Profiled engineer: Isambard Kingdom Brunel

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Born in Portsmouth on the south coast of the UK in 1806, Isambard Kingdom Brunel is probably the world’s most famous civil engineer.

His contribution established many industry standards that are still used today, and his impact on Britain is still felt every day.

In 2002, he was voted the 2nd greatest Briton in a BBC public poll.

Brunel was responsible for a number of industry firsts

Working with his father, Marc Isambard Brunel, he helped build the first tunnel under a river: the Thames Tunnel. This was achieved using their newly designed shield technology to protect the workers from cave-ins while working in incredibly dangerous environments.

He also developed the first propeller-driven ocean going iron ship, the SS Great Britain. At the time, it was the largest ship to cross the Atlantic from Bristol to New York. Brunel’s theories about the buoyancy of huge ships made this project possible. 

He proposed the idea that moving a much larger ship would use proportionately less fuel than a small one. And he was so sure of this theory that he offered his services to the Great Western Steamship Company completely free. 

Isambard Kingdom Brunel chains

“He was so sure of this theory that he offered his services to the Great Western Steamship Company completely free”

Unfortunately, the maiden voyage of the SS Great Britain had to be delayed and another ship, the Sirius beat it to being the first steam-powered boat to cross the Atlantic Ocean by one day. 

However, when the Sirius arrived, they had resorted to burning furniture and one of their masts for fuel. The SS Great Britain arrived with a third of its coal remaining.

In 1833, Brunel was appointed chief engineer of the Great Western Railway. It was here that he made his most profound impact on modern Britain and the railway industry.

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