A Stumble Is Not a Fall: ‘The Magnificent Disappointment’ of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

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‘Nil desperandum (Never despair) has always been my motto.’
Isambard Kingdom Brunel

At the Great Western Dockyard in Bristol you can visit Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s revolutionary ship SS Great Britain. Launched from this dock in 1843, Great Britain became the first iron-hulled, propeller-driven steamship to cross the Atlantic. In her day she sailed to New York and Australia faster and more reliably than any other ship in the world.

You can climb down to inspect the vessel’s robust iron hull and its magnificent red propeller. You can step on-board to admire the spacious upper deck with its three sturdy masts, ship’s bell and cow house. You can wander through the lower decks amongst the plush first class dining rooms, cabins and bathrooms towards the stern; and the more compact quarters for the steerage passengers in the bows. It’s all beautifully preserved.  

Brunel was an engineer of vision. Appointed in 1833 to design the Great Western Railway from London to Bristol, he determined that a shipping line could extend the journey from London all the way to New York. His first ship, the wooden paddle steamer Great Western, broke the record for the Atlantic crossing to New York on its maiden voyage in 1838. And so Brunel was soon commissioned to design a second.

For the Great Britain Brunel seized on an innovative iron-hulled construction that had only recently been developed. It would be longer, stronger, faster and more efficient than its wooden predecessor. And when in 1840 the first propeller-driven steamship, the Archimedes, visited Bristol, Brunel abandoned paddle wheels and adopted screw propulsion.

At her launch the Great Britain was the biggest ship in the world and an engineering masterpiece. She is considered by many to be the first truly modern ship.

However, the Great Western Steamship Company, already stretched by Brunel’s protracted construction process, only managed to sell 45 of its 360 tickets for the maiden crossing. Great Britain’s early years were cursed by propeller damage and fires, and on her fifth voyage in 1846, the Captain missed a lighthouse and ran aground off the coast of Northern Ireland. The iron hull saved the ship, but the Great Western Steamship Company could not afford to pay for the salvage and was forced out of business.

It is easy to imagine when one considers a legendary talent like Brunel’s that his success was inevitable, instinctive and lightly won; that his progress from one triumph to another was stately and effortless. In fact the career of Britain’s greatest engineer was consistently marred by bad luck, setbacks and financial challenges.

 The much-lauded Thames Tunnel, which Brunel designed for his father at the age of 20, was dogged during construction by floods and fatalities; and Brunel himself was lucky to escape with his life.

The Great Western Railway was admired for its broader gauge (7ft ¼ inches), which was faster and could carry more weight than the ‘standard’ gauge (4ft 8 ½ inches). But within a few years the Government, concerned about consistency, voted to prevent any more broad gauge tracks being built.

Brunel determined that the South Devon Atmospheric Railway should employ an innovative vacuum traction method, instead of a conventional locomotive engine, to pull its trains up Devon’s steep hills. But his ‘atmospheric’ system encountered problems at every step and was abandoned within a year.

Though counted a genius in the modern era, Brunel divided opinion in his day. Some regarded his inventiveness and originality as stubborn and wilful.

'Mr Brunel had always an aversion to follow any man’s lead; and that another engineer had fixed the gauge of a railway, or built a bridge, or designed an engine, in one way, was of itself often a sufficient reason with him for adopting an altogether different course.'
Samuel Smiles, 1875

 Other contemporaries were more forgiving.

'We do not take Isambard Kingdom Brunel for either a rogue or a fool but an enthusiast, blinded by the light of his own genius, an engineering knight-errant, always on the lookout for magic caves to be penetrated and enchanted rivers to be crossed, never so happy as when engaged ‘regardless of cost’ in conquering some, to ordinary mortals, impossibility.'
The Railway Times, 1845

The picture of Brunel that emerges is of an extraordinary innovator with a relentless enthusiasm for the new, and a steadfast resilience in the face of setbacks. He was independent minded, free spirited, suspicious of convention, rules and restrictions.

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'I am opposed to the laying down of rules or conditions to be observed in the construction of bridges lest the progress of improvement tomorrow might be embarrassed or shackled by recording or registering as law the prejudices or errors of today.'

History tends to gloss over the mistakes and misadventures of its heroes. But often these disappointments were integral to those heroes’ ultimate success.

'Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.’
Winston Churchill

The important lesson here is that pioneers can be quite challenging individuals and uncertain investments. They take risks and embrace the possibility of failure. In the pursuit of progress they are prepared to suffer setbacks, trials and tribulations. But they are of robust character. They pick themselves up, dust themselves down and press on. A stumble is not a fall.

Despite all the criticism and carping, the defeats and disappointments, Brunel is widely recognized today as one of the most versatile and audacious engineers of the 19th century. He reinvented public transport and modern engineering. He went down in history as a truly great Briton.

Perhaps inevitably Brunel’s final grand project, the massive ship Great Eastern ran over budget and behind schedule. The Great Eastern was twice as long and six times the volume of the Great Britain. She was so big that she had to be launched sideways from her dock at Rotherhithe. Working under the glare of publicity, Brunel found the whole enterprise deeply stressful. He suffered a stroke on 5 September 1859, just before his ‘leviathan’ made her first voyage to New York. Ten days later he was dead. He was only 53.

The Morning Chronicle’s obituary summed up Brunel’s legacy thus:

‘There is always something not displeasing to the British temperament in a magnificent disappointment.’

'I'm the living result.
I'm a man who's been hurt a little too much.
And I've tasted the bitterness of my own tears.
Sadness is all my lonely heart can feel.
I can't stand up for falling down.
I can't stand up for falling down.’

Elvis Costello, 'I Can't Stand Up (For Falling Down)’ (Homer Banks and Allen Jones)

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