Isambard Kingdom Brunel

In the 100 years up to 1860, the work of a small group of engineers made possible the economic and social upheaval in England that we call the Industrial Revolution. Brunel, perhaps, was the most prodigious of them all and many of his works, which challenged and inspired his colleagues during this period have survived to our own time and some are still in use.

He was born in 1806, the son of a distinguished French engineer, Sir Marc Brunel, who had come to England at the time of the French Revolution. Unlike most engineers of the time, Isambard Brunel received a sound education and practical training - partly in France - before entering his father's office and taking full charge of the Thames Tunnel at Rotherhithe when he was only 20.

At the age of 26, he was appointed Engineer to the newly-formed Great Western Railway and acted with characteristic boldness and energy. His great civil engineering works on the line between London and Bristol, are used by today's high-speed trains and bear witness to his genius. He eventually engineered over 1,200 miles of railway, including lines in Ireland, Italy and Bengal.

Each of his three ships (The Great Eastern, The Great Western and the Great Britain) represented a major step forward in naval architecture.

Brunel's other works included docks, viaducts, tunnels and buildings and the remarkable prefabricated hospital, with its air-conditioning and drainage systems for use in the Crimean War. Inevitably, in such a prolific career, there were setbacks and disappointments such as the atmospheric railway but he readily admitted his mistakes. Indeed, he himself suffered financially by supporting his ventures with his own money.

As his sketch-books and note-books show, he concerned himself with every aspect of the projects in which he was involved and his designs were the result of calculations and experiment.

Watch The Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel video.

Brunel and his Times

1800 Maudslay's precision screw-cutting lathe

1802 Dalton states his Atomic Theory

1804 Beethoven's 'Eroica'
1805 Trafalgar

Brunel born 1806

  1807 Fulton's steamboat on Hudson River

1811 Luddite riots
1812 Napoleon retreats from Moscow

1814 Stephenson builds the Blucher
1815 Waterloo

1817 Constable paints 'Flatford Mill'

Goes to France 1820

1820 Ampère's Laws of Electro-dynamic Action
1821 Faraday invents the electric motor

Enters father's office aged 16 1822
1823 Babbage begins his calculating machine

Engineer in charge of Thames Tunnel 1826


1825 Stockton and Darlington Railway opened

1827 Ohm's Law stated

Wins second Clifton Bridge competition 1830

1829 Stephenson's Rocket wins Rainhill Trials

Construction begins 1831
1832 First Reform Bill
Bristol Dock works and GWR route survey 1833
  1833 First Factory Act
1834 Tolpuddle Martyrs
Marriage to Mary Horsley 1836
'Great Western' launched 1837

1837 Queen Victoria succeeds to throne

1839 'People's Charter'
1840 Joule begins work on heat

Line from London to Bristol opened 1841
Thames Tunnel opened and 'Great Britain ' launched 1843

1842 Mayer's Law of Conservation of Energy

1845 Cayley's Theory of Linear Transformations and McNaught's compound steam engine

Saltash Bridge commenced 1848

1848 'Year of Revolutions'
1849 'David Copperfield'

1851 The Great Exhibition

Chepstow Bridge opened 1852
Prefabricated hospital for Crimea 1855
  1854-5 Crimean War
1855 Lawrence's turret lathe
1856 Bessemer's steel-making process

'Great Eastern' launched 1858

Saltash Bridge opened 1859
Brunel dies 1859


1859 'Origin of Species' and 'A Tale of Two Cities'

Page last updated: Thursday 03 September 2015