Isambard Kingdom Brunel: Structures & Inventions

Instructor: Graig Delany

Graig teaches Architecture, Construction and Engineering Courses and has a Master of Architecture Degree

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a giant of the nineteenth century and one of the most important engineers in history. Transportation would not be what it is today without his ingenuity.

The Man

In the nineteenth century no one did more for trains, boats and bridges than Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He was born on April 9, 1806 in Hampshire, England, and moved to London at age two. At age eight he was sent to boarding school in Hove, England where he studied the classics. At age fourteen he was sent to France to study first at the University of Caen in Normandy and then the Lycee Henri-IV in Paris. At twenty years old he worked with his engineer father, Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, on the ambitious Thames Tunnel Project. The Thames Tunnel was at first thought impossible and then impractical before it was completed by the younger Brunel in 1843. This 1300-foot tunnel traveled 75 feet under the river Thames. The tunnel itself was 35 feet wide and 20 feet tall, and used a tunneling shield technology during construction. This is the type of work Brunel accomplished before his death in 1859: projects thought too difficult or ambitious. Through great ingenuity and determination, Brunel would accomplish great things and forever change transportation.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Isambard Kingdom Brunel


In 1830 Brunel won a competition to design a bridge over the Avon River. It would need to span 700 feet and would be the longest bridge in the world. The Clifton Suspension Bridge design called for two soaring masonry towers that reached 245 feet above the river gorge. Two massive main cables would support the bridge deck using suspender cables. A suspension bridge uses cables in tension to support a deck, which allows for the bridge to use drastically less material. This project was fraught with funding problems and was only completed in 1864, after Brunel's death, but is widely considered to be his most important bridge design. Brunel would go on to design many more bridges and viaducts as part of his work creating the Great Western Railway.

Clifton Bridge
Clifton Bridge

Great Western Railway

In 1833 Brunel was named chief engineer of the Great Western Railway, a project that would link London to Bristol by rail. Brunel surveyed extensively and chose a route with few significant changes in elevation, so that the trains could run at optimal speeds. This, however, created a few obstacles which required bridges and tunnels to resolve. The Royal Albert Bridge and the Maidenhead Railway Bridge, two of his more memorable bridges, were part of this project. The Box Tunnel was also a triumph. The tunnel is 1.75 miles long and was executed with such precision that when the two ends of the tunnel met in the middle they were off by less than two inches. Brunel's handling of the scope and complexity of this project cemented his legacy as an engineer. The Great Western Railway continued to expand after Brunel's death and is still in use to this day.

Carvedras Viaduct, part of a Brunel-designed railway line
Carvedras Viaduct

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