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Tunnelling, The age of rail, A genius for detail, steamships

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Engineers of the nineteenth century - by Adam Hart-Davis


I K Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born in Portsmouth on 9 April 1806; there could hardly have been a better time to enter the world of engineering. Britain led the world in the production of iron, steel, and steam engines, and for engineers the sky was the limit, literally: the nineteenth century would see the flights of the pioneering aircraft of John Stringfellow and Sir George Cayley. Brunel

Brunel's first major engineering task was rather more down to earth—he was called upon to rescue the Rotherhithe Tunnel that his father Sir (Marc) Isambard Brunel was digging under the Thames. One of the problems was the continual leakage of raw sewage from the river above. In April 1826 Marc became too ill to carry on, and Isambard took over as resident engineer. He managed to keep going for some eighteen months, but in January 1828 the roof caved in, and there was a disastrous flood. Six men died, and Isambard was pulled unconscious from the water. He took more than a year to recover, and the tunnel—by then known as the Great Bore—was not completed for fifteen years.

Isambard Brunel later built another tunnel, just a few miles west of Bath—the ‘monstrous and extraordinary, most dangerous and impracticable tunnel at Box’ (I. Brunel, The Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Civil Engineer, 1870, repr. 2004, 72). This tunnel is nearly two miles long, took five years in construction, and cost the lives of more than a hundred men. The flamboyant geologist William Buckland declared that ‘the concussion of the atmosphere and the vibration caused by the trains’ would probably bring down thousands of tons of rock on the hapless passengers. Meanwhile the eminent critic Dionysius Lardner said that because of the downhill gradient, any train whose brakes failed at the eastern end of the tunnel would hurtle out of the other end doing 100 m.p.h., at which speed the air would be sucked instantly from the lungs of the passengers, and they would all be dead on arrival at Bath. The Great Western Railway still runs through Brunel's Box Tunnel, and neither disaster has happened in the first 160 years.

The age of rail

Richard Trevithick

The first time a locomotive pulled a train was in 1804, to settle a bet. The fiery Cornish wrestler Richard Trevithick mounted one of his high-pressure steam engines on wheels at Samuel Homfray's Penydarren iron works near Merthyr Tudful, to haul ten tons of pig iron nine and a half miles down the Taff valley to the wharf at Abercynon, from where it would go by barge to Cardiff. Trevithick

The iron was normally hauled by horses on wagons that ran on a railway of cast-iron plates, and Trevithick ran his locomotive on the same track, towing five wagons loaded with the pig iron, and seventy passengers who clambered aboard. They had to stop frequently to cut down overhanging trees blocking the way, so the journey took two hours, but they made it to Abercynon. Unfortunately the five-ton locomotive had broken most of the iron plates, which meant that the return journey had to be made by road, and the idea of using a locomotive did not catch on until stronger wrought-iron rails became available.

Matthew Murray

The first commercial engine-pulled railway was built in 1812 by Matthew Murray at the Round Foundry in Leeds. It hauled coal from the Middleton coalfield into the centre of Leeds, and because there was a considerable gradient Murray used John Blenkinsop's rack railway; the locomotive pulled itself along with a large cog-wheel that engaged with the teeth on a third rail. The legendary George Stephenson may well have learned from the Middleton railway, for soon afterwards he began to experiment with locomotives at Killingworth colliery near Newcastle. In 1823–5 he built the railway to carry coal and a few passengers from Darlington to Stockton, and in the late 1820s he built the railway from Liverpool to Manchester.

Murray’s locomotive

George Stephenson

George Stephenson was a great entrepreneur and salesman; he managed to assume control of most of the early passenger railways built in the north of England, and he was lucky to be assisted by his son Robert Stephenson, who was a much better engineer. Apart from a brief trip to South America, where he rescued the destitute Richard Trevithick, who had won and then lost his fortune in the old silver mines, Robert ran his father's engine works at Newcastle. Using leading-edge technology he built Rocket, the superb locomotive that won the Rainhill trials in 1829, and so earned the right to pull the first passenger trains from Liverpool to Manchester the following year. Stephenson

Other famous engineers

Another great engine-builder in the Stephenson stable was Daniel Gooch, who went on to build locomotives for Brunel, and later to rescue the Great Western Railway from financial disaster. Joseph Locke, a pupil of George's, became a great railway builder in his own right, as indeed did Robert Stephenson, who constructed the railway from Birmingham to London and many others at home and abroad, sometimes in partnership with other engineers, including George Parker Bidder. As a child Bidder had rarely attended school, preferring instead to sit in the local blacksmith's shop at Moretonhampstead on Dartmoor. None the less he developed a love of numbers and amazing skill at mental arithmetic. His father used to take him to local fairs and exhibit him as the Calculating Boy, and he was frequently asked to multiply six-figure numbers together in his head. In spite of this curious upbringing he too became a successful engineer, and among other things built the first railway swing bridge, over the River Wensum near Norwich.

A genius for detail

Henry Maudslay

The railway engineers were essentially the descendants of the millwrights, since the earliest steam engines—the vast Newcomen engines had been built by the men who knew about water mills and windmills. A new breed, however, was appearing alongside them—the men of precision, working on a smaller scale.


The grandfather of precision engineering was the Yorkshireman Joseph Bramah, who invented a new water-closet, followed by an unpickable lock, so elegant in design and function that any beautiful piece of engineering came to be called ‘a real Bramah’. To make his locks and run his workshop he hired a young man called Maudslay, formerly a powder-monkey at Woolwich arsenal. Henry Maudslay was the true father of precision engineering. One of his workmen said that it was a pleasure to see him handle a tool of any kind, but he was quite splendid with an 18 inch file. He himself said: ‘Avoid complexities, and make everything as simple as possible.’ After Bramah's locks he went on to make pulley-block-making machines for Marc Brunel—the world's first iron machine-tool production line—and later the world's finest steam engines. He built a micrometer—the Lord Chancellor—that could measure to a ten-thousandth of an inch, and was used to settle disputes in his workshop.

 james hall nasmyth (1808–1890), by david octavius hill and robert adamson, c.1844

James Hall Nasmyth (1808–1890), by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, c.1844

Perhaps Maudslay's greatest skill was in passing on his genius, for from his workshop came a stream of superb precision engineers. The versatile Richard Roberts invented the cotton-spinning mule in 1830, and for Robert Stephenson's Menai Bridge he built a heavy Jacquard-controlled plate-punching machine, arguably the first digitally controlled machine tool. Another of Maudslay's men, Joseph Clement, did his best to follow the instructions of the irascible Charles Babbage, and built the prototype ‘difference engine’—the world's first mechanical computer.

Nasmith and Whitworth

Joseph Whitworth set up in Manchester, where Whitworth Street was named after him; he standardized nuts and bolts, so that they could be mass-produced instead of having to be made to order. And in 1836 James Nasmyth established a foundry at Patricroft, outside Manchester, and invented the steam hammer, one of the most powerful machine tools of the Victorian era. Whitworth


Nasmith and Brunel

It was a question posed in the previous year which led Nasmyth to Isambard Kingdom Brunel. In October 1835 the 29-year-old Brunel was asked during a board meeting of the Great Western Railway whether the railway was too long. He replied, ‘Why not make it longer? Build a steamship to go to New York and call it the Great Western’ (Brunel, Life, 233). Amazingly they agreed, and he proceeded to build the biggest wooden ship the world had seen. He followed that up with the Great Britain, half as big again, and built of iron; now, 160 years later, she lies in Bristol in the very dock where she was built, a tribute to the strength of Brunel's design. Great Western

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