Isambard Kingdom Brunel's legacy

In a recent survey amongst our engineering candidates, we asked ‘who has been the most influential engineer of the last 160 years?’ Several different engineers across a range of disciplines were put forward including Nikola Tesla, Sir Frank Whittle and Tim Berners-Lee, who have all achieved great feats in energy production, aerospace engineering and telecommunications, respectively. However, the single name which most frequently appeared was Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

But why was his career so impressive and how is Brunel’s legacy living on in engineering today?

Building the first under-river tunnel

Brunel’s first major project was the Thames Tunnel. The project involved creating an underground passage which would run under the Thames riverbed between Wapping and Rotherhithe. Whilst it was designed by his father, the equally influential Mark Brunel, Isambard was responsible for operations.

As a world first, the project experienced a number of challenges but perhaps the most significant was the working conditions that the construction workers faced.  The miners and bricklayers were exposed to raw sewage and occasional flames from ignited methane gas and on several occasions they also had to contend with flooding. The unique tunnelling shield devised by Marc Brunel, did however offer some protection and has since informed the methods of modern tunnelling.

Fortunately, engineers today have new technology to hand to assist in design and assess the danger of working environments. BIM (Building Information Modelling) is one example. BIM is changing the way construction projects are undertaken by providing a complete 3D model with status tags of each component of a structure. This information mapping provides invaluable intelligence to each stage of the project lifecycle and reduces the amount of risk involved for construction workers. The development of this technology has also created new engineering roles such as BIM coordinators, BIM managers and BIM modellers.

Constructing a great railway

Perhaps one of Brunel’s most notable projects is the Great Western Railway, connecting Bristol to London through a network of train track, tunnels and bridges. Along the route there are many individual examples of Brunel’s incredible work including the Wharncliffe Viaduct, Maidenhead Bridge and the Box Tunnel.

The project’s primary aim was to create a link between London and New York via Bristol. Keen to create a speedy service, Brunel designed the route to be as straight and level as possible but not everyone was enthused by his proposal for an alternative gauge. Brunel’s ‘broad’ gauge was 7ft ¼ inches and was an alternative to the ‘standard’ 4ft 8.5 inch gauge used on the Northern network. Brunel believed this wider gauge would increase passenger and freight capacity and allow trains to travel at higher speeds. Whilst Brunel got the go ahead to use his new design, unfortunately use of the broad gauge did not last and from 1860, the Great Western Railway line was converted back to the standard gauge. In just a single weekend, 4,700 men worked to convert the entire line between London and Penzance back to standard gauge. Today, rail maintenance projects can take a considerable amount of time due to modern demands of roads and railways, but at least for modern construction workers, working conditions are much improved from Brunel’s day.

New methods and technologies are now emerging which significantly improve the efficiency of construction projects including pre-fabricated tunnels and concrete spraying. A modern day example of a speedy infrastructure project is the A12 tunnel in the Netherlands, which was completed within a weekend. In less than 48 hours, construction workers demolished a roadway which was too narrow, replaced it with a 70 metre long tunnel (underneath the A12) and rebuilt the highway above it to be one lane wider.

Designing the biggest ships in the world

Aside from his astonishing work on land, Brunel also achieved a number of impressive feats at sea, turning his hand to ship design. The ‘Great Western’ was the first steamship to engage in transatlantic service, the ‘Great Britain’ was the world’s first iron-hulled, screw propeller-driven steam-powered passenger liner and the ‘Great Eastern’ was the biggest ship of its time at 22,500 tons and nearly 700 feet long.

The maritime and shipping industry continues to strive for bigger and more efficient ships, albeit using different materials and methods. Intelligent engines are one feature contributing to the efficiency of ships today. The engine on the world’s largest container ship, the MSC Oscar, automatically adjusts fuel consumption based on the ship’s speed and sea conditions. And with the introduction of intelligent engines, a demand has arisen for new skill sets to design and operate ship control systems. Unlike Brunel, naval architects today rely on computer-aided engineering for much of their design work and are therefore expected to have strong IT skills, alongside the ability to do the more traditional design calculations by hand. Of course many traditional skills and practices remain from Brunel’s day including a broad understanding of mechanical engineering, structural engineering and mathematics, as well as softer skills like strong communication and the ability to work in a team.

Pioneering dock design

One other area Brunel has left his mark is in the redesign of many of Britain’s major docks. Bristol dock is a great example of Brunel’s work in this field. In order to improve the flow of water and bank stability in the Floating Harbour, Brunel designed and delivered a number of engineering solutions including a dredging and sluicing system, an enlarged and improved entrance lock, a tubular wrought iron footbridge and the engine house for the Black Rock water pumping station.

The principles which Brunel used to improve water flow within Bristol dock are now being applied to energy production in the Tidal Lagoon in Cardiff.

The legacy lives on

In his 53 years, Brunel was involved in the design and construction of several significant structures in the UK – many of which have stood the test of time. Perhaps the most impressive thing about him was his ability to turn his hand to so many different types of project. Having transferable skills and awareness of what processes and practices are used in other sectors makes you very employable, especially within a skills short market, and Brunel’s career is a great example of this.

Brunel’s career demonstrates how varied and rewarding a career in engineering can be. Along with the other greats of the past 160 years, Brunel has taught us that you can build tunnels under water, you can instigate a new standard practice and you can always innovate to make things bigger and better.

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