What are we to make of the life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, 200 years after his birth in April 1806? He was the engineer involved with, among many other projects, the building of the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the Great Western Railway (GWR) and the construction of the largest ship ever built up to that time, the SS Great Eastern , launched the year before his death in 1859. The audacious size of Brunel's projects, which extended established engineering practice to the limit, undoubtedly assisted Brunel's fame. None of them, however, was without serious drawbacks: the Clifton Suspension Bridge was not completed until after Brunel's death; the GWR had to go to the considerable expense of converting the gauge of its track from Brunel's broad gauge of 7ft to the standard gauge of 4ft 8.5in; while the Great Eastern bankrupted both its builder and owners and seems to have had a serious impact on Brunel's wealth and possibly health.
Many of Brunel's projects are still extant, especially the GWR, which takes one to, among other places, Bristol, where both the Clifton Bridge and one of Brunel's other large ships, the Great Britain, are major tourist attractions.
The GWR remains one of the most comfortable and spacious railways. The spaciousness is one of the reasons why it has survived in a form that would be recognisable to Brunel. It has not had to be modified out of all recognition, as has happened, for example, to the contemporary London and Birmingham Railway, whose engineer was Brunel's friend and rival Robert Stephenson. Since so many of the GWR's buildings, tunnels and bridges are original, the railway is on the shortlist of industrial structures nominated for World Heritage Site status.
Brunel is thus a familiar figure and even came second in the BBC list of Great Britons (despite his father being a highly innovative French engineer) in 2002. Brunel's transcendent fame was further illustrated by the final part of Civilisation , Kenneth Clark's television series on the history of art, in which Brunel was one of the heroes. Brunel's work, as Clark pointed out, also appealed to contemporary artists, including J. M.
W. Turner, one of whose most famous paintings, Rain, Steam, Speed , depicts a locomotive passing over the viaduct near Maidenhead. Clark also included Robert Howlett's photograph of Brunel, smoking a cigar, standing in front of the chains used to launch the Great Eastern, and this has become perhaps one of the best known photographs to have been taken in Victorian England.
Curiously, despite the trajectory of his career, Brunel has remained a remarkably uncontroversial figure. With the exception of Adrian Vaughan, in recent decades Brunel's biographers, such as L. T. C. Rolt and Angus Buchanan, have tended to be laudatory rather than analytical, and this latest biography, as its somewhat overstated subtitle suggests, is in that tradition.
Part of the reason for such an approach to the history of engineering is the rather poor image that British engineers tend to have of themselves.
Wherever engineers gather, the dissatisfaction that there is no Engineers'
Corner in Westminster Abbey, or that the term engineer can be applied to anyone from a motor mechanic upwards, or that the general public cannot name a single contemporary engineer, is frequently expressed. Engineers thus turn to historical figures for some sort of solace, since they understand that their profession was better treated and more respected in the 19th century than now.
However, the fact that engineers such as Brunel and Stephenson are still widely familiar is actually because both men did a very good job of promoting themselves and their large practices. How anybody could seriously imagine that Brunel himself "built" the GWR, or even permit the phrase as some kind of shorthand for the truth, is grotesque.
As with today's engineering leaders, Brunel and his contemporaries were able to sell concepts to customers and propose overall design. Thereafter, projects had to be developed by the drawing office and by managers and implemented by resident engineers. Instead of thinking of Brunel and Stephenson as individuals, it would be more appropriate to think of them in terms of companies - Brunel plc, or even IKB plc. In this way, modern engineers might see that, with the existence of highly successful engineering firms such as Thales or British Aerospace, they do not do so badly when compared with their predecessors.
Steven Brindle, who is an inspector of ancient monuments at English Heritage, is vaguely aware of the collaborative nature of Brunel's work, but he still gives Brunel virtually all the credit for the intellectual input in most of the projects. The necessary exception here is that of the design of the locomotives for the GWR undertaken by Daniel Gooch, for which Brunel lacked the essential mechanical engineering expertise.
What we need are detailed studies of Brunel's other employees and their engineering practice. There are huge quantities of documents available for the purpose that have scarcely been exploited (since there are no references in this book, it is hard to know what sources have been used).
While it is understandable in this bicentenary year to produce a high-quality, lavishly and wonderfully illustrated book such as this, we also need a sound analytical study of Brunel in his social, economic and political contexts so as to move beyond the hero worship and exceptionalism so evident in this text.
Frank A. J. L. James is professor of the history of science, Royal Institution.
Brunel: The Man Who Built the World
Author - Steven Brindle
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Pages - 287
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 297 84408 3