Today, two larger-than-life engineers. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this series
about the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
British art historian Kenneth Clark
coined the term Heroic Materialism to describe the
engineering of the middle 19th century. Those Victorian
engineers were melodramatic artists in iron. And Isambard
Kingdom Brunel was the grandest artist of them all.
His father, Marc Isambard Brunel, was born in France in
1769. He was an engineer and a royalist who fled the
French Revolution. He came to America and worked here for
seven years. He even became an American citizen. But he
finally moved to England to marry a woman he'd met in
France and known for years. His work in England defined
the engineering of the post-Industrial-Revolution world.
He designed an early suspension bridge, the first
floating ship-landing platform, and (boldest of all) a
tunnel, the first of its kind,
under the Thames river. That one meant inventing a whole
array of new supporting technologies.
The person he put in charge of the tunnel was his
flamboyant 20-year-old son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. They
began the tunnel in 1825 and completed it in 1843. A
collapse killed many
workers, seriously injured the younger Brunel, and halted
work for seven years. Yet the completed tunnel still
serves London today.
Marc Brunel was solidly creative. But Isambard Brunel
brought theater and flair to what his father had begun.
He took engineering to the mountaintop and became a
19th-century prototype. He built the famous two-mile-long
Box Tunnel, major suspension and arch bridges, a thousand miles of
railway. With each project he
expanded engineering technique beyond anything known or
His crowning achievements were his steamships. In 1837 he
built the paddle-driven Great
Western, one of the first transatlantic
steamboats in regular service. He followed it with an
early screw-propeller-driven steamship, the Great Britain.
Then he bit off a mouthful not even he could chew. In
1853 he began work on the Great Eastern, the grandest ship
the world had ever seen. Designed to take 4000 passengers
to Australia and back without refueling, it was 700 feet
long and weighed 20,000 tons.
The Great Eastern was launched in 1858, and
Isambard Kingdom Brunel died of stress and over-work the
next year. The ship was all it was meant to be, with one
catch: it was only a quarter as fuel-efficient as Brunel
had expected. That killed it as a passenger liner. But it
did find its place in history when it proved to be the
only ship with the carrying capacity needed to lay the
first transatlantic telegraph
The younger Brunel really trod the world in seven-league
boots of his own making. He made engineering larger than
life. He set the mood of the technology of his century.
Never before or since have we reached such glorious
confidence in our ability to build all the way out to the
far fringes of human imagination.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.