Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859)

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born in Portsmouth, the son of Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, an engineer who had fled to Britain from his native France during the revolution.

After completing his education in France, Brunel worked as an apprentice to a clockmaker before assisting his father in the building of the Thames tunnel at Rotherhithe in London. The tunnel was plagued with delays caused by flooding (with one incident injuring the younger Brunel), and was eventually completed in 1843, 18 years after work began.

In 1831, Brunel’s designs won the competition for the Clifton Suspension Bridge spanning 210 metres across the River Avon in Bristol, the longest span of any bridge at the time. Work began the same year, although Brunel did not live to see the bridge completed.

Also in 1831, Brunel was appointed chief engineer at the Bristol Docks, and designed Monkwearmouth Docks. He also designed similar docks at Plymouth, Cardiff, Brentford and Milford Haven.

In March 1833, aged only 27, Brunel was appointed chief engineer on the Great Western Railway, the line linking London and Bristol. As part of this project he designed and built several viaducts, tunnels and stations - including Hanwell and Chippenham viaducts, the Box Tunnel, and Bristol Temple Meads and London Paddington stations.

Supported by the Great Western Railway Company, Brunel built a steamship to travel from Bristol to New York - the Great Western. This ship, which at 72 metres was the longest in the world at the time, made its first transatlantic voyage on 8 April 1838. Unfortunately, a delayed launch meant the Great Western missed its claim to be the first steam-powered transatlantic voyage by only a day, being beaten by the Sirius.

Brunel’s next ship, the Great Britain, launched in 1843, was the world’s first iron-hulled, steam-powered passenger liner. The Great Eastern, Brunel’s largest ship and the largest in the world at the time, was launched in 1859, by which time Brunel was ill with kidney disease. He died in London just a few days after the vessel’s first trial voyage.