New College of the Humanities

Displaying Brunel

Eric Kentley reviews the Design Museum’s new exhibition on Isambard Kingdom Brunel

The timing could not be better for the Design Museum’s first exhibition on a structural engineer. One has only to look at the three largest structures that the millennium has brought to London – the Dome, the Eye and the Millennium Bridge – to see that engineering is back in fashion. Yet while the public knows the names of the architects behind these projects, the structural engineers who made them possible are largely anonymous. It was very different in the first half of the nineteenth century when engineers were visibly creating an information super-highway by laying the rail network, developing new structures to cross rivers and building ships of iron. In the Grand Opening Procession at the Crystal Palace in 1851, the fourth person from the front was an engineer – Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Brunel was the most prolific of all the Victorian engineers. His output included twenty-five railway lines, five suspension bridges, 125 other bridges, eight pier and dock systems, three revolutionary ocean liners and numerous other projects including an observatory, the water towers for the Crystal Palace when it moved to Sydenham and a floating gun battery for the Crimean War. The sheer quantity of projects makes him a difficult subject to cover comprehensively in one exhibition.

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