Isambard Kingdom Brunel, played by Kenneth Branagh in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics
The opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics each featured, near the beginning, a guy with a cigar reciting from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. A lot of viewers would have recognized Winston Churchill in the closing ceremony, whether from war movies, history class, or documentaries; he was Prime Minister of the UK during the second world war. But the cigar-chewer in the opening ceremony was someone non-Brits aren’t likely to have run across. Some people thought it was Charles Dickens and some went for Abraham Lincoln, but in fact the actor was playing Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
As that probably doesn’t tell you much, I’m here to answer the question “Who was Brunel?”, which is the easy part. “Why were these guys quoting Shakespeare?” is harder.
Winston Churchill, played by Timothy Spall in the closing ceremony at the 2012 Olympics
Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a 19th-century engineer who designed and built bridges, tunnels, viaducts, railway lines, and ships in an era in which that kind of civil and mechanical engineering was comparable to today’s Silicon Valley for excitement, new technologies, and transformed economies. Victorian industrialists—of the type in the Olympics’ opening ceremony, who raised the smokestacks of the factories and presided over the change from the agricultural to the industrial—invested in the huge projects that engineers such as Brunel dreamed up. Note I have to say “such as” Brunel because I can’t say “like Brunel”, as nobody else was like him: he was the greatest.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself
Brunel was born into engineering. His father, a civil engineer and inventor, could have been wealthy if only he’d remembered to patent his inventions, but died nearly penniless, dependent upon his more famous—and more solvent—son. ‘Our’ Brunel’s father, despite being knighted by King Edward VII and boasting membership in the Royal Societies of multiple countries, spent time in debtor’s prison, until the government bailed him out on condition he wouldn’t leave England. An imminent deal with the Tsar scared them into forking over the money; they didn’t want Brunel (Senior) moving to Russia and building marvelous things there.
Straight out of school, 16-year-old Isambard began to work for his father, soon running the era’s hottest project: building the world’s first tunnel through the soft mud that lies under a navigable river—in this case, the Thames. The Brunel tunnel is still there,and still in useby the London Overground Railway. Opened to the public in 1843, it didn’t even need refurbishment until the 1990s, though building the tunnel cost several lives and almost killed young Isambard. After a terrible accident and a long recovery Brunel (Junior) went on to different kinds of engineering work of his own, most notably for the Great Western Railway.
Statue of Brunel at Paddington Station in London
On the first train ride Brunel ever took, he jotted down some notes, the jagged letters showing how jerky the train was, and added “The time is not far off when we shall be able to take our coffee and write, while going noiselessly and smoothly at 45mph – let me try”. He got his chance to build a railroad–only two years after his first ride.
The financial backers of the Great Western Railway wanted to connect London with the popular holiday (US: vacation) spots in southwest England by rail, which was no small thing in the 1830s. You had to get approval from Parliament, and counter the arguments of people who claimed railway passengers wouldn’t survive going through tunnels (they’d smother), or feared that cattle would be harmed by walking under a railway bridge, or—my favorite—were concerned, as was the provost of Eton College, that the railway would be “dangerous to the morals of the pupils”.
The SS Great Britain in drydock today
Brunel had to testify before Parliament for eleven days, but eventually Great Western got permission to build the railway. Then Brunel suggested they go one better: why not operate steamships, too? A passenger ought to be able to buy one Great Western ticket, he said, and travel all the way from London to New York. While they chewed on that, Brunel surveyed the new line himself and did ingenious things with the gradients and with the gauge (distance between the rails) to smooth out the ride. And a few years later, they let him design the ships.
People clearly thought he could do whatever he set his mind to do. He experimented with trains propelled by carbon dioxide (the Gaz Engine), which didn’t work, and with trains pushed by air rushing to fill a steam-engine-generated vacuum (the Atmospheric Railway), which did work, but not very well. One modern author suggests that if he had wanted to build a steam rocket to go to the moon, someone would have paid to let him try it.
