Isambard Kingdom Brunel may only have been trumped by Winston Churchill when the BBC prepared its list of top 100 Great Britons, based on a public vote, but I wonder if most people’s perceptions were as hazy as mine were about this man before I read the biography of him by LTC Rolt. This is a very old book, published originally in 1957, so some interpretations of events in his life have evolved over the last half century, as detailed in the book’s Introduction. The basic facts of his life are indeed remarkable, but less straightforward than I had naively assumed. It is easy to see him indeed as a Great Briton, one of the stellar engineers who contributed so much to the making of the world as we see it today, but in reality his life was full of an enormous number of far from insubstantial setbacks, financial, personal and practical. One can admire the beauty and elegance of the Clifton Suspension Bridge without appreciating that he never saw his ground-breaking design realised in his lifetime; be aware of his role in the construction of the Great Western Railway and overlook the fact that he built this to a gauge of 7 foot which ultimately lost out to the standard gauge (after a protracted and bitter battle that lasted many years) adopted by, for instance, the Stephenson’s in the north of England; looking over the amazing iron ship that is the SS Great Britain one can fail to remember the spectacular SS Great Eastern which topped it in size and in just about every other dimension, figurative and literal, and yet was a disaster of immense proportions due to all kinds of meteorological adversities as well as a catastrophic business partnership with Scott Russell, in which each saw the other as fundamentally at fault. These tribulations just make the success of Brunel and the legacy he left all the more remarkable.
This biography* was written by a fellow engineer, who was clearly in love with the intricacy and innovation captured by Brunel’s designs and the skills he brought to bear as an engineer. But, since the book was written for a general audience, it is simply written in prose. I would have found the details of the different designs much more comprehensible if diagrams had been inserted at frequent intervals to explain what was going on. OK, I’m a physicist not an engineer, so perhaps I am less able to visualise what was described in the text. But as the intricacies of linkages involving flanges, pipes, stopcocks and heaters were discussed the kid’s rhyme Dry Bones irreverently came to mind:
With the leg bone connected to the knee bone,
and the knee bone connected to the thigh bone,
and the thigh bone connected to the hip bone.
Just as a neatly annotated sketch of a skeleton makes all clear, so I felt I could have got my head round Brunel’s innovative designs more easily with a few labelled diagrams. Nevertheless the scale of his concepts, the breadth of his imagination – ranging from canals, to railways, to shipbuilding, to transportable hospitals for the Crimea and new dock arrangements – comes across loud and clear and is truly formidable. Frustrated though he often was by lack of financial backing, lack of matching imagination by those he needed to invest in his projects, or endless bureaucratic hurdles (sounds all too familiar; Rolt also specifies another familiar modern situation: ‘that the lunatic fringe is a hardy perennial and not a phenomenon peculiar to our day and age’.) he still managed to achieve more in his relatively short lifetime than is easy to conceive. He was, as this book makes clear, not driven by greed for material possessions or money, but by an insatiable curiosity and an ambition to make innovative things happen. He clearly did it at the expense of what we moderns might call work-life balance. His family gets very short shrift in this book. Or at least his father, Sir Marc Brunel, and his own engineering schemes – notably the tunnel under the Thames at Rotherhithe – are described in some detail, as a backdrop to the effective apprenticeship served on this project by IK Brunel as he battled against the incoming water which several times all but defeated the scheme. But Brunel the younger’s marriage hardly appears at all; one gets no sense that he enjoyed playing with his children or spending time with his wife. Indeed given how much time he spent travelling on horseback to survey a route for a new railway line, or how much time cajoling financiers, partners and politicians to progress his plans, it is hard to see that his family could often have set eyes on him. He presumably felt this was a price worth paying, and one has to hope that they did so too.
His was, very obviously not a life without setbacks but he had the indomitable spirit which enabled him simply to keep building more castles that must have seemed for so long simply suspended in mid-air – until suddenly he became a successful and feted individual with more work than he could really handle, and upon whose shoulders so much rested personally. Of his early life Rolt says ‘these must have been discouraging times for Brunel… diary concerned with day-to-day happenings [which] affords us only an occasional hint of the frustrations he must have felt.’ For all of us who have ever felt discouraged his life should be an object lesson in picking yourself up, dusting yourself down – even after nearly fatal explosions and fires, the kind of setbacks that most of us will hopefully never have to encounter – and continuing to think big.
I did not find the book a gripping read, as I indicated above, but I did find the man amazing. His drive, his vision and his ability to keep going despite appalling problems stand out as well as his sheer technical innovation and engineering imagination. He truly was a Great Briton whose legacy remains as a fundamental plank in the industrial landscape of Britain today.
*Another review can be found here on the Some Beans blog.