Marc Isambard Brunel was born in Hacqueville, Normandy, France. He served asan officer in the French navy from 1786 to 1792. In 1793, he left revolutionary France for the United States because of his royalist sympathies. He practiced as a civil engineer and architect and soon became New York City's chief engineer. In that post, he constructed many buildings, an arsenal, and a cannon foundry, and advised the city on ways to improve the defenses of the channel between Staten and Long Islands.
While in New York, Brunel designed a method for manufacturing ship's blocks,or pulleys, mechanically rather than by hand. Since a single large warship ofthat time could use fourteen hundred blocks, Brunel sailed to England in 1799 to present his ideas to the British navy. In London, Brunel and Henry Maudslay constructed models of the machines. The proposal was accepted, and Maudslay constructed the block-making machinery at the Portsmouth Dockyard between1803 and 1807. As completed, a system of forty-three machines run by ten unskilled workers turned elm logs into finished blocks of higher quality and consistency, and in much greater numbers, than the handmade blocks previously made by 110 skilled workmen. This was the first example of large-scale mass production by a series of specialized machine tools, replacing a series of stepsperformed by hand.
Brunel was a prolific inventor but a poor businessman. A fire at his London sawmills plus financial mismanagement by his partners put Brunel deeply in debt. This condition worsened when the Napoleonic wars ended and the British government refused to honor an agreement to purchase the output of Brunel's second mass-production line, nailed-boot-making machinery. Brunel spent several months in debtor's prison in 1821, until his friends secured his release.
In 1825, Brunel began work on his best-known project, a tunnel under the Thames River. He had patented a tunneling shield in 1818, which won him the appointment as engineer of the tunnel project. The shield was a metal cylinder pushed forward mechanically as tunneling progressed, and with separate cells forindividual workmen. Although water above the tunnel burst through the floorof the riverbed five times, the shield always held. These delays, however, caused financial problems, and at one point the tunnel project was halted entirely for seven years. It was finally completed in 1843, the first successful resolution of the underwater tunneling challenge. The Thames Tunnel immediately became a popular public attraction, and it is now part of the London Underground (subway) system. Brunel was knighted for his achievement in 1841.
Brunel also designed a suspension bridge in France and floating piers in Liverpool. His other inventions include machines for sawing and bending timber, knitting stockings, printing, and making nails. He died in London in 1849.