Book review: Brunel by LTC Rolt

LTC_ROLTShort review
Excellent read on 2 levels: the actual biography is really enjoyable and authoritative because of Rolt’s access to Brunel’s papers; and the introduction describing how Rolt’s hatchet job of John Scott Russell (the “other” engineer on the failed SS Great Eastern project) is probably unfair is fascinating from a historical/interpretation point of view. Overall, I came from a position of relative ignorance about Brunel’s life and work and was surprised at how unsuccessful Brunel was a commercial engineer (though his innovation is almost unrivalled).

Long review
Somehow, I have now been a lecturer at Brunel University for 3.5 years. It seems like only yesterday that I was starting this blog as a postdoc at the University of Manchester. In those 3.5 years my responsibilities have expanded (at home and at work) so, as I said in my last post, blogging has taken a backseat, which is a shame as I quite enjoy it.

The point of a brief autobiographical introduction is that my knowledge of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s life and work was relatively low when I took the job here at Brunel University. I knew he was an official, BBC advocated “Great Briton” but that was about it.

I did have a little go at addressing the conflict of being a climate scientist at a university named after one of the fathers of the Industrial Revolution on my work blog recently (and in a talk for the London Science Festival) but I still felt that I really needed to find out more.

So I picked up a relatively old biography – LTC Rolt’s Isambard Knigdon Brunel, first publsihed in 1957 – which is still considered authoritative as Rolt had unprecedented access to the Brunel archive.

I’m glad I did. It’s really well written and has a nice mix of quotes from contemporary documents and descriptions of the engineering projects alongside important personal events. It flows really well too, which is surprising given the temporal overlap of much of Brunel’s work: I’ve tried to summarise this overlap in a little timeline that you can see below.

A timeline of Brunel’s major projects. Bridges and tunnels are shown in blue; railways in black; ships in red; and other projects in green. Start and end dates are not definitive. I’ve washed out the shading where a project continued without Brunel’s intense contribution. Brunel died in 1859.

A timeline of Brunel’s major projects. Bridges and tunnels are shown in blue; railways in black; ships in red; and other projects in green. Start and end dates are not definitive. I’ve washed out the shading where a project continued without Brunel’s intense contribution. Brunel died in 1859.

The timeline also demonstrates how Brunel’s work was very intense (in a relatively short life – 1806-1859) and covered a wide range of areas: tunnels, bridges, railways, ships and other projects.

As an academic, I was quite interested in Brunel’s “impact”. What surprised me was that relative few of his projects were successful commercially. His ships were all failures commercially. The Thames Tunnel was a death trap that was never used for its intended purpose. The Great Western Railway’s legacy is somewhat tarnished by the “Gauge Wars”.

Perhaps this is a harsh summary of his work but it made me feel a bit closer to him: he wasn’t a great businessman but he was a successful innovator and researcher. His ideas were ahead of their time and were difficult to monetise in that period. His longer term legacy was much more important and changed the way that engineering was done globally.

Perhaps the most interesting passages in the book are those relating to John Scott Russell, who worked on one of Brunel’s biggest failures: the SS Great Eastern. Rolt tries to argue that Scott Russell was the villain in that piece and deliberately tried to undermine Brunel’s ship. However, the excellent introduction (by RA Buchanan) highlights some of the flaws in Rolt’s argument and supposes that Rolt’s position was driven by his desire to absolve Brunel of the SS Great Eastern’s failure and was biased by the contents of the Brunel archives.

Overall, highly recommended reading.

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