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Brunel, Isambard Kingdom

western vessel design designed

[broo nel ] (1806–59) British civil engineer; pioneer designer of large steamships.

Brunel revealed a talent for drawing and grasp of geometry by the age of 6. His father, Sir Marc Isambard Brunel (1769–1849), having fled his native France and the Revolution for America before settling in Britain, educated his son in England, Normandy and Paris. Brunel joined his father in his engineering projects and in 1825 helped him to construct the first tunnel under the Thames (designed for foot passengers but later used by the London Underground). Isambard Brunel (Kingdom was his mother’s surname) was a short man with a commanding presence, an ability to lead and a capacity for hard work which contributed to his early death. He confessed to self-conceit.

In 1830 Brunel won the competition for a design for the Clifton Suspension Bridge, his first independent work. He was appointed engineer of the Great Western Railway in 1833. He surveyed the route, designed tunnels, bridges and the termini at Paddington and Temple Meads, Bristol. Then Brunel turned to the design of steamships to cross the Atlantic, the problem being carriage of sufficient fuel for the distance. Brunel realized that capacity for fuel increased with the cube of the ship’s size; its power requirement increased with the square of the size, so a big enough vessel could succeed. He built the Great Western in oak in traditional manner, to make an extension to the Great Western Railway; it made the crossing to New York in 15 days in 1838. He designed and built the Great Britain , an iron-hulled, screw-driven vessel which was then the largest vessel afloat. He went on to design the Great Eastern to carry 4000 passengers around the world without refuelling. Immense, double-skinned with 10 boilers, the ship was beset with financial and other problems from the start; it was eventually used to lay the Atlantic cable of 1865. I K Brunel standing by the checking chains at an attempted launch of the SS Great Eastern in late 1857. Ill and discouraged, he remarked that his opponents would like to see him hanged in chains.

The great liners which dominated intercontinental travel for a century stemmed from Brunel’s confident approach to large-scale ship construction based on steel.

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