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Isambard Kingdom Brunel

(c. 1806-1859)

If you asked anyone in this country to name a famous engineer, the chances are - if they could think of anyone at all - they would say 'Isambard Kingdom Brunel'. Or possibly just 'Brunel' if they couldn't remember his unusual Christian names.

A few years ago, the BBC asked the British public to name their top 100 Greatest Britons, and Brunel came in second, only behind Winston Churchill. (Charles Darwin turned up fourth, while Queen Victoria, Florence Nightingale and Charles Dickens were all on the list, but lower down. Mind you, there are quite a lot of people on there who I've never even heard of, as well as a few controversial figures such as Guy Fawkes, who was arguably not great for Britain!)

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born to a French father, whose middle name was Isambard, and an English mother, whose surname before marriage was Kingdom. Brunel's father was a civil engineer. He taught Brunel how to draw and encouraged him even in early childhood to draw interesting buildings and work out if they had any faults in their structure. By the age of eight, Brunel had learnt Euclidean geometry, which goes some way to explaining how he managed to design and build so many famously innovative and successful structures in his lifetime, considering that he died at 53.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, photographed by Robert Howlett in 1857.

Brunel took on all kinds of engineering projects, many of which posed challenges which had previously been thought insurmountable. These included bridges such as the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, which had the longest span of any bridge in the world when it was built. It crosses the River Avon, about 75m above the water, which is very high indeed.

Brunel also built the Great Western Railway from London to Bristol, at a time when railways were still in their infancy. Brunel's approach was to keep bends and gradients (that is, ups and downs) to a minimum, which meant building a lot of tunnels and viaducts, to keep the line as straight and level as possible. The Great Western Railway included the Box Tunnel, which is nearly 3km long, and was the world's longest railway tunnel when it opened in 1841.

Tunnels, bridges, and viaducts weren't enough for Brunel, however. He was also interested in steam ships, and designed the Great Western steamer, which at the time was the longest ship in the world (do you notice a pattern here?) and which crossed the Atlantic three days faster than its competition.

In 1855, Brunel turned his hand to yet another new kind of project: when Florence Nightingale travelled out to the Crimea, she was appalled by the conditions in the British Army Hospital in Scutari. After she wrote to The Times asking for help, Brunel designed pre-fabricated hospital wards which he had built and shipped out to the Crimea. These buildings took into account drainage, sanitation and ventilation, and were hugely successful.

Brunel died in 1859 of kidney disease, leaving behind a wife and three children, one of whom also became a successful civil engineer.

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