Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Who was Isambard Kingdom Brunel?
Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a famous engineer in Victorian times. He built bridges, ships and even railway stations – you can still see some of those today!
Brunel changed transportation in Britain. He designed the railway line between Bristol and London, and built a ship that only took 15 days to get from Liverpool to New York City. People could travel further, faster!
Brunel died when he was just 53 years old, but his contributions to the world of engineering and transportation live on.
Top 10 facts
- Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born on 9 April 1806 in Portsmouth.
- Brunel’s parents sent him to the finest schools in England and France to learn the skills he needed to be an engineer.
- Brunel worked on the Thames tunnel with his dad, who was also an engineer. He almost drowned when the roof collapsed and flooded in 1827!
- While Brunel was recovering, he entered and won a competition to design a bridge over the Avon river gorge in Clifton, Bristol – this later became the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
- He married Mary Horsley in 1836. They had three children: Isambard Junior, Henry Marc and Florence Mary. Henry also became an engineer when he grew up.
- Brunel was known for wearing a tall black top hat – very stylish in Victorian times!
- Brunel was the chief engineer of the Great Western railway, and he designed the railway line between London and Bristol. He also designed the Temple Meads station in Bristol, and Paddington station in London.
- Brunel also designed fast ships – the SS Great Western, the SS Great Britain and the SS Great Eastern.
- Brunel died on 5 September 1859. He is buried at Kensal Green cemetery in London.
- Brunel’s legacy has lasted long after 1859. His constructions are still used today!
- 9 April 1806Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born in Portsmouth
- 1808Brunel’s family moved to London
- 1820Brunel’s parents sent him to France to study maths and engineering
- 1822Brunel joined his father's office in London – his dad was an engineer too!
- 1825Work began on the Thames Tunnel
- 1827Brunel almost drowned when the roof of the Thames Tunnel collapsed
- 1831Brunel won a competition to design a bridge across the Avon River gorge in Cilfton, Bristol
- 1833Brunel was appointed chief engineer of the Great Western Railway
- 1836Work started again on the Thames Tunnel
- 1836Brunel married Mary Horsley
- 1837Victoria became Queen
- 1838The SS Great Western travelled from Liverpool to New York in 13 days
- 1841Box tunnel, and Bristol Temple Meads station were completed. The route from Bristol to London opened
- 25 March 1843The Thames Tunnel opened
- 1843Brunel was appointed surveyor and engineer of five different regional railways
- 1845The SS Great Britain went on its first voyage, and the Hungerford Bridge opened
- 1852Chepstow Bridge opened
- 1854Paddington Station opened
- 1855Brunel designed the Renkioi Hospital, a temporary hospital that was sent to the Crimea for wounded soldiers during the Crimean War
- 1857Work began on the East Bengal Railway in India
- 1859Prince Albert opened the Royal Albert Bridge
- 15 September 1859Brunel died
- 1860The SS Great Eastern went on its first voyage
- 1864The Clifton Suspension Bridge was finished
Did you know?
- Brunel’s first name – Isambard – was his dad’s middle name. His middle name – Kingdom – was his mum’s maiden name.
- Brunel’s dad was also a famous engineer, and taught him lots of things about engineering when he was very young.
- Brunel was known for wearing a tall top hat (a 'stovepipe' hat), and for being very short! He was just over 5 feet tall… maybe that’s why he wanted to wear such a big hat?
- Brunel designed lots of different things – train, ships, bridges, tunnels, docks, and even a hospital!
- Brunel liked to get really involved in the things he was designing, but this sometimes meant that he’d get badly hurt. He almost drowned when the roof of the Thames Tunnel collapsed, and he fell down a burning ladder when the SS Great Western caught fire.
- Brunel didn’t just design railways in Britain – he also worked in Italy, India and Australia!
Can you spot these images in the gallery below?
