Isambard Kingdom BRUNEL: A Comparison with Colin Anthony Bruce Chapman.
This article is the result of a powerful set of coincidences. The editor’s interest in both Brunel and Colin Chapman, the reading of the Vaughan’s controversial biography of Brunel followed in quick succession by the rediscovery of the 100 Great Britons.
For some the comparison of Brunel and Chapman will be extremely controversial, some might even think sacrilegious or contemptuous or even irrelevant.
However the editors believe there is value in attempting a comparison .Through which there is value of assessing the significance of engineers to society and their contribution to culture and aesthetic s of Industrial Design.
Where Brunel has been lionised [there is a museum devoted to him; his archive is held by a prestigious university and he has many monuments] Chapman has been demonised and scapegoated.
Both men had failings as will be explored here. Both did a considerable amount to advance British economic, technical interests and transport mechanisms. This article will explore these issues in greater depth and argue that a nation undervalues its science and technology at its peril.
In 2002 in a public poll conducted by the BBC in its “100 Great Britons” survey .Brunel was placed second behind Churchill. A celebrated engineer in his era Brunel remains revolutionary today. His concepts provided the basis of revolutionary public transport system which extended to transatlantic shipping. Although not all his concepts and designs were successful he innovated many answers to long standing problems.
With his vision and technical audacity and strength of character he “stretched engineering and construction technology beyond the limits of possibility. Failures and disasters occurred at regular intervals; yet he was indomitable and indefatigable.”
This article is intended to provoke thought and debate. By a system of comparison it sets out to do justice to Colin Chapman and in the process make a case for the proposed museum. Not for passive reverence but rather in the interests of inspiring and a generation of engineers to creative problem solving to which they are committed and obligated through technology social welfare and wealth.
The BBC: Top 10 Great Britons.
Three scientists are in the top ten.
- Elizabeth the First
- Oliver Cromwell
- Isaac Newton
- Horatio Nelson
- Isambard Kingdom Brunel
- Charles Darwin
- Winston Churchill
- John Lennon
- Diana, Princess of Wales
The BBC: Top 100: Engineers Inventors and Scientists
Engineers, scientists etc formed 17% of top 100.Some of these represent the “Classic” names taught to a certain generation; others are more modern and less well known. [See below reference to demographics]
- Isaac Newton
- Charles Darwin
- Alexander Fleming
- Alan Turing
- Michael Faraday
- Stephen Hawking
- Frank whittle
- John Logie Baird
- Alexander Graham Bell
- George Stephenson
- Edward Jenner
- Charles Babbage
- James Watt
- James Clerk Maxwell
- Barnes Wallis
- Marie Stopes
Brunel: Sponsored by J.Clarkson
Brunel achieved a very significant second place. The editor would suggest that this might in part be attributed to the robust, forthright, inimitable and hero worship type presentation of Clarkson. Although this was uncritical and pitched at glorification. The other factors are that Brunel and his work is relatively modern and that his engineering achievements remain highly visible with aesthetic qualities and in use. In an age of obsolescence they possibly represent security, permanence, reassurance, enduring values and value for money. It’s also possible that the Victorians are undergoing a reassessment / revisionism and their vilification is being re-examined in light of our throwaway society.
The other factors that might have supported Brunel are the education level of the viewing public and the demographics of the voting pattern/ respondents.
The other candidates despite the enormity of the intellectual achievements risked upsetting sensitivities; Brunel might have gained in his relative neutrality.
However in a democratic and reasonably representative vote Brunel did extremely well. This poses questions about the British peoples regard and respect for engineers and its interface with wider considerations of Industrial Design, aesthetics and even sculpture. Possibly the conventional and fine art dominance has prevented fuller appreciation and awareness. It raises questions why a picture has greater “Value” than a bridge.
Brunel Brief Biography.
