Two hundred years after his birth, the ever-present legacy of the great Isambard Kingdom Brunel still inspires the modern-day engineer to create something different.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

In two days' time it will be 200 years since the great Victorian engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born. There is much to celebrate, not least a public profile that today's engineers would kill for. Immediately recognisable with his stovepipe hat, cigar and frockcoat, Brunel came second only to Winston Churchill in the BBC's 2002 Greatest Briton survey. That's impressive in a nation whose idea of an engineer is someone who comes to fix your washing machine.

Compared with today's engineers, Brunel was incredibly versatile. He was so much more than an engineer. He was a visionary, able to persuade people to finance his projects even after earlier ones had failed. He took on the design of every last detail of his projects - from tunnels to ships to railways - then he built them. Finally, he operated them. There is no comparison to today's PFI projects, which are all about minimising risk. Brunel's undertakings were unheard of in their scope, and it took great courage and determination to pull them off - or to fail in trying.

The Great Western Railway linking London to Bristol is an excellent example of what he was capable of. He designed everything including the bridges, tunnels, Paddington and Temple Mead stations, then built the whole thing. Being Brunel, it had to be much, much better than anything else around so the gradients were flatter, the tunnels more commodious and the bridges more daring than anything built previously.

"It was an amazing feat. Most people only ever went about 10 miles from their homes," says Chris Wise, director of Expedition E E Engineering. "He took people straight from the medieval to the industrial age as he cut the journey time from London to Bristol from two and a half days to two and a half hours."

Having built the GWR, Brunel then wanted to shrink the whole world. The railway was part of a much grander Brunellian vision that saw London linked to the USA. Brunel built the docks at Bristol at the end of his railway line and concentrated on building the biggest, fastest ship ever to sail from those docks so people could get from London to New York in two weeks.

Brunel's professional heirs mourn the loss of a golden age, when an engineer could embody society's deepest aspirations. It was a big responsibility and it pushed Brunel to exercise what turned out to be an extraordinary range of abilities. "Today engineering is a victim of its own success as no one person can do all of these things," says Brunel historian Angus Buchanan. Unfortunately nor do people want to. Where once "people were queuing up from nice middle-class backgrounds to work in Brunel's office to get the qualifications needed to be a civil engineer", says Buchanan, today the status of the engineer has declined to the extent that it attracts few passionate recruits.

Still there is plenty of evidence around of the man's enduring legacy and over the next few pages we identify some modern projects that embody Brunellian characteristics.

Two tunnels

Brunel’s approach was to starve all contractors of funds to keep them subservient

Tony Bingham, barrister

Many of Brunel's projects were ground-breaking and involved taking enormous risks. If he hadn't staked his personal reputation and other people's money on these projects, Britain would not have been able to boast the fastest railway and ships in the world. Inevitably there were failures and financiers lost everything. In today's risk-averse environment it is hard to identify anything remotely comparable.

Except, perhaps, the Channel Tunnel. Not only was it Brunellian in its vision in that it linked Britain with France for the first time: it was also Brunellian in its financing. Ending a long period of bold, publicly funded infrastructure projects, the Channel Tunnel was paid for from the life savings of many small investors.

It has parallels with several of Brunel's projects including the tunnel under the Thames that linked Wapping to Rotherhithe in east London. Designed by Brunel and his father Marc, it was the first tunnel to be built under a navigable river. Like the Channel Tunnel it took much longer to build than planned and ran into financial difficulties. There was no money left to build the ramps needed for horses and carts - similarly, it has taken 15 years since the Channel Tunnel was opened for a high-speed link to be completed in Britain.

Like many of Brunel's investors, Channel Tunnel financiers saw their shares decline - from 800p down to 28p today. The ferry companies fought back and the predicted levels of car and freight traffic that never materialised. But Brunel's legacy tends to slide off the profit and loss sheet. His tunnel was a loss-making pedestrian convenience before meeting its destiny as an essential Tube route. The Channel Tunnel investors may never get their money back but at least we have a high-speed link between London and Paris.

Technological feats that compare with Brunel’s - the Channel Tunnel

Technological feats that compare with Brunel’s - the Channel Tunnel


Brunel thought big. His SS Great Britain was the largest ship in the world when it was built in 1845. Suitably warmed up, he went on to build the SS Great Eastern, 693 feet long and, at 18,900 tons, five times heavier than any other ship on earth. He lived to see it carry 4000 passengers and their goods to Australia without stopping. The modern equivalent of this is air travel, and there are two, linked contenders that echo his vision.

