Architect of Bristol - Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Many of the cities of the world have one man who can lay claim to the design and arcitecture of the cities most memorable monuments. Bristol is the city of Isambard Kingdom Brunel with out a doubt. The term genius has been thrown around a lot lately. How does one define it? Intuition, training, practice or innovation? Well, it is a bit of all of these and more. The "more" is undefinable and untouchable, but you can feel it. Not every project would succeed, but they would all be characterized as visionary. One could look at Isambard K. Brunel and easily conclude that he fit all of these criteria. He had a short life, but filled it with grand ideas and projects, which populate the landscape of the United Kingdom and inspire others across the world.

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Railways, bridges and steamships were his speciality. Born in Portsea in the year 1806 to a father already famous for his engineering feats, it seemed appropriate that the son would exceed the father. At the age of 24, he won his first engineering commission in 1830 to build the Clifton Suspension Bridge. For the next 30 years, he would be given the responsibility of many more. On the 200th anniversary of his birth, he was voted the second greatest Briton after Winston Churchill. Some of his firsts were the tunnel under a navigable river and the propeller-driven ocean-going iron ship.

After finishing studies in France in 1826, he was appointed chief assistant engineer of his father's project to build a tunnel underneath the Thames River between Rotherhithe and Wapping. His father, Sir Marc I. Brunel, focused on the safety of the workers by devising a shield to protect them in case the tunnel collapsed. This idea would be used repeatedly in the future. It would take many years to complete as a few accidents occurred due to weakness of the riverbed, and one in which Brunel almost died in 1828. Spectators were lowered down to observe the work at a small price. If you visit the Brunel Museum, you can see the pumps used to keep the tunnel dry.

Bridges are where he had his first taste of fame. Three of them stand out: the brick arch Maidenhead Railway Bridge, the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the Royal Albert Bridge. Each one held a record for the longest span of its kind at the time. The former was finished in 1838; it has two arches with each span measuring 39 metres (128 feet) and carrying four tracks. Completed a few months before he died, the latter was originally supposed to be a train ferry across the Hamoaze River in Cornwall, but after the plan was turned down by Parliament, he proposed one with two main spans of 139 metres (455 feet) and seventeen approach spans rising 30 metres (100 feet) above the river. The bridge linking Clifton and Leigh Woods was completed in 1864 having been plagued by funding crises.

Silloette of Clifton Suspension Bridge one of Brunels masterpieces

When one thinks of railways, Brunel's name often follows. In 1833, he was chosen as the chief engineer of the Great Western Railway and would personally survey its full length. The visionary in him made two choices: to use broad gauge and to create a new route north of the Marlborough Downs. Why? He had tested the former and concluded that it was more efficient, faster, stable and comfortable for passengers. The new route would allow more cities to be connected linking the country even more. The sheer size of the new route demanded viaducts, bridges, stations and tunnels, the most famous of which was the Box Tunnel. After Brunel died, the line was re-laid as standard gauge.

The final great passion of Brunel's was transatlantic shipping. He would design three massive steamships: the Great Western, the Great Britain and the Great Eastern. The former first sailed in 1837 and was 72 metres (236 feet) long. She took only 29 days to reach New York. A voyage she would do 74 times. Only 7 years later, the second ship was launched and measured almost 100 metres (322 feet) long and was the first iron-hulled propeller-driven ship. In 1852, he dreamt up the third one; its construction would take seven years. It was almost 213 metres (700 feet) long and could carry over 4000 passengers. He envisioned it going from London to Sydney non-stop. It failed as a passenger ship but succeeded as an oceanic telegraph cable-layer. Sadly, he died before it took its first voyage in 1860.

He died in 1859 without seeing some of his projects come to a successful end, but could undoubtedly see them in his mind. His projects were often ahead of their time. A prime example is the South Devon Railway, whose remains can be found in the Didcot Railway Centre; it was to be driven by vacuum traction with pumps every 2 miles, but rats were attracted to it by the smell of one of the principal chemicals, so it was soon abandoned. Some of his bridges might be torn down as plans are afoot to electrify the train lines, but hopefully their historic value might outweigh them.