From the Minutes of Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Volume 10, 1851
Sir Marc Isambard Brunel was born in the year 1769, at Haqueville, in Normandy; his family had for several centuries held an honourable station in the Province, living on the estate on which he was born, and numbering among its members Nicholas Poussin, of whom France is justly proud.
He was educated at the seminary at Rouen, with the intention of his entering holy orders, but his predilection for the physical sciences was so strong, and his genius for mathematics and mechanics so decided, that, on the advice of the Superior of the establishment, he was removed, to follow a more congenial career.
His father then destined him for the naval service, which he entered on the appointment of the Mareschal de Castries, the Minister of Marine, and made several voyages to the West Indies. In this position, although only in his fifteenth year, his mechanical talents developed themselves actively on many occasions, and he surprised his Captain by the production of a sextant of his manufacture, with which he took his observations.
On his return to France, in 1792, he found the Revolution at its height, and, like all who entertained Royalist principles, was compelled to seek safety in emigration, which, with considerable difficulty, he accomplished, and found refuge in the United States of America, where, driven by necessity to the exercise of his talents, as a means of support, he followed the bent of his inclination and became a Civil Engineer and Architect.
His first engagement was on the survey of a tract of land near Lake Erie; he then became engaged in cutting canals, and was employed to erect an arsenal and cannon foundry, at New York, where he applied several new and ingenious machines; his highly ornamental design for the House of Assembly, at Washington, was rejected, as being inconsistent with the simplicity of a Republic. He was, however, engaged to design and superintend the construction of the Bowery Theatre, New York, since destroyed by fire; the roof of which was peculiar and original.
The idea of substituting machinery for manual labour, in the making of ships’ blocks, had long occupied his mind, and, in 1799, having matured his plans, finding the United States unable to afford full occupation for his inventive genius, he determined on visiting England.
Earl St. Vincent was at that time at the head of the Admiralty, and after the usual delays and difficulties, which were ultimately overcome, chiefly through the powerful influence of his steady friend and patron Earl Spencer, and aided by the recommendation of Brigadier-General Sir Samuel Bentham, who at once perceived and appreciated the merit of the machines, and the talent of the inventor, the system was adopted, and eventually the beautiful and effective machinery was erected, which has continued to the present time, without alteration, to produce nearly all the blocks used in the Royal Navy.
The construction of these machines was intrusted to the late Henry Maudslay, who with true discrimination, he selected for the purpose, and by whom he was ably assisted. The beautiful simplicity of these machines, their perfect adaptation to their various purposes, and notwithstanding the recent advances in mechanics, their continuing for nearly half a century in active work, without any improvements having ever been suggested, must rank themas among the most complete and ingenious pieces of mechanism ever invented.
A description of these well-known machines would be superfluous, but it should be remarked, that in them are combined all the motions and functions, since so universally applied to machines for working metals, the introduction of which, into engine and machine factories, has induced the substitution of machinery for manual labour, and has tended so essentially to secure for English machinery the deservedly high reputation which it has acquired.
The block machinery was completed in 1806, and it was estimated that the economy produced by it, in the first year, was about £24,000, two-thirds of which sum were awarded to the ingenious inventor, who was soon after engaged, by the Government, to erect extensive saw-mills, on improved principles, at Chatham and Woolwich; when he suggested modifications of the systems of stacking and seasoning timber, which, it is understood, are, after this lapse of years, to be carried in effect.
Some time previously, he invented the ingenious little machine for winding cotton-thread into balls, which, simple as it may at first sight appear, has exercised great influence in the extension of the cotton trade.
He found time, also, to invent an instrument for combining the use of several pens, for producing simultaneously a number of copies of a manuscript; a simple and portable copying machine; a contrivance for making the small boxes used by druggists, which had been previously imported in large quantities from Holland; a nail making machine also occupied his attention, and he discovered the system of giving the efflorescent appearance to tinfoil, by which it was fitted for ornamental purposes.
Among other more important improvements, must be mentioned, that of cutting veneers, by circular saws of large diameter; and to that is mainly due the present extensive application of veneers of wood to ornamental furniture.
A short time before the termination of the war, he devised the system of making shoes by machinery; and, under the countenance of the Duke of York, the shoes so manufactured, in consequence of their strength, cheapness, and durability, were introduced for the use of the army; but at the peace in 1815, manual labour becoming cheaper, and the demand for military equipments having ceased, the machines were laid aside.
Steam navigation also attracted his attention, and he became deeply interested in establishing the Ramsgate steam vessels, which were among the first that plied effectively on the River Thames; and on board of them, it is believed, that the double engines were first used.
About this period, after much labour and perseverance, he induced the Admiralty to permit the application of steam, for towing vessels to sea, the practicability of which he had strenuously urged. The experiments were tried chiefly at his own expense, a small sum in aid having been promised, but it was eventually withdrawn, before the completion of the trials; the Admiralty considering the attempt ‘too chimerical to be seriously entertained.’
He introduced various improvements in the steam-engine, and for nearly ten years persevered in the attempt to use liquefied gases, as the source of motive power, in which he was ably assisted by his Son; the necessary experiments were most laborious, and needed all the persevering energy and resources of a mind determined not to be foiled; in spite, however, of his efforts, after a great sacrifice of time and money, the plan was abandoned.
He furnished designs, also, for some suspension bridges, which, being for peculiar localities, exposed to the violence of hurricanes, in the Isle of Bourbon, exhibited, as usual, some original features.
The whole power of his mind, however, was soon to be concentrated on one great object, the construction of the Tunnel, for traversing from shore to shore, beneath the bed of the River Thames. It is said, that the original idea occurred to him, as applied to the Neva, at St. Petersburgh, in order to avoid the inconvenience arising from the floating ice; a plan which he offered to the Emperor Alexander, on the occasion of his visit to this country in 1814.
Undismayed by the previous signal failures, in the attempt to tunnel beneath the Thames, Brunel, confident in his own powers, persevered in his efforts, and in 1834, under the auspices of F. M. the Duke of Wellington, who always entertained a favourable view of the practicability of the scheme, a Company was formed, for its execution, and after numerous accidents, and suspensions of the works, accounts of which were frequently laid by Sir Isambart before this Institution, and are recorded in the Minutes of Proceedings, this great and novel undertaking was successfully accomplished, and opened to the public in the year 1843.
In the prosecution of this work, he received great assistance from his son, Mr. I. K. Brunel, V. P., and in a scientific point of view, the construction of the Tunnel will be regarded, as displaying at the same time, the highest professional ability, an amount of energy and skill rarely exceeded, and a fertility of invention and resources, under what were deemed insurmountable difficulties, which will secure to the memory of Sir Isambart Brunel, a high position among the Engineers of this country.
He received the honour of Knighthood, in 1841: and the Order of the Legion d’Honneur, in 1829, was a Corresponding Member of the French Institute, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and joined this Institution as a Member, in the year 1823, constantly attending all the meetings, giving accounts of the progress of his works, bringing forward subjects, taking part in the discussions, serving on the Council for some years, and aiding in the advancement of the Society, by every means in his power.
He was unaffected and simple in his habits, and possessed indomitable courage, perseverance and industry; whilst his general benevolence of disposition, constantly prompted him to the kindest acts, as it did to the forgiveness of injury, or slight, offered to him. His labours had so seriously impaired his health, that for some years after the completion of the Tunnel, he was unable to mix in active life, and he expired on the 12th of December, 1849, in his 81st year, after a long illness, as much regretted, as he had been loved and respected, by all who knew him.