Saturday 16 June 2018

Brunel: how to 'meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same...'* - by Sue Purkiss

I recently started volunteering on the SS Great Britain, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's famous ship, the first iron ship in the world: once a rusty hulk abandoned in the Falklands, but now a thing of beauty back in Bristol's dry dock, where she was built.

I've been interested in the Great Britain for quite some time. I even wrote a children's book set on the ship, Emily's Surprising Voyage - so I thought I knew a fair bit about it.

But in these few weeks, working with experienced volunteers who've forgotten more about engineering than I'll ever know - one captained two ships in the Royal Navy, for heaven's sake! - I've realised that actually, I know very little - either about the ship, or about the man. I'm sure I'll come back to both in future posts, but there's something in particular that has struck me as I've listened, looked, read and learned.

It's this.

Brunel was in his time, and still is, famous for being as an innovative and incredibly successful engineer. His works are all around us: the Great Western Railway, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Paddington Station, the Great Britain - and there are lots more besides, both in this country and abroad. He worked at an astonishing rate, firing off ideas, eagerly taking on challenges and responsibilities that would have daunted most people. His statues are all around us too: instantly recognisable with his cigar, his stovepipe hat, and that slightly pudgy face, he pops up all over the place. In 2002, he came second in a BBC poll to find the people's choice of the greatest Briton.

Yet as I started to  learn more about his career, I was struck not only by how successful he was - but also by how often he encountered failure.

For example:
  • His first big project was the Thames Tunnel. This was - still is - a tunnel beneath the Thames, between Rotherhithe and Wapping, designed by Brunel's father, Marc. It was the first tunnel in the world to be built beneath a navigable river. Isambard became the resident engineer when he was only 21. He worked over twenty hours a day, often working alongside the miners who were pushing the tunnel forward, using highly innovative technology designed by the Brunels. It was an extraordinary project which fascinated the public - at one point an elaborate banquet was held in the tunnel, attended by the Duke of Wellington and other dignitaries. But not long after this, water gushed in through a weak point in the river bed. Several men were killed and Isambard himself was badly injured. The tunnel was never used for its intended purpose, though it was a great tourist draw.

  • After this, he went to Bristol, recuperating. A competition was taking place to design a bridge to go over the Avon Gorge. The judge was Thomas Telford. Undeterred by the disaster at the tunnel, Isambard entered. He didn't win. But he didn't give up. He somehow persuaded the board that his plan was the best after all - and he got the job. He put heart and soul into designing a beautiful and functional bridge and risked life and limb surveying it.
    But it all proved too expensive, and building halted - he was never to see his beloved bridge. It was only finally completed many years later after his death, as a tribute to him from his fellow engineers.
  • The Great Britain  herself was built to take large numbers of passengers at a revolutionary speed across the Atlantic. Isambard's vision was that passengers should be able to get on his Great Western Railway (affectionately known as God's Wonderful Railway) in London, alight at Bristol, then get straight onto his glamorous new ship, which would whisk them across the Atlantic to New York. But all did not go smoothly. When he wanted to install a revolutionary screw propellor instead of a paddle wheel, he ran into strong opposition - it would be too expensive, no-one really knew whether it would work, etc etc. But he persisted. The ship was a thing of wonder - but on its fifth voyage, it ran aground in Dundrum Bay on the Irish coast. Another disaster! The cost of refloating and repairing it was ruinous, and it had to be sold at a huge loss - which was when it was fitted out to sail to Australia instead, and began the most successful phase of its long life.
The ship aground in Dundrum Bay

  • And then there was the matter of the railway gauge. The railways were in their infancy when Brunel began his career, but others had already made a start in the north of England - and they had chosen a narrow gauge for the lines. Brunel was convinced that a broader gauge would make for a smoother ride, and would also have advantages in terms of the design of the engines etc. He was probably right, and broad gauge was used in other parts of the world - but in Britain, the decision went against him, and all our railways now are narrow gauge. (This is why there is so much space between the platforms at Bath Station, for example: it was designed for broad gauge
So, famous and successful and in demand as he was, all did not go smoothly for Isambard. But what fascinates me is that when something went wrong, he didn't just put his head in his hands and sit around feeling sorry for himself. (Which, I must admit, is my default reaction.) He simply lit another cigar, sat down at his desk, and cogitated until he had figured out a solution.

Or, if a solution wasn't forthcoming or was beyond his control, he accepted reality and moved on to the next thing, and did the very best he could to make a success out of that.

And that, I think, is deeply admirable - and a very useful example to try to follow!

* From 'If'', by Kipling.


Joan Lennon said...

And he'll have learned something from every failure. We should be teaching this in schools! Great post, Sue - and I hope they stock Emily's Surprising Voyage in the gift shop!

Susan Price said...

Yes, great post -- and they really should stock 'Emily' in the gift shop.

I'm envious of you living close enough to be able to volunteer at the Great Britain. I've been twice-- once with my partner and then, because I enjoyed it so much, with my brother who's a big Brunel fan. We had a whale of a time -- particuarly enjoyed triggering the rat and cat in the ship's galley.

Brunel certainly seems to have been jinxed; but he had the persistence and obstinacy of a bull-dozer. When, at the museum, I watched the video of his lost ship, the Great Britain being towed home and passing under his completed bridge, I found myself unexpectedly moved

Lynne Benton said...

Excellent post, Sue! It's impossible to overstate the case for persistence and perseverance in the face of setbacks, and Brunel is an excellent example of the success that can follow. (Shame about the broad gauge railway though - we can only speculate on how well that could have worked!)

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks, all - yes, Sue, that video always brings a tear to my eye as the old shop comes slowly up the river, back to the place where it all started!

Penny Dolan said...

Oh I really must get there to see it - and the shop should certainly stock your book!

Thank you for a post that brings together Brunel's real and admirable strengths.