Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the son of Marc Isambard Brunel, a French engineer who escaped the revolutionary turmoil of France in 1793 by immigrating to the United States, where he became an American citizen and engineered severalprojects, including the Hudson-Champlain Canal. In 1799 Marc Brunel moved toEngland and married Sophia Kingdom, an Englishwoman who had begun corresponding with Brunel while she was imprisoned during the French Revolution.
Isambard Brunel was born in 1806 in Portsmouth, England. Demonstrating an early aptitude for mathematics, he was sent as a 14-year-old to college in France, where he studied and apprenticed in the design of mechanical instruments.At the age of 20 Brunel was appointed resident engineer of his father's Thames River Tunnel project, and it was during this early experience that Brunel'slegendary resilience and flamboyance were first publicly realized. Brunel tenaciously overcame many obstacles, but the project, overwhelmed with mishaps,was aborted when an undetected low section in the river bed caused a collapse and flooded part of the tunnel in 1828, nearly drowning Brunel. The tunnelwas not completed until nearly fifteen years later.
While Brunel was recuperating from a broken leg suffered during the collapseof the tunnel, he submitted four designs to the River Avon bridge, which wererejected by Thomas Telford. Telford, who was famous for his Holyhead Road and Menai Strait Bridge projects, rejected all submissions and entered his owndesign. However, the Bridge Committee rejected Telford as well, and in 1830,Brunel finally succeeded in having his design accepted for the bridge project, also known as Clifton Gorge. Although not completed until 1864, five yearsafter his death, Brunel's elegant suspension bridge is still in use today.
One of Brunel's greatest achievements was the design and construction of theLondon-to-Bristol rail line, which became know as the Great Western Railway (GWR). It was noted for its low grades, low-arch bridges and its two-mile tunnel. He gave the tracks a 7-foot gauge to give the trains better stability. Although the rail system was later converted to conform to England's standard 4feet, 8 1/2 inch rail gauge, the "gauge war" Brunel prompted helped spur innovations in England's locomotive industry.
Brunel went on to build 1,600 miles (2,574 km) of rail lines in England; he also served as an advisor on the construction of rail lines in Australia and India. His construction techniques were as significant as his designs, including his use of compressed-air caissons for underwater construction of bridgepiers. One notable and extremely costly failure, an "atmospheric railway," which ran on atmospheric pressure generated by steam pumps, fell victim to unforeseen technical difficulties but did operate briefly between Exeter and NewtonAbbot, achieving noteworthy speeds of 64 miles per hour (103 kph). That failure was overshadowed by his many successes, among them the design of the railway stations at Paddington and Temple Meads, Bristol; a number of tunnels andbridges; and a prefabricated hospital for wartime field use.
Brunel's work for GWR led to another triumph for the civil engineer--pioneering efforts in steam navigation. In 1836 he was challenged by the notion thatthe GWR could "extend" its terminus from Bristol--the British gateway to westbound shipping--across the Atlantic to New York via transatlantic steamship.He set to work immediately on the Great Western, which became the first steam-powered ship to make a complete trans-Atlantic crossing, arriving inNew York in 1838. While it had previously been thought that no ship could carry enough coal to make the journey, the Great Western encountered no such difficulties, thanks to Brunel's design.
While the Great Western had a wooden hull, the hull of Brunel's next ship, the Great Britain, was made of iron. Three years after its 1843 launching, its hull survived a grounding on the Irish coast. However, Brunel was notyet satisfied. He designed his next ship, the Great Eastern, to extendsteam service to Australia and carry a year's exports to India. The effort,though, ruined Brunel's finances, reputation, health, due in large part to the questionable business dealings of his partner in the venture, John Scott Russell.