ISAMBARD KINGDOM BRUNEL
Arguably the greatest and certainly the most innovative engineer of the 19th century, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born on 9 April 1806, the son of Marc Isambard Brunel, a French emigré who had fled to America during the Revolution and then pursued his own highly distinguished engineering career in England from 1799. After finishing his education in France, young I. K. B. returned home in August, 1822, to begin work in his father's office -- he was sixteen and his father fifty-three. When Brunel Senior was formally appointed Engineer to the Thames Tunnel Company in 1825, and work on the tunnel began with the sinking of the shaft at Rotherhithe, the very effective working relationship between father and son was put under the severest imaginable test for the eighteen year period it took to complete the project. I. K. B. was nearly drowned in the disasterous flood of January, 1828. This resulted in the tunnel face being walled up and work suspended for six and a half years, making the young engineer's future look extremely uncertain. However, late in 1829, I. K. Brunel entered four plans into the competition to design the bridge over the Avon Gorge at Clifton, and was eventually awarded the commission after producing a new design in a second round of competition against Thomas Telford, builder of the Menai Bridge. The next two decades were his most productive and saw the building and triumphant opening of the Great Western Railway, the completion -- after Herculean struggles -- of the Thames Tunnel, the creation of two revolutionary steamships (the Great Western followed by the Great Britain), and the commencement of the famous Royal Albert Bridge over the Tamar at Saltash. By comparison, the 1850's were filled with disappointments and overshadowed by the calamitous problems of the ill-fated Great Eastern which ruined him financially and undoubtedly contributed to his premature death on 15 September 1859.
Both Brunels had a passion for engineering on the grand scale. While this collection, the property of a descendant, forms only part of a once much larger family archive, it provides an insight into the daily toil, the drive to obtain facts and find solutions, and the continual effort at co-ordination needed to bring their projects to completion. Particular importance must be attached to the unused Clifton Suspension Bridge drawings (lot 24), submitted for the first bridge competition in 1829. Although the bridge was a project which I. K. Brunel did not live to see completed, it formed what his son and first biographer, Isambard, calls "A very important passage in the history of his life. Doubtless, if he had never heard of the proposed competition in 1829, or if he had been one of the disappointed competitors, he would have found some other opportunity of making a name in his profession; but, as a matter of fact, the Clifton bridge competition did give him the opportunity he desired, and all his subsequent success was traced by him to this victory. He never forgot the debt he owed to Bristol, and to the friends who helped him there ...." (Isambard Brunel, The Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Civil Engineer, 1870, p. 58).
I. K. Brunel's fierce attachment to his own diaries and notebooks as an aid to memory was such that his own travelling carriage -- a black britzska irreverently nicknamed the "Flying Hearse" -- had specially designed compartments to accomodate a stock of notepads and the cigars for which he had an equally strong liking. The 25 diaries, 20 autograph notebooks, and 13 bank passbooks offered for sale as an unbroken archive (lot 45) reveal in a profound way the unbounded mental and physical energy of the man, his very extended network of personal contacts, the extraordinarily complex nature of the financial transactions his great projects were dependent on, how he loved using and was unable to stop thinking about the performance of the railways he had built.
I. Letters from Sir Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849)