What Are Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Top Achievements?

Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s remarkable legacy includes tunnels, railways, suspension bridges, and steamships, establishing him as one of the most ingenious engineers in history.

Dec 7, 2023By Scott Mclaughlan, PhD Sociology

isambard kingdom brunel top engineering achievements


Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) was an engineering genius. Brilliant, self-conceited, well-connected, and at times disastrous, Brunel epitomized the Victorian era of heroic engineering. However, he was a flippant and frequently brutal man to work for. On numerous occasions his workers lost their lives on his projects thanks to his disregard for their safety. Brunel’s ultimate ambition was to surpass all previous standards. He was driven above all by glory and his favorite adjective was “great”. Read on to find out about Brunel’s top five engineering feats


The Thames Tunnel

The Thames Tunnel, 1830, etching. Source: The British Museum
The Thames Tunnel, 1830, etching. Source: The British Museum


In 1825, the French inventor and engineer, Sir Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849), began work on the Thames Tunnel using his patented tunneling shield. At just 20 years of age, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was apprenticed to his father’s project and took over the day-to-day supervision of the excavations. The Thames Tunnel, which runs from Wapping on the north bank to Rotherhithe on the south bank, was originally designed for horse-drawn traffic. Its ambition was monumental, it was the first tunnel to be successfully constructed underneath a navigable river. 


In his role as resident engineer, Brunel the younger gained invaluable experience that would shape his illustrious career. However, his stint on the tunnel came to an end following unexpected flooding in 1828. The two most senior miners were killed and Brunel was seriously injured and forced to leave the project. Despite his absence, the tunnel was completed in 1843 to great fanfare. 


Clifton Suspension Bridge

Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge across the River Avon, photograph taken in 2009, via Wikimedia Commons
Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge across the River Avon, photograph taken in 2009. Source: Wikimedia Commons


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After his departure from the Thames Tunnel project, Brunel began a design for a suspension bridge while recuperating from his injuries. His design became the Clifton Suspension Bridge. At the time of construction, the Clifton Suspension Bridge enjoyed the title of the world’s longest bridge. Brunel’s remarkable structure connects Clifton in Bristol to Leigh Woods in north Somerset. Spanning a staggering 702ft (2154) across the 250ft (76m) deep Avon Gorge, it features a roadway supported by high-tension cables, suspended between two 245ft (75m) high masonry towers on each side of the gorge. 


Work began in 1831 but was interrupted in 1843 by a lack of funds. The bridge wouldn’t be completed until five years after Brunel’s death. Once described by Brunel as “my first child, my darling,” the bridge was completed as a monument to his life and work in 1864.


The Great Western Railway

turner rain steam speed
Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway by J.M.W. Turner, 1844. Source: National Gallery, London


In 1831, Brunel commenced work as head engineer on his most enduring project, the Great Western Railway. Construction on this ambitious project to link London to Bristol by rail began in 1833. The construction of the Great Western Railway featured several engineering feats. These included the Maidenhead Bridge (at the time boasting the flattest and widest brick arches in the world), viaducts at Hanwell and Chippenham, and Bristol Temple Meads station. Most notably, the project also included the 1.8 mile (2.95 km) long Box Tunnel at Wiltshire – the longest railway tunnel of its time.


Brunel’s contribution to the Great Western Railway also extended to introducing a broad gauge track (the distance between the two rails of a railway), surpassing the standard gauge of 1,435mm. This innovation not only paved the way for high-speed trains but also positioned the Great Western Railway as a noted technological innovation of its time. 


London Paddington Station

Brunel’s London Paddington Station, via Wikimedia Commons
Brunel’s London Paddington Station. Source: Wikimedia Commons


In his capacity as chief engineer of the Great Western Railway, Brunel began working with architect Matthew Digby Wyatt on London Paddington Station in 1838. With characteristic ambition, Brunel wanted Paddington Station to be the “largest of its class” and looked to the design of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace  (1851) for inspiration. 


Besides playing a key role in getting Paxton’s design accepted, Brunel also worked to solve the practical problems of its construction. He awarded the contract for the construction of London Paddington to Fox, Henderson & Co. The same firm was responsible for building the Crystal Palace. 


At the time of its construction, Paddington’s wrought iron and glass three-span structure was the largest train shed roof in the world. Although the original glass in Brunel’s roof was replaced with polycarbonate glazing panels in the 1990s, the original structure itself endures. 


Brunel’s Steamships

The building of the SS Great Eastern by John Wilson Carmichael (1857). Source: Wikimedia Commons
The building of the SS Great Eastern by John Wilson Carmichael (1857). Source: Wikimedia Commons


Brunel’s first ship, the Great Western (1837), was a purpose-built transatlantic sail and paddle wheel steamship. It more than halved the crossing time between Britain and America to 14 days. His second, the SS Great Britain (1843), was built from iron and became the first screw propeller-powered steamship to cross the Atlantic. Brunel’s first two ships were immensely successful and enjoyed long and varied careers. 


Following his triumphs in pioneering transatlantic steam travel, Brunel set his sights on a ship capable of voyages as Australia, without the need to refuel. His answer was the Great Eastern (1858), a giant beast so big, it wasn’t fit for purpose. 


The Great Eastern exploded two days after setting sail but miraculously survived. However, having suffered a stroke four days earlier, the bad news seemingly finished off Brunel himself. He died on 15 September 1859 and was buried, like his father, in Kensal Green Cemetery.

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By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with a doctorate in sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.