Friday, 12 September 2014

What a name, what a guy.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel – Engineering Knight-Errant. Adrian Vaughan. John Murray, London, 1991. pp 285.

This review was written on November 28th 2010

Isambard Kingdom Brunel –what a wonderful name! You are already halfway to fame. I can imagine the reverence the grubby boys in my Christian Brothers school in our city centre in Dublin would have revered me with such a title!!

I borrowed this book from the RDS Library. Brunel always fascinated me as one of the great inventors and engineers of the early part of the 19th century and as one of the great British figures during those most productive years of British history in terms of politics, science, education and the advancement of English as the great Lingua Franca of the modern world. Vaughan’s biography was a riposte to previous biographies which the author deemed to be too kind to Brunel, particularly in terms of his personality and his treatment of his workers, and his unwillingness to acknowledge them and  his peers in the world of engineering and science.

Since I was young I was aware of his role in designing and building the Great Western Railway system from London to Bristol and to the south western parts of England, starting in the 1830s The track was built with a wider gauge than the railways built in the rest of the country. The necessary change from the wide gauge of Brunel to conform with the rest of the country must have been a cause of great inconvenience but uniformity was achieved countrywide by the late 1860s The Irish railways were also built with a wider gauge but not quite as wide as that of the Great Western.  The Irish main lines have not changed and its many peripheral narrow gauge lines have been closed,

It is said by historians that Brunel did make some mistakes  during his relatively short career but he was enormously inventive  and was the leader in many engineering firsts such as tunnelling under rivers, designing suspension bridges and employing propelers to drive ships and other modes of transport.

He was famous for his advanced design and construction of ships including the SS Great Britain built and subsequently launched in 1843. It was by far the largest ocean-going passenger ship and the first propel-driven vessal of that sort.  

The Thames Tunnel
From the point of view of his accomplishments, I would say that this biography has added little new to Brunel’s remarkable contribution to the building of the British and international railways, ships and bridges, and his major contributions to the advancement of engineering in general.  He was remarkable for his enormous energy, his attention to every detail and his unwillingness to acknowledge the contribution of other colleagues. He was less than willing to address the financial aspects of his undertakings and was constantly short in settling financial obligations and in dealing fairly with the financial needs of others.

The SS Great Britain abandoned near the Falkland islands
He was motivated by an indifference to money and its vital role in the planning of his many undertakings rather than having a selfish interest in accumulating richness for himself and his family. He was deemed by the author to be jealous of the reputation of his "competitors" in the engineering world although he remained on good terms with such outstanding figures as Stephenson of railway engineering fame and with those in the financial and conservative political worlds.

The SS Great Britain today.
Much of the less personal and professional shortcomings of Brunel are based on newly acquired primary research by the author, but in fairness to the author he does not take from Brunel’s seminal contributions to the advances in engineering which were so much part of Britain’s heritage in the first half of the 19th century. Because of the revisionist nature of this work, Vaughan’s book will raise more questions which will need be added to the wealth of knowledge about Brunel and his times. Of course, as we live through the early years of the 21st century and as we realise the serious conflict which is evolving between humanity and nature and which threatens our natural world and the human race, we should be forgiven for remembering the Luddites who were opposed to the advances of Brunel and his professional colleagues, and who feared the gathering philosophy of material advancement at the time. We might go back even further and be reminded of Milton’s warning in Paradise Lost "The Angel Rafael said to Adam ‘Do not try to understand the stars’ ".

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