Principal Events and Dates of Brunel’s Life:
1822 Started work for his father
1825 Work on Thames Tunnel [ note site of Brunel Museum, London]
1830 Avon Bridge Competition[ Clifton suspension Bridge]
1832 First Reform Bill
1833 Appointed engineer to Great Western Railway.
1837 Victoria becomes Queen /1837/38 SS Great Western
1838 First section of Great Western Railway completed
1842 Victoria travels by train
1846 Maiden Voyage of SS Great Britain/ Battle of the Gauges
1848 Atmospheric Railway ;Devon
1851 Great Exhibition
1854 Crimean War
1855 Brunel Designs Hospital for Crimean wounded
1858 SS Great Eastern launched
1859 Saltash Bridge [ Royal Albert Bridge] completed; SS Great Eastern sails, Brunel dies.[ age 53]
Brunel’s Scope and Achievements
Ships cellular hull concept
Trains and Railways
Bridges[ see editors photograph]
Viaducts [ see editors photograph]
Rifling for gun barrel
Portable field hospital
Architecture and buildings including Paddington Station, London.[ see editors photograph]
International catalogue and impact and transatlantic crossing via shipping.
Gooch on Brunel
“By his death the greatest of England’s engineers was lost, the man with the greatest originality of thought and power of execution bold in his plans but right. The commercial world thought him extravagant, but although he was so, great things are not done by those who sit down and count the cost of every thought and act.”
Context of Brunel’s Life and Times
To understand the significance of Brunel and his work we must see him in historical context. He lived during the 19c when Britain became one of the most powerful nations on earth. This was attributed in part to economic power combined with the British Empire. The economic and commercial powerhouse emerged from an ability to turn technical knowledge into practical wealth creation allied with natural resources , raw materials from its Empire and markets to which it could export.
Brunel’s wide ranging genius was that he was in the vanguard of delivering abstract theory into practical and mainly profitable [long term] propositions.
Britain entered the Industrial Revolution c 1760 with the accumulated resources that evolved in turn from the earlier Agricultural Revolution. Until then engineers and inventors mainly worked alone; almost in a vacuum. With the advent of the Industrial revolution engineers took on a more important role within society helping to produce economic wealth. The early engineers such as Brindley had designed the canal system of inland transport; Telford designed roads and bridges. They were the first of a generation of new breed of civil and structural engineers.
The Industrial Revolution accelerated into the 19C and made further economic demands and expansion. In particular for the speed and volume and flexibility of materials transit and manufactured goods. This placed an emphasis away from the canals to railways and steam ships.
Into this society Brunel was born in 1806; and to meet this societies needs he was destined to make far reaching and remarkable contributions. He was said to be the greatest engineer of his age.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel accomplished works that others refused to contemplate.
Isambard’s father, Mark Brunel was a great engineer I his own right. He must have been a great inspiration and influence on the young man. They were opposites in temperament and personality. The father tending towards absent mindedness and unassuming; the son complex, sophisticated and a shrewd judge of men. Isambard had a commanding presence spite of his short staure.Where as the father lived peacefully into old age, the son through extremely hard work and stress won fame and an early grave.
Both men showed the ability to transform visions into reality through hard work and attention to detail. Brunel was born 9/4/1806. As an infant .Brunel showed great talent for drawing. By the age of six or so he had mastered the principles of geometry. His father sent him to a boarding school in Hove, where he made a survey of the town and sketched its buildings. In his youth Brunel was sent to France for higher education. He attended the Lycee Henri Quatre in Paris, famous for its teaching of mathematics. To supplement his education, the young man had practical training with master craftsmen.
At the age of sixteen he returned to England to join his father. His practical knowledge developed with regular visits to local engineering works.
The Thames Tunnel
The tunnel had been conceived of as early as 1798.Two engineers Vazie and Trevithick had worked on the project unsuccessfully. Marc Brunel took up the challenge aided by new inventions of his own; the tunnelling shield [borrowed from the “shipworm” whilst working at Chatham dockyard. The work went on under great hardship and difficulties. The main drawbacks were tunnel “sickness” and leaks. Isambard during this time often worked thirty six hours on end. When a tidal wave ran through the tunnel Brunel saved a workman’s life. The work later was stopped and did not resume for a considerable period.
After this project Brunel dreamed of being rich and famous. Although many of his inventions failed he travelled widely doing “one offs” and gained much experience.
The Clifton Suspension Bridge
A chance came to prove his ability with the competition for a bridge to span the Avon at Bristol. It was an immense challenge and required spanning the gorge.Brunel decided on a suspension bridge. This was both bold and imaginative. From his drawings of his conception we can see the great draftsmanship of which he was capable. Brunel won the competition, but the bridge was not completed until 1864 which was after his death.
