This book looks at the work of one of Britain's great heroes and engineering geniuses, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and his less well-known father Marc Brunel.
Published in June 2022 by Pen & Sword and written by Anthony Burton, this hardback book measures around 16.3 cm x 24 cm, has 232 pages and 64 black and white illustrations. It has a published price of £25, although at the time of writing Pen & Sword has it available online for £18.75 and it can be obtained online from Amazon for £18.74.
Although Marc did not achieve the same degree of fame as his son, this book shows the importance of his part in his son's works, and also examines his great achievements.
With 20 chapters the book is arranged chronologically through the life of father and son. The first six chapters concentrate on Marc, with: “Marc Brunel: The Early Years; “Marc in America”; “A New Life”; “Financial Disaster”; “Recovery”; and “Thames Tunnel”. The next four chapters concentrate more on Isambard, with: “A Waiting Game”; “Return to the Tunnel”; “The Great Waiting Game”; and “Marriage”.
The second half of the book examines Isambard's achievements, starting with “Building the Line”, followed by: The Locomotives and the Works”; The Great Western”; “The Great Britain”; Bridges and Railways”; “New Ideas”; The System Expands”; “The Great Ship”', and appropriately concluding with “Assessment”.
Most people will recognise at least one of Isambard's achievements described in these chapters, such as building the Great Western Railway, designing the Clifton Suspension Bridge, or the SS Great Britain steamship. Conversely, many of Marc's achievements deserve greater recognition than they have, including the Thames Tunnel which is still in use every day by the London Overground or designing machinery for making boots for the British Army.
Although there are over 200 pages of information, the book never drags and the narrative from each page flows as if it was a best-seller novel.
I imagine very few readers will be aware of Marc Brunel's involvement in America, especially since he was the original designer of the Capitol building in Washington D.C. as seen on the right below, although ultimately his design proved too costly.
One of Isambard's most iconic structures is surely the Clifton Suspension Bridge spanning the Avon Gorge at Bristol as seen on the left below.
One of Isambard's most famous structures on the Great Western main line is his bridge over the River Thames at Maidenhead in Berkshire shown on the left below. The famous Victorian painter J.M.W. Turner depicted the bridge in his painting Rain, Steam and Speed, shown on the right below.
However, it is a poor choice of illustration for this book owing to the immensely dark and brooding image in the original, which is let down by the black-and-white reproduction.
The scenes at the top-left and right below are now just memories, but the sight of Isambard's Iron Duke can be appreciated with the replica that is now at the Didcot Railway Centre. It is unfortunate that as in the previous illustrations, this is not in colour.
A life-size statue of Isambard Kingdom Brunel sits proudly on Paddington station, but the photo below is a poor reproduction and in black-and-white and doesn't do the book justice.
Overall, this book is a valuable addition to a collection even when you already have detailed biographies of Isambard or Marc Brunel. The author has obviously researched both engineers extremely well, and has produced a volume that is both written in a lively and interesting style and is an important historical work.
The authors discovery of Marc Brunel's work in the USA is certainly an eye-opener, and adds greatly to a very interesting and informative book that will appeal to historians, engineering scholars, railway enthusiasts, and casual readers.
The book shows how father and son complemented and assisted each other, and explains their successes and failures as well as showing how their genius helped shape the industrial age and how their legacy continues today.
A detailed index is a valuable addition.
We would like to thank Pen & Sword for providing RailAdvent with a copy of the book for review.