The Other Brunel

In Plymouth, England, a curious pair of cast-iron spectacles scans the tidal reach of the River Tamar. It is a railroad bridge, unlike any other in form. Its huge elliptical trusses draw crowds of sightseers; its towering stone portals reveal their creator in huge emblazoned letters. They read: I.K. BRUNEL ENGINEER. To the east, in Bristol, chains draped across monumental mock Egyptian gates guide a soaring roadway over a scenic gorge. The Clifton suspension bridge. I.K. Brunel engineer. In London, at Burrell’s Wharf, the spot can still be seen where in 1859 the Great Eastern, a 700-foot leviathan of a ship, larger and more powerful than any predecessor, churned the murky Thames as it was pushed afloat by an army of hydraulic rams. I.K. Brunel engineer.

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An iconic image- Brunel in front of the chains of the Great Eastern

Such spectacular achievements are the reason why Isambard Kingdom Brunel- born 111 years ago on Sunday- still captures the public imagination. His most famous schemes flaunted their daring, ambition, and inventiveness, and announced to the world the engineering prowess of the United Kingdom- a message so cherished that Brunel has in the past been voted the second-greatest Briton in history, behind only Churchill. Sometimes Brunel reached too far- the Great Eastern was uneconomical and quickly scrapped and the atmospheric railway, a vacuum-powered train, proved to not function in the slightest- but these failures’ public image as the noble experiments of a genius virtually turn them into successes.

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Brunel’s fame is such that he has been featured on British currency

There are enough of such Brunellian landmarks and proposals to fill a book, and, indeed, many books have been filled on such subjects. There is, however, another type of Brunel work- just as inventive, but without the flashiness, focal point, or even permanence. Some of his most revolutionary and influential projects are largely unnoticed- hidden, mundane, or dismantled. Among these is his very first project, done in collaboration with his father Marc- the Thames tunnel. A tunnel had never before been built to cross beneath a navigable river, and such an endeavour was fraught with risks of collapse and flooding. The Brunels designed a tunnelling shield to protect the foremost work area. Construction was lengthy but eventually successful, and inspired the construction methods of many future tunnels; however, the Thames Tunnel itself is now little-known, being a single strand of a crowded web of passages beneath London.

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Building the Thames Tunnel

Brunel’s work on the Great Western Railway is well chronicled, for it was a poster child for future large-scale rail systems, and thus given extravagant stations, bridges, and tunnels (including the Box Tunnel in Bath, recently discovered to have been designed by Brunel so that the sun shone through it on his birthday). However, his later Cornwall railway was a more frugal affair. The engineer was tasked with tracing a path over fifty miles of rugged terrain on a shoestring budget, not nearly enough to build the masonry viaducts that contemporary thinking suggested. Rather than let the project fold- as many comparable overambitious efforts did- Brunel made the sacrifice of impermanence, assembling cheap wooden bridges which were gradually replaced by stone as the railway grew profitable. Again, Brunel’s work- now gone- was hugely influential, in this case setting precedent for more economical railroad construction.

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The Moorswater Viaduct in Cornwall, shortly after construction

Another outwardly restrained design that sent reverberations through the world of civil engineering can be found in Maidenhead. The two low red arches appear unremarkable at first glance- perhaps this conservative appearance was intended by Brunel to calm critics who were nervous about the daring structural concept. The arches’ span-to-height ratio of nearly six to one was, like so much Brunel did, unprecedented. Brunel’s employers, fearing collapse, insisted the wooden formwork beneath the arches remain in place for support, and were subsequently shocked when, with floods having washed the scaffolds away, the masonry remained intact. The layered stonework of the arches themselves and their airy internal skeleton were the secret strengths of this disguised masterpiece.

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The Maidenhead Bridge. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, by Steven Daglish

An accomplished shipwright as well as civil engineer, Brunel ingeniously combined the disciplines in one of his most pioneering accomplishments. In 1854, with the Crimean War raging, Florence Nightingale enraptured the British media with her medical exploits and shocked them with accounts of horrifyingly unsanitary hospitals. Never one to shy from a dilemma, Brunel set about finding a solution to this problem; in a mere six days he drafted plans for prefabricated wooden wards with modern amenities, which were to be built at a Gloucester shipyard. The buildings were shipped to the Turkish city of Renkioi then swiftly assembled and prepared for the arrival of patients; the drop in mortality rates was staggering, and the complex was so admired that it was converted for civilian purposes after the war. The first large-scale prefabrication project of its kind, the Renkioi hospital’s legacy can be found globally.

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A plan of a Renkioi hut

The Renkioi Hospital and Cornwall Viaducts are gone, the Thames Tunnel and Maidenhead Bridge easily overlooked; nevertheless, their presence has been felt in civil engineering ever since. Despite his occasional failures, his tendency to overreach, his ideas often being far beyond contemporary technology, Brunel’s successes were immense in their impact and broad in their scope. He is one of the greatest Britons in history, one of the most iconic engineers; is it a stretch to label him the greatest civil engineer of all?

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