During this period Brunel worked on cleaning Bristol dock. This was mundane work but introduced him to the men planning a railway from Bristol to London. They were impressed by Brunel’s energy and vision and as a result was appointed engineer.
This was the turning point in his career.
The Great Western Railway [Engineer to the Great Western Railway]
At the time he was working on the Great Western Railway, Brunel married Mary Horsley in 1836.It was a conventional marriage but Brunel considered his work his real “wife”. He was fond of his children and they had three.
Brunel was appointed engineer to the GWR in March 1833 and asked to complete his survey by May. During this hectic time he designed his personal carriage; his famous “Flying Hearse”. This held his plans, instruments and a huge case of fifty cigars. There was considerable political resistance to prevent the railway being built. In a parliamentary debate, Brunel defended the case and it was said of him
“He was rapid in thought, clear in his language and never said too much or lost his presence of mind”
The GWR eventually won and work proceeded.
The Finest Work in England
Brunel was faced with the joint problem of supervising the greatest construction work recorded in history and fusing his work force into a disciplined and efficient team. He succeeded in both and was thus able to deliver effective rail travel to millions.
The first section from Paddington to Taplow needed the Maidenhead Bridge designed by him [the world’s largest brick built span. The rail link ran out from Paddington through Ealing and there are two lesser engineering pieces en route; the viaduct at Hanwell and the Iron Bridge over the Uxbridge Road [see editors photographs and those of roof at Paddington]
As the route advanced Brunel also built the terminus at Bristol Temple Meads. Work was held up at Box Tunnel .This was a two mile long and is considered by some as one of the greatest works since the pyramids.
Battle of the Gauges
Although Brunel’s Great Western was termed the “Finest Work in England” he was defeated over the gauge size. This was not based on technical considerations .In many respects the broad gauge offered superior travel, speed , comfort , safety and efficiency. The reason was primarily economic and pragmatic based around cost and flexibility [interchangeability] of the existing 1900 miles of narrow gauge. To make an alteration was not merely to the track but the rolling stock, bridges stations and infra structure.
The Atmospheric Railway
This was a costly failure, but it showed Brunel’s futuristic vision. Today it would be considered “green”. It was smokeless and noiseless .The design was relatively simple but suffered from inappropriate materials available at the time and weather. The design required a sealed tube and induced movement by displacing air. The system worked relatively well for a short time but due to faulty materials and construction / servicing had to be closed down
The Royal Albert Bridge [Saltash over the Tamar]
As the railway advanced westward it became necessary to build bridges over the Tamar. Brunel’s design was for spans of 465 ft; supported by single deep water pier. Trusses were floated into position on pontoons and then jacked up to the level of the pier.
The design is a functional and aesthetic masterpiece of refined understatement of form and function.
The Great Ships [Great Western 1837, SS Great Britain 1843, Great Eastern 1858[Leviathan]
During the time spent working on the railway Brunel became interested in steamships. This may have been in part the necessary physical means of continuous travel, commercial considerations of faster trade and the possible mutation of steam power to drive and an alternative system of propulsion.
Previously they were thought to be impractical because of the volume required to carry fuel. Isambard proved this wrong from the basic reasoning of volume and area. By which method larger ships were possible. This permitted the designs for the Great Western. To prove the competence of the steamship a race to New York was arranged. In spite of a fire aboard the journey was completed in fifteen days in 1838
Never content Brunel planned a second larger ship .This design allowed for a screw propeller and iron hull. It was named The SS Great Britain .Unfortunately just after her trials she ran aground but later made services to Australia. The ship is now in Bristol dock undertaking restoration.
The Great Eastern or “Leviathan” was a result of Brunel’s contact with John Scott Russell on the Great Exhibition committee. Brunel faced some extreme challenges setbacks with this project. Brunel acknowledged one of the greatest technical challenges of his career was the launch of the hull. Eventually with the aid of spring tide the Great Eastern was floated in January 1858.she steamed majestically and Brunel realised a considerable ambition but not without personal toll.
