Isambard Kingdom Brunel
|Publisher||John Murray Publishers 338 Euston Road London NW1 3BH|
The engineering knight errant – Isambard Kingdom Brunel – is given a makeover (or possibly a going over) in this biographical work by the well known railway historian Adrian Vaughan. To set the scene, the author takes a look at Isambard’s engineer father Marc and his achievements – mostly with little reward to show for his efforts. This reality appears to have coloured Isambard’s view on life and led him to take on too much work and seek to take all the credit for what he ultimately wasn’t doing. Despite this, the author notes that Brunel had philosophical objections to the system of patents – notwithstanding the experiences of his father.
The author has written a no holds barred biography of the engineer which he claims is in contrast to that written by the other well known historian L T C Rolt (which I have not read and therefore am not in a position to compare) – described thus as “hero worship”.
Interesting points raised in the narrative include the fact that Brunel’s wide gauge almost never made it into existence as the first Act of Parliament for the Great Western Railway specified a 4’8.5” gauge. This bill was rejected and the 1835 bill which became law made no reference to gauge – giving Brunel the freedom to use whatever gauge he wanted. The novel method of track used by Brunel is also referenced. His track is described as revolutionary in the use of piles to maintain the position of the track on longitudinal sleepers.
Significant coverage is given to the Atmospheric method of propulsion for railways. As is known, the first commercial use of this system was in Ireland (between Kingstown and Dalkey) but Brunel took it to heart and with the stubborn zeal that personified the man, insisted on its use on the South Devon Railway. On this line, the flaws that had become apparent on the Dalkey line were magnified by the length of the line and led to its early demise.
One error I noticed is the author’s misnaming of the D&KR as the Dublin & Dalkey Railway and reference to the Atmospheric Railway as the Dalkey and Kingstown Railway.
The author has painted Brunel out to be a particularly Machiavellian and ultimately nasty individual who rode roughshod over anyone who might appear to be better than him or get something that he felt was rightly his and his treatment of contractors was mercenary. Whilst I’m not sure I would go so far as to agree with the quotation from the Spectator in describing this book as “The Satanic Verses of the railway buff’s world”, as a non hero worshipping look at the man whose engineering visions shaped many parts of Britain and Ireland, the book is well worth the read.
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