Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Remembering... Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Britain's road and rail infrastructure owes a massive debt to that country's greatest engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel; in addition to the massive public works projects he undertook, he was a noted innovator, finding simple solutions to long-standing problems again and again over the course of his too-short life and career.

PhotobucketBrunel's first project was the Thames Tunnel, on which he was appointed his father Sir Marc Isambard Brunel's chief assistant; the year was 1826, and he was just 20. It would take years to join the London boroughs of Rotherhithe and Wapping, and when it opened in March 1843 the tunnel was an instant sensation whose many setbacks would help to perfect the technology which would one day be used to dig the Channel Tunnel.

Brunel built his reputation on bridges: the Royal Albert Bridge, the Windsor Railway Bridge, the Maidenhead Railway Bridge, and the short-lived Hungerford Bridge over the Thames to name just four. His most famous, though, is probably the Clifton Suspension Bridge over the River Severn near Bristol.

For all that he is probably best known, though, for the monumental effort he put into the Great Western Railway; not only did he survey the entire length of the route himself, he made several controversial decisions in order to facilitate it, namely the switch from standard gauge to broad gauge track. Still in service (albeit under another name), the Great Western Railway runs from its terminus at London's Paddington Station to Penzance, with spurs throughout the West Country and South Wales.

Born in April 1806, Isambard Kingdom Brunel died of a stroke on this day in 1859, having left an indelible legacy upon Britain, including his own favourite corner of it, Brunel Manor which, alas, he didn't live to see completed.
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