Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s design for the SS Great Western, which he designed (with some assistance from Thomas Guppy and other members of the Great Western Steamship Company) for the company whose name it bore, was a revolutionary design, and a breakthrough in ship construction. Brunel’s key insight was that the carrying capacity of a ship increases as the cube of its dimensions, whilst the water resistance only increases as the square of its dimensions – which meant that a larger ship was disproportionately more effective in speed and fuel economy.
The SS Great Western would become the model for all successful paddle steamships in the Atlantic, and its owners were able to turn a profit from it even though it was the only ship they ran for several years. It was later sold off after the dissolution of the company, passing through various hands and seeing service as a troopship during the Crimean War. It was broken up for salvage in 1856.
The Thames Tunnel, connecting Rotherthithe and Wapping, was the first of its kind – the only tunnel up to that point to have been excavated beneath a navigable river. Construction on it began in 1925, by Marc Isambard Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The two used a new invention created by the older Brunel and his associate Thomas Cochrane, called a tunneling shield. The shield’s purpose is to prevent mud, water or other liquids from flooding the tunnel.
Even with this shield, the tunnelling took years – by the time it finally opened to the public in 1843, after floods and other delays, many had given up on it. But the tunnel proved to be a wonder of its era. It was intended for horsedrawn carriages, but attracted so much pedestrian traffic that it was used solely by pedestrians until 1869. In that year, it was purchased by a railway company and tracks were laid. Services still run through the tunnel today.
The Clifton Suspension Bridge was built more than a century after it had first been proposed, from a design by Isambard Kingdom Brunel that was completed by William Henry Barlow and John Hawkshaw after Brunel’s death in 1859. The bridge is particularly notable in that, unusually for a suspension bridge, the towers at each end are not symmetrical with each other.
The bridge operated as a toll bridge upon its opening and it remains one today, still in operation more than 150 years after its construction. It was also the site of the first modern bungee jump, in 1979