he used to say, “si tu prends ce parti-là, tu végéteras toute ta vie.” It must, however, be remembered that, at the period of which we speak, there was nothing. to suggest the changes about to take place in the industrial arts ; nothing to indicate that rapid development which the application of steam, as a motive power, was destined to produce. In Rouen there did not exist one cotton spinning-machine. The only one to be found in the country was at Louviers, although indeed it is recorded by Dr. Royle, in his “ Productive Resources of India,” that the Rev. W. Lee, of St. John’s College, Cambridge, the inventor of a machine for knitting and weaving stockings, was induced by Henry IV., just 200 years before, to establish himself at Rouen, because he received no encouragement at home. The populace of Rouen had, however, in their ignorance and blindness, opposed every attempt to introduce spinning-machines, or to erect manufactories for muslin or muslinette. So late as 1787 cotton was spun by the hand in Rouen, and throughout the province. In 1789 some speculative persons ventured to import machinery from England, but it was quickly demolished by the artisans.*

[* The rude self-protection which urged the natives of Rouen to raise their hands against machinery which they believed was destined to rob them of their bread, can be better understood, and more readily justified, than the intolerance and learned bigotry of men claiming the highest social position and authority, in enlightened Scotland, in the early part of the eighteenth century. Amongst other examples of the profound ignorance of art, and the fierce religious fanaticism which characterised that period, Mr. Robert Chambers (Domestic Annals of Scotland) notices the manner in which the inventor of the first agricultural machine was received in 1737. It was denounced as the “new-fangled machine for dighting the corn frae the chaff; thus impiously thwarting the will o’ Divine Providence by raising wind by human art instead of soliciting it by prayer, or patiently waiting for whatever dispensation of wind Providence was pleased to send upon the shieling hill.” ]

No wonder that a father, entirely ignorant of the value of mechanical appliances, which were then, and long continued to be, unappreciated either by society or by government, but who was perfectly alive to the secular as well as spiritual power of the clergy, should witness, with profound disappointment, the growing tendencies of his child.

The efforts of his father, aided by zealous and accomplished teachers, failed, however, to wean the young artist from his mechanical pursuits. The superiors of the seminary, perceiving and fully appreciating the strong bent of his genius, recommended his father to choose some other profession for him. To his own expressed wish, “Faites moi ingénieur,” the reply was that he would only benefit the world and starve himself. The navy was then the only profession suited to his genius, and, with the object of preparing for it, he was sent to visit his relation, M. Carpentier, at Rouen, where he began systematically to study drawing and perspective, as well as hydrography. He often spoke in after life of the relief which the new course of study afforded him. Under M. Dulagne of Rouen, the learned author of a treatise on hydrography, which forms a supplement to those of MM. Bouguer and De la Caille, the propositions of Euclid had only to be stated to be understood : demonstration was neither asked for nor required. After the third lesson in trigonometry he proposed to his astonished and delighted master to determine the height of the spire of the cathedral. “Il l’admit,” says Brunel in a letter to a friend; “ je fis de suite un instrument, assez grossier à la vérité, mais assez juste, pour confirmer la théorie et la pratique.”

His love for construction still continued to afford him the highest gratification in his leisure hours, and the models of vessels which he produced are said to have possessed singular beauty of form and finish.
His industry, his intelligence, the integrity of his mind, and the sweetness and loyalty of his disposition, endeared him to all with whom he became associated. So conscious was M. Dulagne of his pupil’s superiority, that he joyfully seized the opportunity to procure for him the notice of the Minister of Marine, the amiable Maréchal de Castries, who visited Rouen in the suite of Louis XVI., on his return from Cherbourg. Brunel made so favourable an impression upon the marshal, that he was induced to nominate him “Volontaire d’honneur,” before the usual time, to the corvette “Le Maréchal de Castries.” However painful the feeling of disappointment to his father may have been at the failure of his favourite project to secure so much talent to the church, that regret must have been greatly modified in receiving from M. de Castries an assurance of protection for his child, and in knowing that the honour conferred upon him had only once before been granted, and that to M. de Bougainville, the celebrated circumnavigator.

As an illustration of the accuracy of the observing and constructive powers of Brunel at this early period, it may be here further stated that, when he was introduced to the captain of the vessel in which he was to sail, an instrument on the table attracted his attention. This was a Hadley’s quadrant. He had never seen one before, and was now simply told its use. He did not touch it, but, walking round the table, carefully examined it. In a few days he produced an instrument of his own construction, “ assez grossier, à la vérité,” as he used to say, “ mais assez juste ;” his only theoretical guide being a description of the instrument, in a work on navigation, supplied to him by his master. But this first attempt only stimulated the young mechanist to further efforts, and, with the aid of a few crowns grudgingly given by his father, he executed another quadrant in ebony with so much accuracy that, during the whole period of his connection with the navy, he required no other. When it is remembered that this instrument demands in the constructor a knowledge not only of geometry, trigonometry, and mechanics, but of optics, one is filled with astonishment at the intuitive sagacity which brought all this knowledge to bear upon so delicate and complicated a construction. When about to embark in the new career which his conduct and his talents had opened to him, Brunel was attacked with small-pox. His illness caused no further mischief than the delay of a few months; and on his recovery, probably under the same favourable auspices, he joined his vessel, which was destined for the West Indies.