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Reviewed by:
  • Brunel: In Love with the Impossible
  • Robert B. Gordon (bio)
Brunel: In Love with the Impossible. Edited by Andrew Kelly and Melanie Kelly. Reston, Va.: American Society of Civil Engineers, 2006. Pp. 367. $65.

Participants in the BBC's recent poll to name the "greatest Briton" placed Isambard K. Brunel second only to Winston Churchill. Although publicity surrounding the 2006 bicentenary of Brunel's birth probably helped, this choice may surprise readers of T&C who are aware of the public's general lack of interest in the history of technology. We owe this beautifully produced [End Page 467] and illustrated book celebrating Brunel's achievements to his bicentennial and to the Bristol Cultural Development Partnership. The association of Bristol with Brunel arises through his projects at that city: the Great Western Railway, the Clifton bridge, the city docks, and the steamships Great Western and Great Britain. The return of the Great Britain to Bristol in 1970 was a key factor in the city's revitalization.

The essays edited by Andrew and Melanie Kelly range widely over Brunel's biography, his engineering projects, and the social and cultural context in which he worked. They are supported by endnotes, timelines, and basic biographical information about key individuals appearing throughout the book. The principal subject of each essay is supplemented by short accounts of related topics. Appended to the essay on the Clifton bridge, for example, are explanations of the 1831 Bristol riots (which terminated the initial construction effort), the Hungerford bridge in London (to which Brunel turned next), and the Egyptian revival in architecture (the style Brunel intended for the Clifton bridge towers).

Essayists such as Angus Buchanan and Christine MacLeod will be familiar to readers of T&C. Among the others are art historians, railway experts, and museum curators. Some essays tell familiar stories—the engineering exploits of Isambard's father, Marc (known particularly for the Portsmouth block mill and Thames tunnel), Isambard's design of the Royal Albert bridge, the building of the Great Eastern, and the Bristol projects mentioned above are recounted. Others tell of lesser-known accomplishments such as his design of prefabricated hospital buildings used during the Crimean War by Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole.

The essays that place Brunel's work in context take the reader beyond standard engineering histories. MacLeod examines how engineers became cultural heroes, temporarily eclipsing politicians and writers in mid-nineteenth century Britain. Michael Bailey describes Brunel's colleagues in the engineering profession. Marcus Waithe explores the antimodernism expressed in John Ruskin's opposition to railways in general, and to their penetration of the Lake District in particular. Other essays touch social issues current in Bristol during Brunel's time, such as the ownership of ships engaged in the triangle trade or the impact of the electric telegraph.

Adrian Vaughan's essay reminds us that the work of the great engineer depended on many others, including the investors who raised the capital for large projects, surveyors who actually laid out routes, office staff, resident engineers burdened with great responsibilities, and the navvies and contractors who did the physical labor. Conventional history, abetted by hagiographers, has obscured the work of these other contributors under the name of the principal engineer. Sorting out the contributions made by the principal and all others to the overall project is rarely undertaken in histories of nineteenth century engineering even though writers are now less likely simply to portray the "great man" as genius struggling against disbelief by the unimaginative. [End Page 468] The work of many subordinates undoubtedly was incorporated in final products credited to Brunel, or to any of the other great engineers of the day. A topic not touched on here concerns Brunel's possible dependence on contemporary research, such as that on the strength of materials and engineering mechanics conducted by William Fairbairn and Eaton Hodgkinson. While numerous pages from Brunel's work and calculation books are reproduced, their content is not examined in the text.

Brunel gave Britain an enduring engineering heritage. But the broad gauge he used for the Great Western Railway did not prevail as standard against the width of the tracks in George Stephenson's coal mine...


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pp. 467-469
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