Skip to main content
Isambard Kingdom Brunel statue at Brunel University, London, UK

Isambard Kingdom Brunel: Biography

Image Credit: Adning / | Above: Isambard Kingdom Brunel statue at Brunel University, London, UK

He was burnt, broken and buried under his constructions but nothing stopped Brunel. He built under rivers and through hills, creating the longest tunnels, the biggest bridges and the speediest ships the world had ever seen. This is the revolutionary Briton who built Britain.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s unusual name comes from his civil engineer father, a Normandy refugee from the French Revolution. His English mother, Sophia Kingdom, gives birth to their only son on 9 April 1806. Marc Isambard Brunel isn’t good with money (a trait many financiers would say his son inherits), but he is a great engineer and a great teacher to his son. By eight, the young Brunel understands geometry and draughtsmanship. Even as a child, he’s a workaholic.

Determined not to let deepening debts stop his son having a good education, Marc sends him to boarding school and then to France. This, along with some ill advised projects, proves financially unsustainable and both his parents spend three months in a debtor’s prison. On top of this, Brunel’s refused entry into a renowned French engineering school because despite his French father, he’s considered a foreigner.


But the British government recognise his father’s engineering potential and release him from his debts and jail. His son returns to England and still just a teenager, Brunel becomes chief assistant engineer on his father’s project to create a tunnel under the Thames. This 1,200ft (365m) long tunnel was to be their first, and last, project together.

Despite 20 hour working days, Brunel still finds time to fall deeply in love with a woman from Manchester called Ellen Hulme. But in 1827, Brunel doesn’t believe he has enough money to marry. Their courting ends. And the family future is far from certain. His father Marc is under constant threat of being fired by a hostile employer.

Despite Marc inventing a tunnelling shield that protects workers as they progress, work is still extremely hazardous. Breaches and collapses often halt the project. And on one Saturday, on 12 January 1828, the tunnel floods. Six men are swept to their deaths in a tidal wave of sewage, debris and water. The 22 year old Brunel should have joined them. But his assistant manages to pull Brunel’s unconscious body from the water. Work’s once again stopped on the tunnel.

It’s while recuperating that Brunel hears of a competition to build a new bridge across one of Britain’s deepest gorges.


It takes several months to recover, but as he does, he devises his most memorable design, the Bristol Clifton Suspension Bridge. He will build over a hundred bridges but this is the one that history will remember. At the time of building, it’s the longest bridge in the world. It spans a 250ft (76m) deep gorge with sheer rock either side. But as with the tunnel, Brunel’s obstacles are as much human rivalries as they are physical. He submits four designs to the deciding committee, but it’s headed by arch rival, the ‘Colossus of Roads’, Thomas Telford. He rejects Brunel’s designs and submits his own. After a public outcry, Telford’s forced to withdraw and Brunel begins building in 1831.

To transport materials across, a 1,000 ft (305m) iron bar is suspended between the two ends and a man sized basket is pulled back and forth. The first man to test it is Brunel himself. But the rope snags, stranding Brunel. So, 200ft (61m) up, he climbs out and frees the rope allowing his return. The stunt brings Brunel huge publicity.

But as with the Thames Tunnel, work is halted; this time because of riots. Britain’s ruling classes are trying their best to withstand the rise of the working and middle classes. Some spectacularly injudicious comments by a judge opposed to increasing the number of voters spark three days of looting. During the disorder, Brunel is sworn in as a special constable.

But as the riots end, so does investor interest in the bridge. Brunel will also redesign Bristol harbour, but he’ll never live to see the completion of his greatest achievement.


In 1833, Brunel is appointed chief engineer of the Great Western Railway and he starts connecting the South West of England with London. In total, he’ll build 25 railway lines. With this one, he hopes to reduce journey time down to four hours, a full 13 hours quicker than the even the mail coach can achieve. Brunel’s budget is £2 million. He will spend six.

