Today, we meet a remarkable father and son. 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.
The British art historian Kenneth
Clark coined the term Heroic Materialism to
describe the engineering of the middle 19th century.
Those engineers were melodramatic artists in iron, and
Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the grandest of them all.
His father, Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, was born in France
in 1769 and died in England in 1849. At first Marc
Brunel's work was part of the wave of building
characteristic of the Industrial Revolution. But he made
his mark in the history books with great works of civil
engineering -- an early suspension bridge, the first
floating ship-landing platform, and -- boldest of all --
a tunnel under the Thames river -- the first construction
of its kind, and one that required a whole new set of
The person he put in charge of the tunnel was his
20-year-old son. The tunnel was begun in 1825 and
completed in 1843, after a collapse killed many workers,
seriously injured the younger Brunel, and halted work for
seven years. Yet the completed tunnel still serves London
The son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, went on to become the
prototypical 19th-century engineer. He built the famous
two-mile-long Box Tunnel, several major suspension and
arch bridges, and 1000 miles of railway; and with each
project he expanded civil engineering techniques far
beyond anything that had been known or imagined.
But his crowning achievements were his steamships. In
1837 he produced the paddle-driven Great
Western -- one of the first transatlantic
steamboats in regular service. He followed it with a
screw-propeller-driven steamship called the Great
Then he bit off a mouthful that 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
Brunel died of stress and overwork the next year. It was
all it was meant to be, with one catch: it was only one
quarter as fuel-efficient as Brunel had expected, and
that killed it as a passenger liner. But it did find its
place in history when it proved to have the ideal
capacities for laying 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 and set the mood for the technology of his century.
Never before or since have we reached such glorious
self-confidence in our ability to make the unimaginable.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.