- A statue of Brunel at Temple in London
- A famous picture of Brunel in front of chains at the SS Great Britain
- The SS Great Western
- The SS Great Britain
- The SS Great Eastern
- Clifton suspension bridge
- Paddington station in London
- The Thames tunnel
- Chepstow railway bridge
Brunel was first taught by his father, Marc Brunel, then went to a boarding school in Hove. His father was from France, and sent Brunel there to learn more about maths and engineering. Brunel came back to London in 1822 and worked with his dad.
The first thing Brunel and his dad did together was work on the Thames Tunnel, which is 396 metres long and allowed people to travel underneath the River Thames. This was very dangerous, and while it was being built, the tunnel flooded a few times. Brunel almost drowned, and had to rest for a while after that while he got better.
In 1833, Brunel was appointed chief engineer of the Great Western Railway – he designed the railway line that runs between Bristol and London, which was a major achievement. In order to do it, there needed to be bridges, viaducts, cutaways and tunnels made so the train could travel straight through, over or under water, hills and valleys. A famous tunnel on the line is Box Tunnel, which is two miles long and goes between Bath and Chippenham – it took six years to build, and was a huge success for Brunel.
Brunel was interested in sea travel, too – each ship he designed was bigger and better than the last. He first created a ship operated by paddle wheel called the SS Great Western, which broke the record for travel time between Liverpool and New York City at just 13 days. He then designed a special type of propeller (screw propeller) that was used on the SS Great Britain, and he also built it out of iron which was unusual at that time as most ships were made from wood. The SS Great Eastern came next, which had a double hull – this meant that there were fewer places for water to come through.
Florence Nightingale wrote a letter about how difficult conditions were for doctors and nurses helping wounded soldiers during the Crimean War. In 1855, Brunel was asked to design a hospital that could be sent overseas – he created the Renkioi Hospital, which was a collection of wood and canvas buildings that could be taken down and put up easily. It was hygienic, and over 1,000 patients were treated.
Brunel also designed bridges. These include the Royal Albert Bridge in Plymouth, the Hungerford Bridge, and – probably the most famous – Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. Brunel won a competition to design the bridge over the Avon River gorge, but Clifton Suspension Bridge wasn’t actually finished until five years after he died.
Brunel died on 15 September 1859, 10 days after he had a stroke. As well as not seeing the Clifton Suspension Bridge completed, he also missed the first voyage of the SS Great Eastern.
Just for fun...
- Help Brunel build a crane to load the SS Great Britain, and build the Clifton Suspension Bridge
- Complete activity sheets about Isambard Kingdom Brunel from The Brunel Museum.
- Play the Full Steam Ahead game for free online
- Explore Brunel's Britain with an interactive website
Best children's books about Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Find out more:
- Read a BBC Bitesize guide to Isambard Kingdom Brunel for KS1
- Isambard Kingdom Brunel facts for kids
- See Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s walking stick
- Facts about Isambard Kingdom Brunel's engineering career
- A portrait of Brunel
- Lots of information about each of Brunel's projects
- Read a BBC biography of Brunel and see pictures of some of the objects that belonged to him
- A Fun Kids podcast about Brunel's mechanical and civil engineering work
- Understand more about the construction of the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the Thames Tunnel
- See some of Brunel's sketches and drawings
- Watch videos to find out more about life on board Brunel's ship, the SS Great Britain
- Find out about the development of transport during the Victorian era with a BBC Bitesize video
- Listen to BBC Schools Radio audio plays about three key events in Brunel's career: the Thames tunnel, the GWR and the SS Great Eastern
See for yourself
- A museum in Bristol, Being Brunel, explores the life and legacy of Isambard Kingdom Brunel
- The SS Great Britain
- Bristol Temple Meads station
- Clifton Suspension Bridge
- London Paddington station
- The Brunel Museum, on the site of the Thames tunnel
- Royal Albert Bridge
- Steam, the museum of the Great Western Railway, in Swindon