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date: 03 March 2021

Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the engineers of the nineteenth centuryfree

  • Adam Hart-Davis

John Loudon McAdam (1756–1836)

by unknown artist, c. 1830

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born in Portsmouth on 9 April 1806; there could hardly have been a better time to enter the world of engineering. Britain led the world in the production of iron, steel, and steam engines, and for engineers the sky was the limit, literally: the nineteenth century would see the flights of the pioneering aircraft of John Stringfellow and Sir George Cayley.

Brunel's first major engineering task was rather more down to earth—he was called upon to rescue the Rotherhithe Tunnel that his father Sir (Marc) Isambard Brunel was digging under the Thames. One of the problems was the continual leakage of raw sewage from the river above. In April 1826 Marc became too ill to carry on, and Isambard, just twenty years old, took over as resident engineer. He managed to keep going for some eighteen months, but in January 1828 the roof caved in, and there was a disastrous flood. Six men died, and Isambard was pulled unconscious from the water. He took more than a year to recover, and the tunnel—by then known as the Great Bore—was not completed for fifteen years.

Isambard Brunel later built another tunnel, just a few miles west of Bath—the 'monstrous and extraordinary, most dangerous and impracticable tunnel at Box' (I. Brunel, The Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Civil Engineer, 1870, repr. 2004, 72). This tunnel is nearly two miles long, took five years in construction, and cost the lives of more than a hundred men. The flamboyant geologist William Buckland declared that 'the concussion of the atmosphere and the vibration caused by the trains' would probably bring down thousands of tons of rock on the hapless passengers. Meanwhile the eminent critic Dionysius Lardner said that because of the downhill gradient, any train whose brakes failed at the eastern end of the tunnel would hurtle out of the other end doing 100 m.p.h., at which speed the air would be sucked instantly from the lungs of the passengers, and they would all be dead on arrival at Bath. The Great Western Railway still runs through Brunel's Box Tunnel, and neither disaster has happened in the first 160 years.

The age of rail

The first time a locomotive pulled a train was in 1804, to settle a bet. The fiery Cornish wrestler Richard Trevithick mounted one of his high-pressure steam engines on wheels at Samuel Homfray's Penydarren iron works near Merthyr Tudful, to haul ten tons of pig iron nine and a half miles down the Taff valley to the wharf at Abercynon, from where it would go by barge to Cardiff.

The iron was normally hauled by horses on wagons that ran on a railway of cast-iron plates, and Trevithick ran his locomotive on the same track, towing five wagons loaded with the pig iron, and seventy passengers who clambered aboard. They had to stop frequently to cut down overhanging trees blocking the way, so the journey took two hours, but they made it to Abercynon. Unfortunately the five-ton locomotive had broken most of the iron plates, which meant that the return journey had to be made by road, and the idea of using a locomotive did not catch on until stronger wrought-iron rails became available [see also Trevithick's locomotive of 1804 and the development of steam technology].

The first commercial engine-pulled railway was built in 1812 by Matthew Murray at the Round Foundry in Leeds. It hauled coal from the Middleton coalfield into the centre of Leeds, and because there was a considerable gradient Murray used John Blenkinsop's rack railway; the locomotive pulled itself along with a large cog-wheel that engaged with the teeth on a third rail. The legendary George Stephenson may well have learned from the Middleton railway, for soon afterwards he began to experiment with locomotives at Killingworth colliery near Newcastle. In 1823–5 he built the railway to carry coal and a few passengers from Darlington to Stockton, and in the late 1820s he built the railway from Liverpool to Manchester.

George Stephenson was a great entrepreneur and salesman; he managed to assume control of most of the early passenger railways built in the north of England, and he was lucky to be assisted by his son Robert Stephenson, who was a much better engineer. Apart from a brief trip to South America, where he rescued the destitute Richard Trevithick, who had won and then lost his fortune in the old silver mines, Robert ran his father's engine works at Newcastle. Using leading-edge technology he built Rocket, the superb locomotive that won the Rainhill trials in 1829, and so earned the right to pull the first passenger trains from Liverpool to Manchester the following year.