Heathrow's T5 is on a scale Brunel would have approved of. Passengers at T5 will be able to board the Airbus A380, the largest passenger aircraft in the world, capable of carrying up to 800 passengers. It comes into service later this year and Airbus must be hoping its plane doesn't share the same fate as the SS Great Eastern, which failed to attract enough passengers.

Amazingly, he did all these great projects with only 36 directly employed people

Chris Wise, director of Expedition Engineering

A hit and a miss

Technical innovation was another Brunellian hallmark. "The man was a compulsive innovator," says Gordon Masterton, president of the Institution of Civil Engineers. "Everything he picked up he wanted to do differently." Indeed, Brunel was prone to overdoing the innovation. For example, his atmospheric railway eliminated the need for a heavy locomotive - in theory. It had a pipe running between the rails that moved the train using pressure, but couldn't be made to work properly. It was closed down after six months and the investors lost their money.

But when Brunel got it right the results were stunning. His SS Great Britain was the world's first ocean-going wrought-iron ship to use a screw propeller, at a time when the sensible choice was paddle wheels. "After innovation, the second-greatest contribution Brunel made was research and development," says James Dyson, chairman of the eponymous vacuum cleaner company. "With the propeller, Brunel took the design and progressively refined it by adding elements, seeing if it made a difference, until it was near-on 92% efficient."

Today, a similar rigour can be seen in human genome research (though one likes to think that if Brunel were alive he'd have turned it into a cure for cancer by now).

Beautiful bridges

If one single modern-day, project stands out for having the most Brunel-like characteristics, and for encapsulating his ability to perfectly combine engineering with architecture, it is the Millau Viaduct in Southern France. For years the A75 motorway was interrupted by the Tarn Valley and traffic ground to a halt in summer. A link was needed between two plateaux but a bridge was considered impossible because of the 2.5 km span.

But Michel Virlogeux, of the French government's big roads division, thought otherwise. He was head of bridge engineering, and he wanted a bridge. He teamed up with Foster and Partners to design it and had to resign from his job in the process. The result is the tallest, longest cable-stayed bridge in the world and a synthesis of engineering and architecture in true Brunellian style.

Its construction was also daring. Decks were built at each side of the plateaux and pushed out over the valley until the two halves met 270m above the River Tarn. Even though it is in an area of outstanding beauty, the bridge quickly become accepted by locals and is a tourist attraction as well as a way of getting to the coast.

After innovation, the second-greatest contribution Brunel made was research and development

James Dyson

The most radical of Brunel's bridges is the Royal Albert Bridge crossing the Tamar in Cornwall, which has many parallels with the Millau Viaduct. It combines a bowstring arch with the deck suspended from this. It was challenging to build. The two spans were built on shore and floated onto the river, jacked up as the support piers rose, then dropped into position. Like the Millau Viaduct it is an elegant design in a beautiful place.

Technological feats that compare with Brunel’s - the Millau Viaduct in southern France

Technological feats that compare with Brunel’s - the Millau Viaduct in southern France

Who is today's Brunel?

Finding a modern equivalent of Brunel is impossible because no one person takes on such a wide-ranging role. Even the Millau Viaduct was a collaboration between an architect and an engineer.

But some people come closer than others. Masterton reckons the inventor Sir Clive Sinclair had some of Brunel's characteristics. He developed the first pocket calculator, digital watch and personal computer and turned these into commercial successes. Inexplicably he switched to personal transport and came up with an electric tricycle, the C5, which made him a national laughing stock. Success and failure were the two sides of Brunel's legacy, but he always bounced back with a bigger and better idea, unlike Sinclair, who faded into obscurity.

We have two other contenders. Historian Buchanan suggests Bill Gates for "making a great success of engineering know-how, thinking big and producing big results". Expedition's Wise suggests another. "Richard Branson is doing transport, pioneering stuff on the space race and exploiting technology faster than anyone else," he says. "There is nobody from construction or the design side that is doing such ground-breaking stuff." But what do you think?

