Biography of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Photo if 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 enters his father’s engineering office. His first independent work is on the designs for the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol, though this structure was never completed in his lifetime.

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

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

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

1830: Brunel wins the second Clifton Suspension Bridge competition. He is present at the Rainhill Trials where George Stephenson’s locomotive “Rocket” wins the competition. This inspires him to build railways and in a bid to gain speed he designs 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 lays out the route in the controversial 7-Foot Gauge. Brunel designs Paddington Station, London, and Bristol Temple Meads. He also engineers 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: The SS “Great Western” steamship is launched which is intended for the Atlantic crossing.

1841: Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s railway line between London and Bristol is 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 introduces a system of pneumatic propulsion on the South Devon Railway which by his own admission is a failure.

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

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

1852: Opening of the railway bridge at Chepstow.

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

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

1858: Launching of the SS “Great Eastern” ship from its yard in Millwall.

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. On the 5th September Brunel was on the deck of the SS Great Eastern whilst the ship was testing its engines and he had a stroke. He returned home to his home at 18 Duke Street, London but died ten days later.

When and Where did he Die?

15th September 1859. Westminster, London, England from the after effects of a stroke.

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.