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Brunel's Top 5 Engineering Feats

The B1M | 5:23

Brunel's Top 5 Engineering Feats

Tom Ravenscroft

12 July 2017

Video Views

Video hosted by Tom Payne. 

HISTORY's most famous engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed some of the world's most impressive and innovative structures. The legacy of his work lives on in many of the engineering principles that inform some of today’s most awe-inspiring structures.

Though Brunel's projects were not always financially successful, his ambition meant that they always pushed the boundaries of what people believed was possible. To demonstrate the broad range of his genius, we’ve taken a look at five of his greatest engineering feats.


We start with one of Brunel's lesser known projects. While he is famous for his transport infrastructure, the Renkioi Hospital demonstrates Brunel’s ability to turn his skills to almost any engineering problem.

Above: The Renkioi Hospital is an early example of a prefabricated structure (image courtesy of Wellcome Images). 

Brunel was commissioned to design a military hospital following an appeal from Florence Nightingale to the British government for improved medical conditions for soldiers injured in the Crimean War. Within six days he designed an innovative timber and canvas prefabricated building that was manufactured and shipped out to the Crimea just five months later.

The pioneering building incorporated roof-ridge tile ventilation and windows that opened, together with a forced ventilation system that moved air under the ward using fans.


At just 20 years old, Brunel took over as resident engineer on the Thames Tunnel, the first tunnel to be built under a navigable river. This experience put him in good stead for the Box Tunnel, a key component of the Great Western Railway between London and Bristol.

Above: Building a tunnel under Box Hill was considered an impossible feat at the time.

To ensure that journeys took the shortest possible time, Brunel was determined that his railway take the flattest and straightest possible route between the two cities. His determination presented the challenge of going directly under Box Hill in Wiltshire – something considered to be an impossible feat at the time.

Above: Brunel wanted his railway to take the shortest and latest route, which meant tunnelling under Box Hill.

His proposed tunnel would be the longest railway tunnel in the world, at almost 2.9 kilometres (around 1¾ miles) and would need to be dug through difficult and variable underlying strata.

Brunel’s calculations were so accurate that when the two ends of the tunnel met underground, there was less than 5 cm (2 in) in their alignment. Although significantly delayed and over budget, Brunel’s tunnel opened in 1841 and is still in use today.


After dramatically cutting the travel time between London and Bristol from two weeks to two and a half hours with his Great Western Railway, Brunel set his sights on continuing his route across the Atlantic.

Above: With a iron hull and a screw propeller the SS Great Britain was the first modern ship.

The first ship he designed for the transatlantic route, the Great Western, was the longest ship in the world. But it was its successor – the even larger “SS Great Britain” – that was truly innovative.

The SS Great Britain is considered to be the first modern ship. Over 1,000 tons larger than any ship then in existence, it combined two innovative technologies. It was the first ocean going vessel to be built with an iron hull and was powered by a screw propeller, rather than a paddle wheel.


Demonstrating his desire to push the potential of emerging technology to the limit, Brunel chose to build an atmospheric railway linking Exeter with Plymouth in the UK. Brunel believed that his innovative engineering solution was ideal for the hilly route as it eliminated the need for a heavy locomotive, theoretically enabling trains to handle the harsher gradients.

Above: Brunel's atmospheric railway was ultimately a failure closing after one year.

The atmospheric railway moved carriages with pressurised air. The air was extracted from a pipe that ran between the rails by pumping stations situated roughly every three miles along the route, creating a vacuum. A piston contained within this pipe was connected to the train, which pulled it forward.

Above: The railway was powered by air extracted from a pipe that ran between the rails (image courtesy of the Encyclopaedia of Illustration).

The atmospheric railway opened in the summer of 1847, with four trains a day running at speeds of up to 64 miles per hour. However, the leather flaps that made the vacuum pipes airtight soon began to fail causing air to leak from the system. This dramatically reduced the efficiency of the atmospheric railway and it was forced to close after operating for just over a year.


Brunel was a prolific engineer who designed hundreds of bridges throughout his career. But it is perhaps Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, the first major structure he designed, that is his most iconic.

Above: The Suspension Bridge was the first major structure that Brunel designed, but it was't completed until after his death ( image courtesy of Bristol Past and Present).

To win the commission, the inexperienced Brunel entered an open competition at just 24 years old. With a span of 702 feet (around 214 metres), the bridge needed to be longer than any other built before. Brunel’s father, a hugely respected engineer in his own right, recommended including a central support for the bridge as he did not believe a single-span bridge of such length could be constructed.

Above: Delayed by financing issues the bridge opened in 1864 (image courtesy of the Brunel Institute).

Not only did the bridge need to be long it also had to be suspended some 249 feet (76 m) above the River Avon to allow tall ships to pass beneath. The technical challenges of this engineering project were immense and financing issues meant that the bridge was not completed in Brunel’s lifetime. It finally opened in 1864, five years after his death.

Today the bridge still stands and enables over four million cars to cross the River Avon every year.

Other projects that didn’t make our list, but are of course worthy of mention include, the Great Eastern, which was the largest ship in the world for 30 years. The Maidenhead Railway Bridge, which had the largest span for a brick arch bridge when it was completed. And London’s Paddington station, the terminus of the Great Western Railway.

This video was kindly powered by Viewpoint.

Images courtesy of Great Weston Railway, Wellcome images, Network Rail, Andy Nunn, Encyclopedia of Illustration, Bristol Past and Present and Early Turtle. We welcome you sharing our content to inspire others, but please be nice and play by our rules.


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