Technological feats that compare with Brunel’s - the human genome project

Technological feats that compare with Brunel’s - the human genome project

Why Brunel was bad

Heaven preserve us from engineers like Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

He caused an awful lot of trouble in his day. And if he were about nowadays the construction industry wouldn’t touch him with that famous barge pole. “What? Brunel is the engineer on this job! No thanks!” “Get your bids from some other contractor.” Brunel carries off first prize for very bad contracting. Oh yes, he gets top prizes for his bridges, boats, railways. And true, I would engage him to fathom how the odd bits of structural steel should join together to build the odd roof on the odd stadium. But keep the fellow in the back office dabbling with his designs. Don’t let him do all the other things that engineers and architects are supposed to.

William Ranger, if he were hereabouts, would give evidence about Brunel. He was what you would call the “successful bidder” and contractor on a major stretch of the Great Western Railway. Brunel’s ordinary approach was to starve all contractors of funds to keep them subservient. Ranger stood up to Brunel but had nowhere to go but the courts in those days. He wrestled with the certifier in litigation for, wait for it, 16 years. And eventually won.

Hugh McKintosh, if he were hereabouts, would give evidence about Brunel, too. His firm replaced Ranger’s on the railway. McKintosh and Brunel’s litigation lasted 28 years! McKintosh won and could have won more but by then his firm was very nearly done for. Nobody wins in litigation.

Mind you, as a youngster Brunel wasn’t exactly shown a good example by that old scoundrel Thomas Telford. A competition was held for what became the breathtaking Clifton Suspension Bridge over the Avon Gorge outside Bristol. The young Brunel’s entry was in competition with some ridiculous ideas from well-known engineers, including one by Telford. Guess who judged the competition? Telford! And guess who declared himself the winner? Telford! But the scoundrel was uncovered and Brunel eventually got the job.

If Brunel had behaved today the way he behaved towards the men building the leviathan transatlantic liner the SS Great Eastern, he would likely be hung, drawn and quartered by the Health and Safety Executive. It’s not clear just how many men died in the building works; legend has it that a riveter became sealed up in one of the hull’s watertight cells and couldn’t make his bangs heard above the din of 1000 other riveters working outside.

Brunel is held out as a brilliant engineer; well, he wasn’t. He was a wrong-headed bully who didn’t give a damn about those around him. By all means design and engineer how to rivet widgets and wigglepins, but the edifice has to be built and built for a fair profit. The way Brunel built was wrong then and would be wrong now.

Tony Bingham is a barrister

Brunel, my hero

I think Isambard Kingdom Brunel was great because he was a walking, talking, giant embodiment of risk and reward. His middle name was enormous and, judging by the daring of his projects, so was his brain and his imagination. It is because of people like Brunel and his friendly but ultra-competitive rivalry with Robert Stephenson, that the world moved forward.

Imagine sitting in a little office in London (as he did in Duke Street) and from there looking across the whole world to find projects: from the first tunnel under a major river to a life-saving prefab hospital in a war zone. To put it into context, people would say we were foolhardy if we tried to do that now, yet it’s just a tiny fraction of what Brunel actually did.

As befits an engineer (ahem), Brunel was an especially good-looking man. As the saying goes, he actually was an oil painting (photos from 1859 show his portrait hung on the wall of his Duke Street office for visitors to admire).

I imagine him surrounded by wooden chests full of project drawings, gaslight flickering over an early photograph of his Saltash Bridge, sucking on the 1850 equivalent of a chocolate digestive as he ponders a fate for the rats who ate the leather seals of his atmospheric railway.

And I can imagine him riding to Bristol on his own Great Western, scribbling fine detail for his Great Eastern, along the “broad gauge” route he surveyed years earlier on horseback, and down which we hammer at 125 mph today.

And I like him for the fact that there were some things even he had to let go: “I feel I may be altogether writing nonsense – one sadly loses the habits of mathematical reasoning …” How many engineers-turned-project-managers can empathise with that?

I also like him enormously for putting architects in their place on engineering projects in general and Paddington station in particular, the whole of which, “of course, I believe myself fully competent for … but for detail of ornamentation I have neither the time nor the knowledge, and with all my confidence in my own ability I have never any objection to advice …”

If he lived today, I’m sure Brunel would take on the difficult things: worldwide fresh water, hydrogen-powered transport, cost-effective wind power, the Bosphorus Bridge and manned flight to Mars. We might take comfort that at least today’s Brunel could be a woman, probably even designing, making and distributing her own range of cosmetics – Brunelle. He was, after all, no slouch when it came to marketing.

And in terms of changing the world, I like him because, amazingly, he did it all with only 36 directly employed people. As it happens that is about the same size as our office as I write this.

I must have a word in their ears …

Chris Wise is director of Expedition Engineering