Iron and Propeller

Isambard Kingdom Brunel by the launching chains of the SS Great Eastern by Robert Howlett, 1857

“Congratulations on the notoriety you have earned, old boy,” Thomas Guppy said to Isambard Kingdom Brunel. “I thought I would never hear the end of your Clifton Suspension Bridge. ”

“That was quite a thing, wasn’t it,” Brunel said to his fellow engineer. “It would probably be a great site today if the Bristol riots hadn’t stopped its progress.”

“True,” agreed Guppy. “It will happen one day. But being the principal engineer of the Great Western Railway has certainly continued your fame in Great Britain.”

“I see more than just Great Britain, mate,” Brunel replied. “We can get people from London to Bath or Wales on holiday, but I see a great opportunity to take passengers all the way to New York.”

“My dear fellow, You can’t be serious,” Guppy retorted. “You know as well as I do that trains don’t float. Besides, the railway systems aren’t even finished.”

“Not trains, but ships,” Brunel said. “We can show the investors in the Great Western Railway that we need to build a set of ships to make it possible for Lords in London to buy one ticket with us that will take them all the way to North America. If we build the ship right, we can take enough freight and civilians to make a handsome profit.”

“That is an idea,” Guppy said. “You have had some eccentric ideas, but this one just might work.”

They discussed the idea further and soon Guppy was on board with Brunel’s idea. In 1836, Guppy, Brunel, and other investors formed the Great Western Steamship Company to handle the sea vessels. The first ship, Great Western, was designed by Brunel, and at 236 ft. it was the longest passenger ship in the world. It was an oak-hulled paddle-wheel steamship, reinforced with iron to strengthen the hull. Many said it was too big, but Brunel knew as the ship got bigger, its capacity grew faster than it’s drag in the water, making larger ships more efficient than smaller ships. They could also hold more cargo, so they would be more profitable. The Great Western cross the Atlantic in 13 days on its maiden voyage.

The Great Western Steamship Company needed another vessel to capitalize on their profitable model. While the Great Western would be a model for many other ships for years to come, Brunel had two encounters that helped him push the envelope.

In 1838, Brunel saw a 213-foot iron-hulled ship called the Rainbow. Brunel and two of his associates that rode the Rainbow to Antwerp. They were convinced that iron was a superior building material for the next ship, not only because it was stronger but iron was getting cheaper and wood was becoming more expensive. Brunel convinced the investors to change plans for an iron vessel.

Then in 1840, even after a paddlewheel was partially constructed, Brunel saw the SS Archimedes. It was the first screw-propelled steamship. Brunel again convinced the investors to allow him to modify the ship to use the new technology. He said it would take less room, was lighter and stayed in the water at all times. Brunel was successful in making the change, though it set back the launch of the ship more than a year. When finished they christened it, SS Great Britain. At 322 feet and 3,400 tons, it was 100 feet longer and 1,000 tons larger than any other ship in the world and the first iron-hulled, screw-propulsion ship ever created.

Brunel went on to design and develop tunnels, railway stations, and another ship. His pioneering spirit didn’t just change the application of technology. Many of his bridges, tunnels, and stations are still in use today. In 2002, the English engineer was voted the second most influential Briton in a BBC television poll, supplanted only by Winston Churchill for number one.

For You:

While the SS Great Britain had plenty of problems, it pioneered the way ships were built. Many naval experts say that the SS Great Britain was decades ahead of its time. Brunel took on the project of designing and planning a tunnel that no one else thought was possible. It went right into heavy rock beds, but 1.8 miles later, the Great Western Railways had a tunnel that is still in use today.

Brunel died at the age of 53 in 1859; an early exit to an extraordinary life. Pioneering a dream for your life is not about having all the answers or waiting for the right time. Had Brunel waited to try something no one else did for later in life, he may not have accomplished half as much as he did.

Have a plan, but be proactive. Take the best knowledge you can get and then build on it with experiences.


I started writing short stories in elementary school, starting with a short story about twin track athletes. In college, I wrote for the college newspaper and studied communications. My first job out of college was with a magazine as an assistant editor, where I started a comic strip called City Boy. My first published work, was a short essay entitled, Dream with Me, published in “The Art of Service” booklet put out by the Thayne Center for Service and Learning. I also published a three part series for families called “Family Parables – Wise Man Foolish Man.” This set is designed to be used by families to create discussion and learning as a family. I soon will publish my first novel, Love Like Alzheimer’s, a story of a family that is learning to love deeper as their beloved grandmother struggles with Alzheimer’s disease.

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