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Brunel's Legacy

04/04/06 - 22/04/06

“in love with the impossible” – Kenneth Clark

April, 2006 saw the bicentenary of Britain’s greatest engineer and, according to a BBC poll in 2002, the “Second Greatest Briton of All Time”, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Responsible for the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the Great Western Railway which linked London with Bristol, Brunel’s legacy is still in evidence today. This exhibition celebrated some of Brunel’s best known work as well as other major engineering projects which owe much to his genius.


Arguably the most famous of Brunel’s remaining landmarks is the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. On completion in 1864, it was the longest single span bridge in the world stretching 702 feet across the Avon Gorge. Of his endeavours to have his plans accepted by the design committee, Brunel wrote: “Of all the wonderful feats I have performed, since I have been in this part of the world, I think yesterday I performed the most wonderful. I produced unanimity among 15 men who were all quarrelling about that most ticklish subject – taste”.

Sadly, Brunel did not live to see the finished work, dying when only the end piers were completed. It was left to members of the Institute of Civil Engineers to finish the construction as a memorial to him and it has subsequently become one of the symbols of Bristol.


The birth of the railways opened up Britain as never before and at the age of only 27, Brunel was appointed chief engineer of the Great Western Railway. It is estimated that Brunel was responsible for building more than 1,500 miles of track and his work in linking London with Bristol established him as one of the world’s greatest engineers. “In all that constitutes an engineer in the highest, fullest and best sense, Brunel had no contemporary, no predecessor.” – The Engineer, 1910. Not everybody shared the enthusiasm for the growth of the railways, however, and the Duke of Wellington is alleged to have expressed his disapproval, saying: “... it will only encourage the lower classes to move about...”


In later years, Brunel turned his attention to shipbuilding and formed the Great Western Steamship Company with the intention of reducing the journey time between Britain and America. His innovative vessel the Great Western was built of wood and powered by both steam and sail. Its first transatlantic voyage in 1838 took just 15 days, less than half the time previously taken by sailing vessels. The Great Britain was the largest ship in the world at the time of her launch in 1843 and the first screw-driven iron ship to cross the Atlantic. She was considered one of the major influences on later ship designs and impacted greatly on immigration and international travel. Indeed, it has been suggested 250,000 present-day Australians are descended from passengers of the Great Britain.