James Hall Nasmyth (1808–1890)

by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, c. 1844

Another great engine-builder in the Stephenson stable was Daniel Gooch, who went on to build locomotives for Brunel, and later to rescue the Great Western Railway from financial disaster. Joseph Locke, a pupil of George's, became a great railway builder in his own right, as indeed did Robert Stephenson, who constructed the railway from Birmingham to London and many others at home and abroad, sometimes in partnership with other engineers, including George Parker Bidder. As a child Bidder had rarely attended school, preferring instead to sit in the local blacksmith's shop at Moretonhampstead on Dartmoor. None the less he developed a love of numbers and amazing skill at mental arithmetic. His father used to take him to local fairs and exhibit him as the Calculating Boy, and he was frequently asked to multiply six-figure numbers together in his head. In spite of this curious upbringing he too became a successful engineer, and among other things built the first railway swing bridge, over the River Wensum near Norwich.

A genius for detail

The railway engineers were essentially the descendants of the millwrights, since the earliest steam engines—the vast Newcomen engines [see Newcomen, Thomas]—had been built by the men who knew about water mills and windmills. A new breed, however, was appearing alongside them—the men of precision, working on a smaller scale.

The grandfather of precision engineering was the Yorkshireman Joseph Bramah, who invented a new water-closet, followed by an unpickable lock, so elegant in design and function that any beautiful piece of engineering came to be called ‘a real Bramah’. To make his locks and run his workshop he hired a young man called Maudslay, formerly a powder-monkey at Woolwich arsenal. Henry Maudslay was the true father of precision engineering. One of his workmen said that it was a pleasure to see him handle a tool of any kind, but he was quite splendid with an 18 inch file. He himself said: 'Avoid complexities, and make everything as simple as possible.' After Bramah's locks he went on to make pulley-block-making machines for Marc Brunel—the world's first iron machine-tool production line—and later the world's finest steam engines. He built a micrometer—the Lord Chancellor—that could measure to a ten-thousandth of an inch, and was used to settle disputes in his workshop.

Perhaps Maudslay's greatest skill was in passing on his genius, for from his workshop came a stream of superb precision engineers. The versatile Richard Roberts invented the cotton-spinning mule in 1830, and for Robert Stephenson's Menai Bridge he built a heavy Jacquard-controlled plate-punching machine, arguably the first digitally controlled machine tool. Another of Maudslay's men, Joseph Clement, did his best to follow the instructions of the irascible Charles Babbage, and built the prototype ‘difference engine’—the world's first mechanical computer

Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806–1859)

by Robert Howlett, 1857

. Joseph Whitworth set up in Manchester, where Whitworth Street was named after him; he standardized nuts and bolts, so that they could be mass-produced instead of having to be made to order. And in 1836 James Nasmyth established a foundry at Patricroft, outside Manchester, and invented the steam hammer, one of the most powerful machine tools of the Victorian era.

It was a question posed in the previous year which led Nasmyth to Isambard Kingdom Brunel. In October 1835 the 29-year-old Brunel was asked during a board meeting of the Great Western Railway whether the railway was too long. He replied, 'Why not make it longer? Build a steamship to go to New York and call it the Great Western' (Brunel, Life, 233). Amazingly they agreed, and he proceeded to build the biggest wooden ship the world had seen. He followed that up with the Great Britain, half as big again, and built of iron; now, 160 years later, she lies in Bristol in the very dock where she was built, a tribute to the strength of Brunel's design.

Innovation, speed, and power

Brunel planned to drive the Great Britain using sails and paddle wheels, and needed a huge axle to run across the ship from the engine to the paddle wheels; could James Nasmyth make such a thing? This colossal axle could not be forged with a conventional tilt hammer, powered by a water wheel, so on 24 November 1839 Nasmyth worked out a design for a steam-powered hammer, and sketched it in his scheme book. The principle was simple: use steam pressure to raise a five-ton lump of steel, and then let it fall onto the work in hand.

At this point Brunel—a sucker for new technology—changed his mind, and decided to use the newfangled screw propeller instead of paddle wheels, so he did not need the great axle. Accordingly Nasmyth did not build his steam hammer, but three years later found one working in France. The manager of the French ironworks had visited Patricroft while Nasmyth happened to be away, had seen the drawings of the steam hammer in the scheme book, and went home to build one.

The idea of propelling a ship by means of a screw rather than paddle-wheels had been around since 1802, when Edward Shorter took out a patent; his propeller was powered by hand, but he noted that a steam engine would be better. On 28 June 1834 Edward Lyon Berthon, cruising on Lake Geneva during his honeymoon, had his sketchbook ruined by a blob of water from the paddle-wheel, thought there must be a better way, and invented another screw propeller. After experimenting, he sent his design to the Admiralty, who scornfully said it was a pretty toy, but never could and never would power a real ship.

