Brunel, Marc Isambard (DNB00)

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BRUNEL, Sir MARC ISAMBARD (1769–1849), civil engineer, was born on 25 April 1769 at Hacqueville, near Gisors, in Normandy, where members of his family had farmed land for generations. He was destined by his parents for the church, and when only eight years old was sent to the college of Gisors to begin the necessary classical studies, for which, however, he showed no inclination at any time. He already at that age evinced a marked taste for mechanical pursuits and for drawing. At eleven years of age he was sent to the seminary of St. Nicaise at Rouen, connecfcd with the ecclesiastical college in that city, and there determined to qualify himself for the navy. After some time devoted to the studyof drawing and hydrography, he obtained, through the influence o the minister of marine-the Maréchal de Castries-a nomination to the corvette named after that minister. In this vessel Brunel sailed on a cruise to the West Indies, and continued to serve for six years. At starting he constructed a quadrant so accurate that he was able to use it throughout his naval career. In 1792 his ship was paid off and early in 1798 he returned to Paris, which he soon had to leave in consequence of his open expressions of loyalist opinions. After some time spent at Rouen in considerable danger, he obtained a passport for America, sailed from France on 7 July, and landed in New York on 6 Sept. 1793. Here he first definitely adopted the profession of civil engineer and architect, and obtained his first engagement on the survey of a Large tract of land near Lake Ontario. His next engagement was on the survey of a line for a canal to connect the river Hudson with Lake Champlain. The superintendence of these operations was first placed in the hands of another French refugee, but Brunel displayed such capacity as the diiliculties of the undertaking increased, that the command was resigned to him. Brunel now obtained various commissions, and he competed successfully against several professional architects in designs for the new House of Assembly at Washington. His plan, however, was ultimately set aside on grounds of economy; His was also the selected design for the Bowery Theatre, New York, which he constructed. It was burnt down in 1821.

Brunel was now appointed chief engineer of New York, and in that capacity was employed to erect an arsenal and cannon foundry, in which he introduced much new and ingenious machinery for casting and boring ordinance; and shortly afterwards furnished plans for the defences of the channel between Staten Island and Long Island. He had for some time been engaged in elaborating an idea for the application of machinery to the manufactured ships’ blocks on a large scale, and he determined upon visiting England with the object of submitting his plans to the British govemment. Accordingly he sailed from America on 20 Jan. 1799, and landed in England in the following March. Shortly after arriving in this country he was married to Miss Sophia Kingdom, a lady whose acquaintance he had made in France previous to his departure for America. In May 1799 Brunel took out his first patent for a writing and drawing machine similar in principle to the pantagraph, and about the same time he invented a machine for winding cotton thread, which was largely adopted in cotton factories, but of which he neglected to secure the benefit by patent. He also invented various other ingenious machines of minor importance, which brought little profit to himself beyond the testimony they afforded of his mechanical skill. In the construction of the ‘block machinery’ he was fortunate enough to secure the co-operation of Henry Maudslay, and having completed his drawings and working models, Brunel in 1801 took out a patent for his invention. He had introductions to Lord Spencer at the admiralty, and through him the plans were made lmown to Sir Samuel Bentham, then inspector general of naval works, who forwarded to the authorities Brunel’s application for the substitution of his machinery for the more expensive manual labour then in use. After long negotiations and delay the government ultimately, in May 1803, adopted his proposals, and he was directed to erect his machinery at Portsmouth dockyard. In spite of many hindrances, the machinery was completed in 1806. The saving of labour and expense effected by the adoption of Brunel’s ingenious mechanism was enormous. The system consisted of forty-three machines executing the various processes in the block manufacture, and by its aid operations which by the old method had required the uncertain labour of over one hundred men, could be carried out with precision by ten. The blocks were better made than they had ever been before, and the estimated saving to the country in the first year after the machinery was in full working order was about 24,000l. Brunel had incurred great expense in carrying out his plans, but his claims received tardy recognition from the government. In compensation, and as a reward for his invention, he ultimately received a sum of l7,000l. Between the years 1805 and 1812 Brunel was occupied in perfecting various machines for sawmills, cutting, and bending timber, as well as one for cutting staves, and in 1810 he took out a patent for ‘improvements in obtaining motive power’ by means of an ingenious air engine, but this invention appears to have had no practical results. About this time he erected sawmills of his own at Battersea, where many valuable operations in the working of wood by machinery wore for the first time introduced. In 1811 he was employed by the government to erect sawmills an other machinery of his own invention at Woolwich.