His design vision is total. No detail is too small. Everything from the lampposts, stations, locomotives, carriages and even the width of the track are re-designed. Brunel wants to bring not just speed, but comfort to the travelling public. By doubling the width of the track, he can do that. But Brunel’s ‘broad gauge’ is a rejection of the gauge advocated by the other great man of rail, George Stephenson. And existing track owners are understandably resistant. And then there are countless landowners who oppose his plans to carve through the countryside.

A parliamentary committee calls Brunel to account. Over eleven days, he’s cross-examined. Ever the designer, he connects a piece of string to a bell so that he can ring his lawyer awake each morning of the hearing.

After 56 days of waiting, the committee green lights his vision. One of his first obstacles is a flood plain 11 miles west of London. The easiest engineering solution would have added just a few seconds to the journey time. Brunel’s solution is the Wharncliffe Viaduct. Its 900ft (274m) length and eight arches shave those seconds off. Other remarkable innovations include building a bridge over the Thames at Maidenhead that is still the widest, flattest brick arch bridge in the world. Already a virtual insomniac, Brunel begins to suffer from horrendously vivid nightmares in his few sleeping hours.

And his constructions were costly, both in terms of men, as much as money. His Box Tunnel, then the longest railway tunnel in existence, took five years and 4,000 men with dynamite to build it. In percentage terms, you were more likely to die building the Box Hill tunnel than in the trenches of the First World War.

In 1836, Brunel marries. He honeymoons in Snowdonia, Wales. He will eventually have three children at his new Westminster home, and his son Henry will be the first person to ever travel under the Thames as he’s handed through as a baby by his father. The tunnel becomes a must see tourist attraction and consolidates Brunel’s celebrity status. But Brunel’s father never recovers from working on it. He never works on another professional project. And six years after its public opening, Marc Brunel is laid to rest.


In 1835, the year before his marriage, Brunel had offered his services free to the Great Western Steamship Company believing that steam powered ships could cross the Atlantic. It was to complete his vision of a passenger being able to buy one ticket that would get them from London to New York.

At the time, Brunel had never designed a ship. And the Atlantic had only ever been crossed under sail. Many thought a steam powered boat would take so much coal to power there wouldn’t be room for paying passengers or commercial cargo. When a rival attempted the journey, the crew had to burn cabin furniture to complete the journey.

But Brunel calculates that a ship twice the size of a 100ft (30.5m) ship won’t require twice as much coal to fuel it. Work commences on the 2,300 ton behemoth, the Great Western. Brunel is badly burnt during an engine fire on her launch but, in 1838, the longest ship in the world sets sail for New York.

Fifteen days later she arrives. And she has a third of her coal, over 200 tonnes, left to burn. For the next eight years, she is the ship of choice for transatlantic passengers.

He may have laid the foundations of modern industrial Britain, but Brunel’s often forced to use wood as a material. His designs, such as for the Great Western, come several decades before Andrew Carnegie and his mass production of cheap steel.

He was able to use metal, wrought-iron to be precise, and not wood for his ship, Great Britain. She is now considered to be the first modern ship because she was screw propeller-driven rather than by a paddle wheel. Her strength was demonstrated when she was run aground on only her fifth journey and left to winter in that state. On release, her hull was found to have no damage. But her 1845 journey was only between London and New York again. Brunel wanted more.

His next Leviathan project is the Great Eastern. She is built to be capable of taking 4,000 passengers between London and Sydney, Australia. It would be another 50 years before the world would see another ship of the same size.

But Brunel is becoming increasingly disillusioned. His visionary railway broad gauge had been all but abandoned against Stephenson’s standard gauge. The great designer of landmarks like Paddington Station and the Royal Albert Bridge felt broken.

In 1859, as the engines of Great Eastern are tested, Brunel, like his father before him, suffers a stroke. He collapses on deck. As seen in his publicity photographs, he is a heavy smoker. Ten days later, on 15 September, Isambard Kingdom Brunel dies.

His Great Eastern will become a commercial catastrophe. The ship intended to transport thousands to a new continent, instead ends its working days laying telegraph cable.

But five years after his death, Brunel is given a fitting tribute. The Clifton Bristol Suspension Bridge is completed.