Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Engineer
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Engineer

When did he live?

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born on 9 April 1806. He died on 15 September 1859.

Why is he famous?

Brunel was the most famous engineer of Britain’s industrial revolution. His work on railways and bridges changed the UK’s transport system.

Arguably Brunel’s most well-known achievement was developing the Great Western Line leading up the west coast of the UK, which connected an area of the country previously not on the railway map.

He built numerous bridges, and the first tunnel beneath a navigable river.
He also designed the first propeller-run boat to cross the Atlantic, because he wanted to get trains to run to America.

Brunel also, vitally, set the standard railway gauge, meaning trains all over the UK began running on the same tracks.

Wharncliffe Viaduct, by J.W. Petrie
Wharncliffe Viaduct, by J.W. Petrie

What was his mark on history?

Brunel’s work can still be seen all over Britain: there are numerous bridges across the country designed by him and still in working order, and the Great Western Line remains one of the UK’s most important railways systems.

His idea of expanding Britain’s transport links to other countries and continents was one of the catalysts for modern international transport.

In 2002 the BBC had a vote for the greatest Britons in history. Brunel finished second. Although well-known in the UK, Brunel’s name was promoted by Sheffield University, helping his achievements become more famous.

Brunel, by John Horsley
Brunel, by John Horsley


Brunel’s father was also an engineer, albeit one who struggled for money. Brunel helped on his father’s attempt at building the Thames tunnel. His father’s idea of a tunnel shield to protect workers (after a fatal accident) became important in tunnel building. Isambard would later take over the project.

Brunel was always willing to try new ideas, not all of which worked out. One example of an ambitious failure was a train line run by a vacuum system. The system worked, but it was not efficient and Brunel himself called a halt to the project.