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Isambard Kingdom Brunei (1806-59)
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Isambard Kingdom Brunei is considered by many to be the greatest civil engineer of the nineteenth century. His father, Marc Isambard Brunei, was also an important engineer, but the son's career eclipsed that of his father. Born in Portsmouth, Isambard was educated in London and Hove, and then sent to France to study with a leading clockmaker, returning at the age of sixteen to finish his apprenticeship with his father. At this time his father was working on the construction of the first tunnel under the Thames, from Wapping to Rotherhithe, and Isambard became chief assistant engineer on the project. The tunnelling was highly dangerous and the Thames often broke through into the work, with much loss of life. Isambard was nearly killed during one such incident and took no further part in the project.

He spent part of his convalescence at Clifton in Bristol and became involved in the scheme to build a bridge across the Avon Gorge. At the second attempt Iris design was accepted, but he was never to see it built. Only the two towers had gone up before the money ran out, and no more work was carried out on it during his lifetime. It was built posthumously as his memorial and is probably his best-known work.

Isambard Kingdom Brunei (1806-59)

Marochetti's statue of Isambard Kingdom Brunei stands in Temple Place, only a short distance from what is left of his bridge.

Through contacts made in Bristol, he carried out work in the city's docks, and this led to him being appointed engineer to the new Great Western Railway, which planned to build a line from London to Bristol. This was to be the greatest undertaking of his life, and for the next fifteen years he was the driving force of the operation, surveying the route, building viaducts and bridges as well as the Box Tunnel and Paddmgton station.

Brunei also designed three of the largest ships of his day. The Great Western, a wooden-hulled paddle steamer, was built to operate from Bristol to New York. When it proved a success, he built an even bigger vessel, the Great Britain, which was the first large iron ship - it was so large that they had to dismantle part of the lock for it to leave the dock. (After a long career, its rusty hull was returned to Bristol in 1970, where, after lengthy restoration, it is now a popular tourist attraction.) His largest ship, the Great Eastern, was built on the Isle of Dogs in London, where remnants of the slipway can still be seen. It was even more ambitious than the previous two, with two sets of engines, driving both paddles and screws. Its construction was fraught with difficulties, and two attempts had to be made to launch it into the Thames in 1858. It was never a commercial success but survived until 1888.
Somehow, with all these major schemes, he still found time for smaller ventures such as the elegant Hungerford Suspension Bridge in London. It is appropriate that, when it was demolished to make way for a railway bridge, the chains were used to complete his Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Brunei died at his home in London and was buried in the family vault in Kensal Green cemetery. The gravestone itself is surprisingly modest, but he is also commemorated by a statue on the Embankment, not far from the Hungerford Bridge. His youngest son, Henry Marc, was also an engineer and worked with Sir John Wolfe-Barry on Tower Bridge and the present Blackfriars Railway Bridge.

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