Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Isambard Kingdom Brunel?

“The hardest thing in life is to know which bridge to cross and which to burn”
- David Russell
I just finished a book called The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack which included several famous persons from an alternate-history of Victorian England. Many I recognized like Richard Francis Burton, Charles Darwin and Florence Nightingale. But I had never head of the title character, Spring Heeled Jack, an urban-legend (?) from the Victorian era of a ne'er-do-well gentleman who could leap amazingly high.

Another character I had never heard of is Isambard Kingdom Brunel. (And with a name like that you'd think I'd remember it.) So I looked him up on Wikipedia and learned that Brunel placed second in a BBC 2002 public poll to determine the "100 Greatest Britons". Say what? Second only to Winston Churchill? Of course this was a "public" poll which becomes more obvious in that Princess Diane placed third, above Darwin (4th), and Shakespeare (5th).

Thames tunnel
So who is Brunel and what makes him so famous (at least to your average Briton)? Isambard Kingdom Brunel (9 April 1806 – 15 September 1859) was a genius of civil engineering who designed and built dockyards, railways, transatlantic steamships, and numerous important bridges and tunnels. His designs revolutionised public transport and modern engineering with innovative solutions to long-standing engineering problems. He assisted in the building of the first tunnel under a navigable river, the first propeller-driven ocean-going iron ship (SS Great Britain, which in 1843 was also the largest ship ever built), and first major British railway (The Great Western). Many of Brunel's bridges are still in use, having stood the test of time.

Clifton Bridge

Brunel is perhaps best remembered for the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. Spanning over 700 ft (210 m), and nominally 200 ft (61 m) above the River Avon, it had the longest span of any bridge in the world at the time of construction.

Bottom Line

I'm pleased that an engineer is recognized in his own country. There are many famous scientists but who remembers the engineers? In America the only engineer that I recall is, John Augustus Roebling, who built the Brooklyn Bridge and many others. Perhaps only bridge builders are remembered? And some architects like Frank Lloyd Wright or I.M. Pei. But what of the others? Who built the Empire State Building? Who built the Trans-Continental Railroad? I don't recall being taught that.

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