In the following year he was entrusted with an order for carrying out improvements on a large scale in the dockyard at Chatham, b which immense saving was effected in this time and labour required for the transport and working of timber, and in which an iron railway laid on longitudinal sleepers was introduced by Brunel for the conveyance of the timber from one part of the yard to another. He also devised and erected machinery for the manufacture of shoes, which were adopted by government for use in the army; but the peace of 1815 involved him in heavy pecuniary loss on his contracts. In 1812 Brunel made his first experiments in steam navigation on the Thames with a double-acting marine engine, and interestedhimself greatly in establishing a line of steamers to ply between London and Margate. Two years later he prevailed upon the navy board to accept his proposals for towing vessels of war to sea by the aid of steamtugs, and made at his own expense a number of experiments directed towards the construction of steam vessels of suitable size, capable of heading heavy seas, and carrying all necessary gear. But the navy board, after nearly six months’ deliberation, revoked their acceptance and repudiated the indemnity which they had promised Brunel for the expenses he had incurred, on the ground that the attempt was ‘too chimerical to be seriously entertained.' About this time Brunel took out patents for several inventions of minor importance, which might have brought considerable prodt to him had his commercial faculties and opportunities been proportionate to his scientific ability. In 1816 he invented an ingenious knitting machine, and two ears later patented two preparations of tingxil for purposes of ornamentation, which had an extensive application. In 1819 he took out a patent for improvements in stereotype plates for printing, and negotiations were entered into with the proprietors of the ‘Times’ and the ‘Courier’ for the adoption of his invention. An agreement was concluded with the ‘Times,' but was subsequently abandoned. In 1820 he was invited to furnish designs for a bridge over the Seine at Rouen, and in the same year he prepared plans for a timber bridge of 880 feet span to be thrown across the 'eva at St. Petersburg; but neither of these proipctswas carried into execution. His designs, owever, for bridges to be erected in the island of Bourbon, to withstand the violent hurricanes which prevail there, were accepted by the French government and carried into elfect.

In 1814 Brunel‘s sawmills at Battersea were nearly detroyed by fire. From this time, owing to financial mismanagement, the prosperity of the undertaking steadily declined, until, in 1821, a crisis occurred, and he was thrown into prison for debt. After some months spent in the king’s bench he obtained from the government, at the instance of many influential friends, a grant of 5,000l. for the discharge of his debts, and was then liberated. During the next four years Brunel designed sawmills for the islands of Trinidad and Berbice. He effected improvements in marine steam-engines and addle-wheels. In 1823 he supplied plans for swing-bridges for the docks at Liverpool, where three years later he introduced the Boating landing-piers which have since been so largely extended. His opinion was taken on many of the engineering projecta of the day; while he at this time was perseveringly engaged in experiments, in which he sacrificed much time and money, for the production of a new motive power from the vapour of gases liquefied at a low temperature. He constructed and patented a machine to carryout this principle, but it had no practical success, and the plan was ultimately abandoned.

Brunel’s energies were now almost exclusively devoted to the construction of the Thames tunnel. It is said to have originated in a plan peroposed by him in 1818 for establishing tween the banks of the Neva communication independent of the Hoating ice. In 1824, under the auspices of the Duke of Wellington, a company was formed to carry out the scheme (proposed by Brunel for boring a tunnel un er the Thames from Rotherhithe to Wapping. He suggested the excavation of a passage of a size to admit a double archway of full dimensions at once, without the preliminary construction of a driftway; and he utilised for this purpose an apparatus forwhich he had taken out a patent in 1818. This consisted of a large shield covering the total area to be excavated, and composed of twelve separate frames, comprising together thirty-six cells, in which the miners worked independently of one another; the whole machine capable of bein forced forward by screw power as the work advanced. The operations were begun at Rotherhithe on 16 Feb. 1825, and, in the face of the enormous difficulties that were encountered, were not finally completed till the end of 1842. Panics and strikes took place among the workmen. In 1827 an irruption of the river occurred, which was stopped by bagsof clay. In 1828 there was another irruption, and in August of that year the works were stopped, and the tunnel remained bricked up for seven years. After the resumption of the undertaking there Were, in August and November 1837 and March 1838, three more irruptions, and it was not till March 1843 that the tunnel was opened to the public, Brunel met these disasters with characteristic fertility of resource, and persevered in the work with untiring energy. But the strain upon his mind produced an attack of partial paralysis, from which, however, he recovered sufficiently to take part in the opening ceremony. Alter this, with the exception of a plan for stacking timber in dockyards, which he submitted to the admiralty, Brunel undertook no more professional work. In 1845 he was again attacked by paralysis, but lingered on for four years. He died on 12 Dec. 1849, in his eighty-first year, and on the 17th of the same month was buried in Kensal Green cemetery.

Brunel was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in March 1814, and in 1832 was made a vice-president under the presidency of the Duke of Sussex. In 1841, shortly before the completion of the Thames tunnel, he was knighted. He was a corresponding member of the French Institute, and received in 1829 the order of the Legion d'Honneur. He was also elected a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Stockholm, and of various other scientific societies abroad. In 1823 he became a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers, and constantly attended their meetings, and gave accounts of the progress of his works. He served some years on the council, and aided the advancement of the society by every means in his wer. In 1839 he was awarded the Telford silver medal for his account of the ‘shield’ employed in the construction of the Thames tunnel. His communications to the society will be found in the published ‘Proceedings,’ vols. i. ii. iii. xiii. xvii.

[Proceedings Inst. Civil Engineers. x. 78, and i. 5, 23, 33, 41, 46, 48, 85, ii, 29, 80, iii. xiii. xvii.; Beamish's Memoir of the Life of Sir Marc I. Brunel.]

R. H.