Brunel’s life had been stressful and many times he came close to over stretching himself and perhaps harboured a fear of failure. The technical problems and launch of the Great Eastern left Brunel a sick and dying man. He attempted to recuperate with a trip to the continent but soon returned. It might have been his last ambition to see the Great Eastern steam. This was realised on 9th September 1858. During sea trails of the Great Eastern a heater exploded and this killed several engineers. It’s possible that when the news was broken to Brunel the shock, sadness, and sense of responsibility killed him September 1859.
The Crimean Portable Hospital [Renkioi]
Although Brunel rarely got involved in Government he made a wonderful design for a prefabricated hospital. The terrible conditions that Florence Nightingale had described were partly mitigated by the simple clean and efficient design submitted by Brunel. It’s reputed that of the 15,000 men who passed through the hospital only 50 died. Brunel dismissed the project as:
“Just a sober exercise in common sense”
Brunel: An Assessment
Britain’s place in technological history is in part due to the availability of capital, a willingness to invest [and take risk], partly to our then Empire and our ability to conduct trade and the work of our engineers and inventors. This was very relevant in the Victorian era. The technology allowed Britain to maintain and raise the standard of living for an ever increasing population [which also in part due to advances in medicine etc].
The men who helped produce this higher productivity and affluence were of Brunel’s stamp.
S.S. Miles made the pertinent observation:
“Our engineers may be regarded in some measure as the makers of modern civilisation.”
Although Brunel had many tragedies and near disasters, he was a man who lived before his time. From his simple design of a dock scraper or small harbour at Briton Ferry to the magnificence of the Great Western Railway, he made an enormous contribution to society in which he lived and we can still experience the engineering feats today whilst appreciating the integrity courage and foresight that brought them into existence.
Rolt said of Brunel:
“Brunel was more than a great engineer; he was an artist and a visionary, a great man with a strangely magnetic personality; which distinguished him even in the age of powerful individualism in which he moved”
Vaughan has said of Brunel first in the introduction and then in the epilogue:
“Outwardly indomitable, Brunel was driven by “blue devils” fears and insecurities …………. This drive cost others dear; The Thames Tunnel cost lives including nearly his own; the GWR … left contractors bankrupt, his experiments with the atmospheric railway cost shareholders their savings…. Throughout his life he ruthlessly pursued fame and worked himself into an early death.
Brunel’s superbly engineered railways, daringly designed bridges and three great ships – more ambitious than anything attempted for decades afterwards – serve as his monument .Much of his work is still in place. As serviceable as when it was built….
“He was indeed a great man, an exceptional man though he did not by himself build the railway but received vital assistance from untold thousands of other men whose efforts he rarely if ever acknowledged.
It’s astonishing to think that his super human labours and his intense mental energy he focused came from an unhappy mind; a mind plagued with blue devils and so supremely lacking in self confidence that he believed he had to slave incessantly……………….
His perfect taste, his insistence on only the best workmanship his obsession with his status and his frequent change of mind and grievous mistakes cost his shareholders dear [their life savings very often]
While he himself did not achieve great wealth and indeed paid for his dreams by his death at an early age of 53 .But he did not dream in vain. He took up his challenges as an honourable knight errant; he pursued his dragons with utmost tenacity and executed then with reckless bravery. Never a man to allow his dreams to remain nebulous. Isambard Kingdom Brunel had the courage, tenacity and skill to translate his aspirations into practical achievements which stand out as his lasting memorial ….
Readers are directed to the A&R article “Motoring icons of the 2C” which undertakes a detailed analysis of Colin Chapman’s approach and methodology. Chapman’s achievements for brevity might be summarised as:
Multiple World Motor Sport Campion Manufacturer [and driver]
Engineering innovator in various transport mediums.
Manufacturer and employer
Designer of revered iconic cars and Industrial Designer
Motivator of Men
Backbone of Post War Motor sport making Britain the leader in the field of high technology and investment.
Enduring and continuing legacy and inspiration not least in green/ sustainable products through mechanical efficiency and low weight.
Both Brunel and Chapman had frailties. They were human. Both men paid a heavy price for their engineering idealism and integrity. Both aspired to the best and bore a heavy responsibility pushing boundaries accepting challenges and risks resulting from exploration and experimentation. These men made mistakes and had weaknesses but these were proportional to the exceptional gifts and responsibilities they bore. They did not become victims and their optimism and self believe drove them forward even when carrying scars.