Francis Petit Smith, not knowing about this, reinvented the screw; this time the Admiralty took notice, and so did Brunel. Meanwhile the rival inventors John Ericsson (in America), James Lowe, and Lowe's daughter Henrietta Vansittart were among forty other engineers who all invented or improved this method of propulsion.

Sir Daniel Gooch, first baronet (1816–1889)

by Sir Francis Grant, 1872

Brunel's enthusiasm for new ideas led him seriously astray when he extended the Great Western Railway from Exeter to Newton Abbot, for he decided to use the atmospheric propulsion system that had been pioneered by Samuel Clegg and Joseph Samuda. There was no locomotive, but a cast-iron pipe 15 inches in diameter lay between the rails, and a piston inside this pipe was attached by a rod to the front carriage. Immense Boulton and Watt steam engines every three miles along the track pumped the air out of the pipe in front of the train, and the pressure of the atmosphere on the back of the piston pushed it along [see Boulton, Matthew], and [Watt, James].

The atmospheric railway ran for about a year from September 1847, and passengers loved it. There was no noise, no smoke, no smuts, and without a heavy locomotive the acceleration was terrific: the trains commonly reached 60 m.p.h. There were various technical problems, however, of which the simplest was that the leather flap which sealed the slot in the top of the pipe froze hard in the winter and dried out in the summer, so that men had to soften it with whale oil. The oil attracted rats, the rats ate the leather, and the whole thing was a disaster. Brunel's rash adventure cost the company half a million pounds.

By the mid-nineteenth century cast and wrought iron were gradually giving way to steel, and the process of steelmaking was transformed in the late 1850s by the Bessemer converter, with which thirty tons of steel could be made in half an hour. Henry Bessemer was a prolific inventor; he took out more than 100 patents. He suffered terribly from seasickness, and designed a ship in which he could not fall ill; she was so long that she could not pitch fore and aft, and the main saloon was mounted on trunnions with a great weight underneath, so that however the ship rolled the cabin would stay level. Friends said it would not work, but he spent £40,000 building the SS Bessemer, which sailed from Dover for her maiden voyage on 8 May 1875, sedately crossed the channel, and comprehensively demolished the pier at Calais. The captain said that the swinging weight made her impossible to steer, and she never put to sea again. Just as Bessemer had revolutionized steelmaking, so Charles Parsons, son of the Irish astronomer William Parsons, third earl of Rosse, revolutionized power generation. He invented the steam turbine in Gateshead in 1884; at 37 knots his little boat Turbinia flashed past the entire Royal Navy at the queen's jubilee review in 1897, and now most of the world's electricity is generated using steam turbines.

Sir Henry Bessemer (1813–1898)

by London Stereoscopic Co.

A simpler and subtler engine had been invented by the Scottish minister Robert Stirling in 1816. It ran on heat, rather than any specific fuel. It inspired the young William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, to investigate the laws of thermodynamics, and even today Stirling engines are used in cutting-edge applications all over the world, and even in space. In addition to Stirling the Scots have produced so many engineers that they could almost take on the rest of the world. Kirkpatrick Macmillan built the world's first bicycle in 1839; Alexander Bain invented the electric clock and patented a fax machine some thirty years before Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. David Kirkaldy was the first man paid to break things; over the door of his materials testing workshop behind what is now Tate Modern, London, is the legend 'facts not opinions'. John Loudon McAdam became famous for his road-building—the word ‘macadamize’ passed into the English language—following on from the even more prolific Thomas Telford, who built 900 miles of roads in Scotland, and the road to Holyhead, including the Menai suspension bridge, completed in 1826.

Brunel's second chance

In 1829 Telford was chief judge in a competition to design a bridge over the Avon Gorge in Bristol. Originally he chose his own design and threw out all the other entries, but the merchant venturers changed his mind, and the contract was awarded to a young engineer who was then recovering from a disastrous flood in a London tunnel. He never finished the bridge, because the money kept running out, but it was completed a few years after his death, and still stands as a superb memorial to Isambard Kingdom Brunel. When Brunel worked himself to death at the age of fifty-three his colleague Daniel Gooch wrote in his diary that he was 'bold in his plans but right. The commercial world thought him extravagant but altho' he was so, great things are not done by those who sit down and count the cost of every thought and act' (D. Gooch, Memoirs and Diary, ed. R. B. Wilson, 1972, 76).


National Portrait Gallery, London