He was Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, an amazing engineer, nobody has heard of!

Even though every day we live with the results of his work, he created:

  • The Wellington Boot, which when it rains, we still use!
  • Automated the production of pulley blocks for the Royal Navy.
  • Designed the tunneling machine to create the Rotherhithe Tunnel under the Thames through which Tube trains still run today. The same basic principle is still used today!

And still nobody has heard of him!

He was born in Hacqueville, Normandy, France, but at 25 he had to flee France to the United States, due to the French Revolution.  Where, by 1796 he was appointed Chief Engineer of New York. Three years later he arrived in London to marry his sweetheart, Sophia Kingdom.  You see, he had to leave her in Rouen, where, because he fled, the Revolutionaries claimed she was an English spy, so sentenced her to be executed, fortunately, the fall of Robespierre allowed her to get out and travel to London.

It is said that Brunel’s ship to London was paid for by the British Ambassador, who on learning of Brunel’s design to automate pulley production put him on the next ship to England. As soon as he arrived, he found Sophia and on 1 November 1799, they were married.

Once here he learnt the problem the Duke of Wellington’s troops were having marching through mud, he solved it by producing the “Wellington Boot”. These he made and sold, along with pulleys, in volume to the army. Unfortunately, when the war ended, so did his contract, he went bankrupt and was sent to debtor’s prison.  The story goes that the Duke was so thankful for the boots that he paid his debts, getting him out of prison.

However, his greatest success was the Rotherhithe Tunnel. Originally started in 1805 but stopped in 1807 as the roof kept falling in!  In 1818 Brunel came up with the idea of a tunnelling shield, a reinforced shield of cast iron allowing miners to work in separate compartments, digging at the tunnel-face, then periodically driving it forward. Brunel’s invention is still the basis of all subsequent tunnelling shields. However, the tunnel still had many problems, mainly financial, and it was only on 25 March 1843 that it opened, but before that, on 24th March 1841, Brunel was knighted by Queen Victoria.

He survived until his death at 80 on 12 December 1849. What a man, as great an engineer as his son!

Isn’t History fun!