The SS Great Britain in 1844, believed to be the first photo ever taken of a ship
But before designing ocean-going ships for treacherous Atlantic crossings, his only experiment in nautical design was the Bertha, a dredger that removed silt from the Bristol docks. Even more formidably, the general wisdom said steamships couldn’t cross the ocean; steam for short stretches, sure, but for the Atlantic you had to have sails. But where Brunel was concerned, the general wisdom often proved wrong.
If you visit the SS Great Britain today, you might meet “Mr Brunel”. Photo by Paul Blakemore, used here by courtesy of the SS Great Britain Trust
He’s probably best remembered for his ships (though Britain’s fascination with the sea may be a factor there). First came the SS Great Western—in its day, the largest steamship ever, wooden-hulled with paddle wheels for propulsion and a few sails to keep it upright. Next came the SS Great Britain—even larger, with an iron hull and a screw propeller. You can visit the ship today in Bristol, where it sits as a museum in the same shipyard, in fact in the very same drydock, in which it was built. It was so big they had to adapt the locks between the shipyard and the ocean before it could get out, but Brunel’s last ship, the SS Great Eastern, was even bigger than that.
Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol. The toll hasn’t changed since 1952, so drivers pay 50 pence to take a car across, though they don’t bother to collect the 5 pence from pedestrians and cyclists anymore.
Brunel died not long after the SS Great Eastern’s maiden voyage. As a memorial, some of his fellow engineers drummed up funding and completed the Clifton Bridge, which Brunel had designed and begun building almost 30 years before. (The original project had been abandoned when the money ran out.) The new bridge was finished in 1864, though without the decorative sphinxes on the tops of the towers that were part of the decorations called for in the original design.
Kenneth Branagh, when he isn’t playing Brunel. He’s one of the UK’s leading Shakespearian actors, but a wider American audience might remember him as Gilderoy Lockhart in the Harry Potter movies.
Back in 1836, the first iron rail of the Clifton Bridge, when laid across 700 feet of empty space over the Avon, had fallen into the water 300 feet below. Brunel said as soon as they could put another in place, he’d ride across it in a basket to show it was safe. He got stuck halfway across, and had to swing himself out of the basket and up to the bar to get it going again. That’s where the analogy with today’s Silicon Valley breaks down: people like Steve Jobs have given us marvelous new technology, but they never had to risk their lives to do it; they didn’t contend with exploding steam boilers, they weren’t caught in unfinished tunnels when the river decided to flood in, they didn’t have to do death-defying aerial acrobatics to prove their projects were safe. You can’t call Brunel the chief geek of his day; he was a bit more Indiana Jones and a bit less Bill Gates, though it’s mindboggling to think what Brunel might have created if he’d had a Bill-Gates sized bank balance to draw on.
And finally, Timothy Spall when he’s not playing Churchill, although in this photo he is in costume for another film. He’s also a major actor here, but going with the people-have-probably-seen-the-Harry-Potter-films approach, I’ll say you might have seen him as Peter Pettigrew, aka Wormtail.
Getting back to the Olympic ceremonies where we started, I should mention that Brunel and Churchill are linked by more than just being British public figures often photographed with cigars; Churchill came first and Brunel came second in a poll a few years ago for “The Greatest Briton” in all of the history of Great Britain. The BBC aired new documentaries on the lives of the candidates, current public figures presented the cases of their favourites, and the viewers phoned in their votes. Bookies started out giving 20-to-1 odds against Brunel, but they hadn’t counted on the loyal engineering students of Brunel University in London, some of whom voted multiple times (perhaps the railway had undermined students’ morals; the bookies eventually had to close the book).
So Churchill came first and Brunel came second. Going on down the list, Princess Diana was third, Darwin fourth, and Shakespeare fifth, which brings us back to why Churchill and Brunel were quoting Shakespeare. But on that question, your guess is as good as mine.
Except for photos of the opening ceremony, which are screenshots from the BBC video of the event, and the photo of “Mr Brunel” at the wheel of the ship, which is used by permission of the SS Great Britain Trust, all pictures are from Wikipedia and are used under the Creative Commons license.