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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, A Man As Great As His Name

In 2002, a BBC public survey in Great Britain published a list of the 100 Greatest Britons of all time.  Second on the list, after Winston Churchill, was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a civil engineer and contemporary of William Morris.  Brunel beat out Isaac Newton, William Shakespeare, Lady Diana, indeed even Charles Darwin.  (Irritatingly, William Morris did not make the top 100, a travesty I can't fully grasp.)

I had never heard of him!  But here is his bridge, The Clifton Suspension Bridge, still in active use in Bristol.  When it was built (started in 1831, eventually finished in 1864) it had the longest span of any bridge in the world, spanning over 700 ft (210 m) across the river Avon.

Brunel also designed and built the first commercial steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean, the Great Western, which was also the first ship to hold the Blue Riband (which I wrote about a few days ago in this post).  This wooden ship had a paddle wheel but Brunel was convinced that a propeller-driven ship would be more efficient and, for an encore, designed a ground-breaking six-bladed propeller for the 322-foot Great Britain which is now preserved as a ship musuem in Bristol's famous floating harbor.  "Great Britain is considered the first modern ship, being built of metal rather than wood, powered by an engine rather than wind or oars, and driven by propeller rather than paddle wheel. She was the first iron-hulled, propeller-driven ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean."

Here are some pictures from the incredibly awesome SS Great Britain ship/museum I visited yesterday.   I was only sorry I didn't have little kids with me to share the experience.

The ship is "moored" in an antique dry dock blocked off from river by the original caisson (pic below).  To prevent corrosion of the iron hull, the conservators came upon the unique solution of sealing the boat off at the water line with a transparent barrier that has a few inches of water floating on its surface.  This allows them to keep the humidity at a non-corrosive 20% while providing a spectacular setting from which to experience the ship, both above and below waterline.  You can see how cool it is walking "underwater" around the ship's hull, with the sunlight rippling through the water overhead.

Right third of the original and leaky caisson, that blocks off the water from the river, along with ship's anchor.

The six-bladed propeller and "balanced" rudder, famous engineering innovations.

Looking toward the bow from the back of deck --- many skylights let sunlight into the ship's interior.  In my next post, I'll put up some interior pictures.