Talk Report: 2016-05-11

Brunel the Engineer by Mike Soars

Mike Soars spent all his working life as an engineer and now works as a volunteer on one of Brunel’s most famous works, the SS Great Britain. Very well qualified to talk about Brunel the Engineer. Mike gave his talk, on Wednesday 11th May 2016, the provocative title Isambard Kingdom Brunel the engineer -or Brunel, the Investor’s nightmare!

Born in 1806, the only son of a French engineer and an English governess, Isambard Kingdom Brunel showedprecocious promise and was making remarkable drawings and designs from an early age. He was educated in both England and France where technical education was more advanced at that time, and by the age of nineteen was already working under his engineer father Marc Brunel on the first tunnel ever built beneath a navigable waterway. This innovative scheme ran beneath the river Thames, and is still in use as part of the London underground system.

So daring an enterprise had never been attempted before and there were several inundations of water during the construction. The young Brunel was badly injured in one of these and was sent to Clifton outside Bristol to convalesce. It is this we have to thank for the fact that we in the West Country can claim him as one of its own.

Aged 25, Isambard entered a competition to design a bridge to span the deep Avon Gorge. Mike reminded his audience that Brunel’s design tools – compass, pencil, dividers, rulers and slide rule - are more recognisable to our generation than to students of today. We saw a beautiful clear drawing of the young engineer’s suggestion for a suspension bridge hung between two towers. This resulted in his design being chosen although to his frustration the bridge was not completed until after his death. The Bristol riots of 1831 drove away investors, but the brilliant design established Brunel as an outstanding engineer with an innovative approach.

His approach to every problem was direct and uncluttered by tradition; the downside being that his original thinking led him to know that he was right whatever others might think. Installed as Consulting Engineer for the new Great Western Railway Brunel approached the design in this forthright fashion, sure that a wide wheel base for the carriages and engine would be both safer and more practical. This of course led to a wider gauge of track, with the consequent necessity of purchasing more land, and of building wider tunnels and bridges. Brunel was undismayed, because he knew that he was right. Mike Soars’s agreed, for although the narrower gauge railway system designed by Stevenson eventually won the day it made for less stable trains than did Brunel’s broad based designs.

The new Great Western Railway required tunnels, bridges and stations and Brunel turned his hand to designing all of these. The two-mile-long tunnel at Box with its splendid entrance is still in use, as is the Bridge constructed with tubular iron which rises 100 feet above the Tamar river at Saltash and the stone bridge over the Thames at Maidenhead, each span 128 feet wide. They are all extraordinary, original in approach and beautiful to see: Brunel believed that “if it looks right, it is right.” Paddington and Temple Meads are the best known examples of Brunel’s new railway stations and they survive in splendour to this day.

It was a wish to push the Great Western Railway still further west that lead the ambitious engineer to design ships: they could continue from Bristol over the Atlantic to New York. Brunel realised that moving a larger vessel would take proportionately less fuel than would a smaller ship, so the ships he designed were on a huge scale. The first, the Great Western was 236 feet long and at the time the longest ship in the world. It was designed with a mixture of tradition and innovation: it was powered with sails but with steam powered paddle wheels in addition, and it was built from wood but with iron reinforcements.

Brunel’s second great ship was the one we know best, the 322 feet long SS Great Britain. This was built entirely of metal and powered by a propeller driven engine; it was the first iron hulled, propeller-driven ship to cross the Atlantic. The originality of the design lead to necessary adjustments and delays with inevitable high costs and her owners were eventually forced out of business. After being run aground off the Irish coast the ship was sold for salvage but was repaired and proceeded to carry thousands of immigrants over to Australia. After many years of service she was retired to the Falkland Islands where she was used as a warehouse until being scuttled just before WW2. It is something of a miracle that the Great Britain was saved and towed across the oceans to its final resting place on the Avon - to the very place where she was first constructed over 130 years ago. As we all know the ship has been carefully restored to her former glory, and is now one of Bristol’s more famous landmarks.

In 1852 Brunel designed a third ship in which, in the opinion of Mike Soars, he went too far! The enormous Great Eastern was almost 700 feet long and capable of carrying over 4,000 passengers. It was intended for voyages to India and Australia and was, like all Brunel’s designs, at the cutting-edge technology for the time. Its massive size created huge problems in construction and launching the hull into the Thames was for some time impossible. Passengers were loath to travel in such a huge vessel and very few harbours could take its length. Like many of Brunel's ambitious projects, the ship soon ran over budget and made Brunel very unpopular since it was the direct cause of seven different bankruptcies. With hindsight, the Great Eastern was a design far before its time. It would be several decades before steamship travel over the oceans could become a viable prospect.

Mike ended his amazing talk with yet another example of Brunel’s genius. During the Crimean War, conditions in the field hospitals were terrible, with massive loss of life amongst the wounded soldiers. Isambard was asked by his brother-in-law Sir Benjamin Hawes at the War Office to design a pre-fabricated hospital which could be shipped out to the Crimea and quickly reassembled. He designed what we would call a flat pack system of which no piece was too heavy or too large to be lifted by three men. When built and put to use the resulting hospital was so successful that the death rate dropped from 45% to under 10%.

What could the amazing man not achieve? He was a brilliant thinker and designer, and although often inflexible and egotistical he was when necessary prepared to consider alternative approaches. He was an early “spin doctor” who could convince his backers of his revolutionary ideas, and although occasionally this had disastrous results he left behind a legacy that few have ever equalled.

Mike was warmly thanked for his exciting and revealing introduction to an extraordinary man.