Their pushing boundaries were not primarily for personal gain, although Chapman erred possibly nurturing a sense of injustice and hypocrisy. .The Nation was a primary beneficiary, experiencing inward investment and kudos. We find it easier to criticise than construct and to find fault without judicial balance.
When we examine the top ten Great Britons which was without fault? Or some inadequacy, hypocrisy, contradiction at some point in their lives or career.
Judgemental bias is not healthy nor does it promote technology or wealth.
The editor would contend that no human being is perfect and that genius is almost invariable counterbalanced in some aspect.
If we are to have a humane and consistent progress we should try and learn to conduct more through and even handed analysis. Rejoicing in deliberate and systematic denigration is in reality evasion, denial, suppression and regressive.
Conclusion and Comparative Analysis [What they had in common.]
Modest origins and both self made men [ neither inherited significant capital]
Both engineers in structural / civil discipline not mechanical. Both are deemed Industrial Designers by academics.
Visionary innovators both pushed the envelope of technology
Contributors to national economy creating wealth , or exports and generating employment
International perspective without barriers or artificial horizons
Both visually literate strong aesthetic sensibilities both draftsmen
Both undertook design solutions outside their main specialism
Both tragically died young. Invested their capital , ideas and ultimately the lives in pursuit of their “ideals”
Suffered disappointment and failure but still persisted; both invested their own capital on occasions and lost. Both men experienced the death of close colleagues and workmen and “carried the cross”
Colossal self belief and mild egotism
Both inspired loyalty and motivated others / subordinates
Both put Britain on the map and had worldwide impact and adoption of ideas
Both inspired transport revolutions and extrapolated technologies
Both had design philosophy towards economy of materials and resources
Both were driven men with human frailties who on occasions suffered doubts, perceived injustice. Chapman engaged in ill conceived dealings that he might have felt were legitimate.
Their names have entered folklore because of the magnitude of their achievements.
Midwifes to revolutionary transformations in engineering
Lasting legacies and influence and source of inspiration
Economics, Culture, Education and Opportunities. The proposed Colin Chapman Museum and Education Centre
This article has been used in part to question our relationship and understanding of engineering, culture and aesthetics. It has done this by questioning comparison and extrapolation. It has attempted to examine definitions. Convention fine art has tended to devalue masterpieces of engineering and Industrial Design. The editors would argue that this does society a massive injustice and is particularly regressive. If engineering is not honoured or accorded respect then it’s unlikely to be pursued and our lives will be poorer economically and visually. We go occasionally in a life time to a museum or theatre but we live in a house, commute to work, drive a car, consume energy and fly away to holidays almost every minute of every day.
The proposed Colin Chapman Museum and Education centre has the declared intention and objective of being a source of inspiration to engineers and designers. An exploratory laboratory and spring board taking successful solutions as a momentum and point of departure. It offers the learning opportunity to dissect and criticise methodology and technology. To question and reason to deduct and prompt creative springboards to new solutions. In a holistic definition the aesthetic and culture is as radiant, beautiful and meaningful in engineering .The proposed museum will enrich individual development along with the contribution towards wider social capital. In many respects Chapman’s mechanical efficiencies and economies are more needed and relevant now than ever.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel –Engineering Knight Errant
John Murray 1991
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Brunel and After
Great Western Railway 1925
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Shire Publications 1972
Brunel and his World
Thames and Hudson 1974
The Great Western Railway in the Nineteenth Century
The Archaeology of the Industrial Revolution
The Brunel Museum, Railway Ave; Rotherhithe, London SE16 4LF
Motoring Icons of 20C [Archive and Resource article]
Colin Chapman: Wayward Genius
Breedon Books 2002
Colin Chapman –Lotus Engineering
A Salute to British Genius
Gordon Rattray Taylor
John Player Foundation 1977
Ed: Jocelyn de Noblet
Flammarion /APCI 193
The Conran directory of Design
Ed: S Bayley
Octopus Conran 1985
Lotus 25 picture courtesy of
Sports Car Digest – The Sports, Racing and Vintage Car Journal