A Centenary: Isambard Brunel

In an obscure position on Platform One at London’s Paddington Station the traveller may notice, with fleeting interest, a plaque which commemorates Isambard Kingdom Brunel. In early Victorian attire, he gazes across at the Gothic-like structure of wrought and cast iron, where his name once meant so much. One hundred years ago, this versatile engineer died, but there is still plenty of evidence of the part which he played in the days when British capitalism established its dominant position in the world.

Mechanical Environment

Brunei came from a well-to-do family. His father—Marc Brunel—was born in the Vexin area of France, where he studied for the priesthood. He left the church for the French Navy and, when the Revolution came, fled to America. Here, as American industry began to develop, he established himself as a successful surveyor and architect. He came to England, where he set up a factory for the mass production of pulleys, of which, during the Napoleonic Wars, the British Navy was using 70,000 a year. He later turned his attention to the cutting and shaping of shipbuilding logs (an early form of pre-fabbing) and the mass production of boots for the army, using 16 different processes to turn out some 400 pairs a day. In 1821, Marc Brunel fell on hard times and was imprisoned for debt.

So it was that Isambard Kingdom Brunei grew up in an environment of mechanical exploration and adventure. Not only in his own family, but all around, could be seen the physical manifestations of industrialism. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the output of coal and iron and the products of the manufactories and the reformed agriculture produced an insistent need for faster and bulkier land transport. In the Cornish tin mine areas and the Durham coalfields the Trevethicks and Stevensons were answering the demand by building the new railways. It is in this field that Brunei is best remembered.

Great Western Railway

After working with his father on the Rotherhithe Tunnel in the 1820’s, Brunel designed and constructed several bridges and docks, notably at Plymouth, Brentford and Milford Haven. In 1833 he was appointed engineer to the Great Western Railway and for this company he did some of his greatest work. He was responsible for the first line to Bristol, with all the bridges and tunnels. (Part of his work consisted of negotiating with obstructive landowners). He designed the Wharncliffe Viaduct at Hanwell and the great iron bridge which crosses the river at Saltash in Cornwall. Later he turned to building ocean-going steamships larger than any previously known. In 1838 his Great Western started the first regular steamships service between Great Britain and America, making the voyage in the unheard of time of 15 days. This was followed in 1845 by the Great Britain, the first large vessel to use the screw propeller, which plied between Liverpool and New York.

Brunel also had his failures. His championing of the 7 foot gauge, which started the famous “Battle of the Gauges,” broke down in 1892, when the Great Western Railway adopted the standard gauge. On the South Devon Railway he experimented with a system of atmospheric propulsion, which proved a failure. Perhaps his most spectacular flop was the paddle steamer Great Eastern, a huge folly launched in 1858. The story of the Great Eastern is one of delays and casualties—it was never a financial success and ended as a submarine cable layer. The strain of building her broke Brunei’s health. He had a stroke on the day he was watching her engines being tested—5th September, 1859—and ten days later he was dead.

Kings and Servers

Typical of his time, Brunei was impatient of restrictions on invention and careless of public opinion of his work. He reached his fame when the designers and builders of early industrial capitalism were raising their structures to the glory of Utility, Profit and Speed. Those were the days when the glass- vaulted roofs of Paddington and St. Pancras Stations had replaced the cathedrals and churches into which the wealthy landowner and merchant had once poured their surplus. When the railway viaducts and the Stock Markets took the place of the Cloth Halls—and King Coal sat in state on the High Throne, with child labour for his server.

Brunel’s railways carried the products of the appalling working conditions of the time, when coal miners seemed scarcely human and children were lucky to work no more than a twelve hour day in the textile mills. For the workers the new capitalism meant hard work, low pay and indifferent food eaten in gaunt, soulless tenements scowling down on the Main Line. It meant squalid back-to-back houses crouching around the pit head and the viciousness of dockland. No gift of science or brilliance of design was directed that way. Here lived the beasts of burden, gin soaked and humble in their misery. In its exciting day of expansion, capitalism spurned the very people who made it possible.

No blame to Brunel for this. He was an inventive master whose abilities were used by a vicious and inhuman social system. Remember that, if you ever take a look at that plaque.

Jack Law

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