Biography of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a nineteenth century engineer famous for building ships, railways and railway architecture.

When and Where was he Born?

9th April 1806. Portsmouth, Hampshire, England.

Family Background:

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the only Son of Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, Engineer who had escaped France during the Revolution.


Several English Private Schools and the College of Caen in Normandy and the College Henri Quatre, Paris.

Timeline of Isambard Kingdom Brunel:

1822: Brunel entered his father’s office. His first independent work was on the designs for the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol, though this structure was never completed in his lifetime.

1826: Isambard became engineer in charge of the Thames Tunnel in Rotherhithe.

1827: The river broke into the tunnel on 18th May and Brunel made descents in a diving bell to decide how to proceed.

1828: A second flooding of the tunnel on 12th January left him injured trying to save the lives of several of the workmen. Further work was halted for seven years due to financial difficulties.

1830: Brunel wins second Clifton Suspension Bridge competition. He was present at the Rainhill Trials where George Stephenson’s locomotive “Rocket” won the competition. This inspired him to build railways and in a bid to gain speed he designed a broad gauge track (7 feet) in the “battle of the gauges” with Stephenson’s standard gauge of 4 feet 8 and a half inches. He is elected a member of the Royal Society.

1831: Construction work begins for crossing the Avon gorge at Clifton.

1833: Brunel is appointed engineer of the Great Western Railway Company and laid out the route in the controversial 7-Foot Gauge. Brunel designed Paddington Station, London, and Bristol Temple Meads. He also engineered many tunnels including the Box Tunnel outside Bath and a series of bridges.

Brunel at STEAM, Swindon
Brunel standing in front of a replica of the North Star locomotive 
at STEAM, the Museum of the GWR, Swindon (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1836: He marries Mary Horsley on 5 July.

1837: Launching of the SS “Great Western” steamship which was intended for the Atlantic crossing.

1841: Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s railway line between London and Bristol was opened.

1843: Opening of the Thames tunnel and the launching of the SS “Great Britain.”

SS Great Britain
Brunel’s SS Great Britain moored in the dock, which was built for it in Bristol Dockyards (copyright Anthony Blagg)
SS Great Britain stern
SS Great Britain from the rear (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1844: Brunel introduced a system of pneumatic propulsion on the South Devon Railway which by his own admission was a failure.

1845: He built the Hungerford Suspension Bridge. (The chain links were later used at Clifton).

1848: Work started on the bridge at Saltash, near Plymouth.

1852: Opening of the railway bridge at Chepstow.

1854: He designed a large floating barge to take heavy guns needed in the Crimean War.

1855: Brunel worked on designs to build prefabricated hospitals for the war in the Crimea.

1858: Launching of the SS “Great Eastern” ship.

Brunel Statue
Brunel Statue in a modern shopping centre in Swindon which is named after him (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1859: Completion of the Royal Albert Bridge crossing the River Tamar which linked the railway lines between Devon and Cornwall.

When and Where did he Die?

15th September 1859. Westminster, London, England.

Age at Death:



1836: To Mary Horsley on 5 July.

Site of Grave:

Kensal Green Cemetery, Kensal Green, London, England.

Places of Interest:


SS Great Britain Ship Museum, Bristol.
Temple Meads Railway Station, Bristol.
Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol.
Bath Railway Station.


Royal Albert Railway Bridge, Saltash, near Plymouth.


Paddington Station.


Didcot Railway Centre.


STEAM, the Museum of the Great Western Railway, Swindon.


Railway Bridge, Chepstow.