July 28, 2012 by James Calbraith
Have you been stumped as to whom exactly did our finest living Shakespearean, Kenneth Branagh, play during yesterday’s Opening Ceremony? Perhaps you wondered why Abraham Lincoln was quoting Shakespeare in London? Well, wonder no more, because this surprising appearance gives me a chance to introduce or remind you of arguably the Greatest Briton Who Ever Lived: Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Isambard Brunel was the son of Marc Brunel – a French engineer who, tossed about by the winds of history and revolution, ended up in England. His father’s main claim to fame had been the construction of the Thames Tunnel – the first ever tunnel dug under a river. This may sound underwhelming, but what Marc Brunel had come up with to make the tunnel possible – the tunnelling shield - paved the way for digging further tunnels in London and other cities. In a nutshell, Marc Brunel had invented the Underground.
It would have been tough for a son to outdo such an illustrious father. Nearly drowning when the tunnel’s walls breached certainly did not help. But the younger Brunel quickly grew out of the elder one’s shadow, and became a shining star of engineering in his own right. Turning his brilliant mind to the latest invention – steam railways – Isambard oversaw the entire construction of the Great Western Railway from London to Bristol. The Great Western was the Shinkansen of the 19th century: built in straight lines, with tunnels and bridges of record lengths cutting straight through the hilly English countryside; massive new railway stations – the terminus at Paddington still impressive, and still in use – had been constructed, and the enormous locomotive factory at Swindon built just to accommodate the new line. It was an engineering triumph.
This triumph was quickly followed by another of Brunel’s masterpieces: the Clifton Suspension Bridge, thrown across the Clifton Gorge in Bristol. Also still in use, the bridge had been regarded by Brunel himself as his greatest achievement. It is still strikingly beautiful, a view comparable only with Telford’s bridge over the Menai Straits.
So, bridges, tunnels and railways. It would have been enough for the lesser men, but Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a giant. Not content with conquering the land, he turned his genius to conquering the seas. And conquered them he did; with three enormous steam ships, each larger than the previous one, each the largest of its age. The Great Western – 236 feet long paddle wheeler, fastest ever to cross the Atlantic. The Great Britain – 322 feet long propeller-driven ironclad – arguably the first “modern” ship to sail the seas. And finally, the Monster.
The Great Eastern was at first named more aptly: “The Leviathan”. It was 700 feet long and weighed 17000 tons – the record unsurpassed for the next 60 years. It was six times larger than any ship of the time. To even think of constructing something that big using the technologies of the era, one had to be either a madman or a genius. Brunel was both. The Great Eastern set sail on its maiden voyage in 1855 – a few years before Brunel’s death.
It was not a particularly economically successful endeavour, but technologically, it was another triumph.
And if you thought all this was enough for Brunel, think again. For it is his most unsuccessful project which is, to me, the most interesting: the atmospheric railway. Yes, the train driven by compressed air is not a steampunk invention – it really existed. It ran for a year in South Devon. Ultimately, the materials available at the time proved ineffective against the British weather and the enterprise was scrapped – but it was a tantalizing glimpse into what might have been the future of the railways as we know it. The atmospheric had many advantages over steam and diesel – and with continuing improvement it may have even survived the onset of the electric.
Even skipping all his lesser achievements, like building the first prefabricated modern hospital during the Crimean War, it is easy to see why Brunel deserves his place in the spotlight. He is THE Mr. Steampunk: the ultimate Victorian engineer and inventor, creating wonders in the age of coal and iron. He is the very embodiment of the spirit of the British Empire at its greatest.
Isambard Brunel, though an unseen presence, plays a vital part in my Victorian steampunk fantasy, “The Shadow of Black Wings“. Why not check it out? It’s available on Amazon Kindle, Kobo and in paperback.