Wednesday, 10 April 2013

"I" is for Isambard Kingdom Brunel

I'm certain that I had never heard of the man called Isambard Kingdom Brunel until I was about 50 years old. If you're not British, it's likely you haven't heard of him either. If you are from   Great Britain, you probably know that he was placed second in the  "Top 100 Britons" of all time in a BBC poll in 2002.

Go on, ask who beat him. (Winston Churchill). To put him in historical perspective, Brunel topped Princess Diana, Charles Darwin, William Shakespeare, Sir Isaac Newton, Queen Elizabeth I, John Lennon, Admiral Horatio Nelson and Oliver Cromwell (in that order) for the Top 10. Now are you wondering who he was?

Robert Howlett photo, 1859
Yesterday, April 9th, would have been Mr Brunel's 207th birthday. A pity the months didn't sync just right for yesterday to be "I" day; that won't happen again until 2019 so I'm pressing on.

Because his is one of the most unusual names I've ever encountered -- Isambard -- and with a middle name like 'Kindgom', he stuck in my mind the first time I heard him mentioned. And there he has remained ever since. Because he didn't live to see his 54th birthday (a heavy smoker, he died of a stroke) his accomplishments are all the more amazing.

But did he really do all that? Controversial new research suggests that his accomplishments may have been exaggerated, his projects error-plagued and, in some cases, that he may not have done what he is credited with. Oops. Good time for an inquiry.

To say that Brunel left his mark on England is an understatement. A quick look at Wikipedia and we learn that he was a "mechanical and civil engineer who built dockyards, the Great Western Railway, a series of steamships including the first propeller-driven transatlantic steamship and numerous important bridges and tunnels." 

Bridge over the River Avon, Bristol (Mark Hadlow photo)
Did Isambard Kingdom Brunel really design
the Clifton Suspension Bridge?
His designs revolutionised public transportation and modern engineering. According to Britain Express, his most remarkable feat for the Great Western Railway was the Box Tunnel, between Bath and Chippenham. This amazing engineering feat was two miles long, took almost six years to complete and, when the crews funneling from each end met in the middle, it's said they were only 1.25 inches out of alignment. 

As a transplant to 'Old Blighty' myself, I have consistently been surprised at how often I've run into the name Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It seemed that everywhere I went or lived was somehow touched by the genius of Brunel. In fact, I lived in Kensal Green (London) for a year--and discovered on walk through the vast Kensal Green Cemetery one day that the man is buried there. It was nice to have him close by.

Why mention him now? Given how he and his many projects kept showing up, it was little surprise to me that I stumbled on a Brunel design when researching hospitals for my Crimean War-era novel. I'm not writing a book about Florence Nightingale so I wanted a different hospital setting than the ones commonly associated with her. It was then I discovered  Renkioi Hospital. And guess who designed it?

In February 1855, as war dragged on inconclusively and soldiers continued to die of things over than battlefield wounds, Brunel accepted the the task of designing and building--quickly--a temporary, pre-fabricated hospital that could be shipped to the Crimea and erected there. His team assembled designed, built, and shipped pre-fabricated wood and canvas buildings for the hospital--within five months.

Ward building design, Renkioi Hospital, Istanbul, 1955
Of particular note was the attention paid to hygiene, access to sanitation, ventilation, drainage, and even rudimentary temperature controls. The pre-fab units were a great success, with some sources stating that of the approximately 1,300 patients treated in the hospital, there were only 50 deaths. In the more familiar Scutari hospital itself, deaths were reported to be up to ten times that number.  

How can all this be true? Yes, it's a lot. And, sadly, as so often happens, further research sometimes sheds new light on our old beliefs. It is no different in Brunel's case. While I'm disappointed that this much-admired man's reputation and accomplishments have been called into question, it's also a pity that, if true, so many others didn't get credit for their work. 

So who's right? Consider the current debate. In a Telegraph article from 2011, biographer Adrian Vaughan claims, in his book, 'The Intemperate Engineer', that many of the things Brunel is credited with did not happen. After studying previously-unpublished Brunel writings, as well as engineering drawings of the period,  he also maintains that Brunel's work was littered with errors and problems--and often overdue and over budget. On the other hand...

Steven Brindle, an English Heritage historian, disagrees with Vaughan. Author of a book called "Brunel: The Man Who Built the WorldVaughan defends Brunel, the engineer, as well as his own conclusions. "Brunel,"he says, "was a genius at the level of Leonardo or Mozart. Again and again in his career, he had these fundamental insights....he was capable of what we would call blue sky thinking to a quite remarkable extent."

The answer? I don't know--but I would like to--and will continue to follow the debate. What do you think?

What I do know is that the engineering marvels of the Victorian era stand today, whoever designed them, as examples of a period of great innovation and change in the world. An impressive period indeed.

I also know that researching the illustrious reputation of  Isambard Kingdom Brunel for this "I" blog has been interesting, informative, illuminating, inspirational, intriguing, instructive and more...including my discovery of a fascinating list of words beginning with the letter I which calls me to look for even more.

Thanks for reading this April #AtoZChallenge blog! Comments and corrections welcome, please...


  1. Inimitably Interesting and Informative, I'd Intone.

    I bet both things have some truth in them!

  2. I love the idea of a novel abput the Crimea and fascinating the background history required beyond the specific thing leads to another.

    Pauleen @ (A to Z) and (family history)