The 2nd Greatest Briton

by | Jan 16, 2019

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

List of 100 Greatest Britons

In 2002 the BBC polled citizens of United Kingdom to determine who are the greatest Britons of all time. Here are the top ten:

  1. Winston Churchill
  2. Isambard Kingdom Brunel
  3. Princess Diana (the survey was five years after her death)
  4. Charles Darwin
  5. William Shakespeare
  6. Sir Isaac Newton
  7. Queen Elizabeth I
  8. John Lennon
  9. Horatio Nelson (1st Viscount Nelson)
  10. Oliver Cromwell

Link to complete list: 100 Greatest Britons. Others of note: Margaret Thatcher is 16th, Queen Victoria, 18th, Paul McCartney 19th, Stephen Hawking 25th, David Beckham 33rd, Henry VIII 40th, Boy George 46th, Jane Austen 70th, J.K. Rowling 83nd, Richard Branson 86th, J.R.R. Tolken 92nd.

Eight or nine of the top ten should be instantly recognizable to even Americans. But, who in the world is Isambard Kingdom Brunel and how/why is he number two? Why is he above Darwin, Isaac Newton, Shakespeare and all the Beatles? (Obviously, with Princess Diana at number three, this survey has some issues, but still the question of who is Isambard Kingdom Brunel is an interesting one.)

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Born in 1806, the BBC describes Brunel as “one of the most versatile and audacious engineers of the 19th century, responsible for the design of tunnels, bridges, railway lines and ships”. He died in 1859.

In 1825, when he was nineteen, Brunel, along with his father, created the first tunnel under a navigable river – the Thames Tunnel. At the time it was considered “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” It is 1,300 feet long and runs 75 feet under the Thames. It was designed to be used by horse-drawn carriages, but instead was mainly a shopping arcade and place of entertainment. Later it was converted for use by trains. It is still in use.

The Thames Tunnel

At age 24, in 1931, his design won a competition for a bridge to cross the River Avon Gorge. At over 700 feet, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world at the time. It stands about 250 feet above the river. It was an amazing feat as “modern computer analysis has revealed that in his design of the crucial joints between the 4,200 links that make up the bridge’s chain, Brunel had made an almost perfect calculation of the minimal weight required to maintain maximum strength.”*

Clifton Suspension Bridge -Bristol, U.K.

He designed the railways, bridges, tunnels and viaducts for the Great Western railway. He determined that rails 7 feet apart were superior to the 4’8″ gauge that was standard. Unfortunately, his superior wider-gauge rails never caught on. A notable engineering feat related to the railroad was the “Box Tunnel” which is 1.75 miles long and was dug with such precision that when the dig met in the middle the two ends were off from each other by less than two inches. The tunnel was dug through solid rock. 1,500 men worked on the tunnel in shifts so that work continued 24 hours a day. The tunnel took five years to complete.

Box Tunnel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was WAY ahead of his time in terms of shipbuilding. He pioneered the view that a longer and bigger ship would be more efficient (the reasons have to do with the relationships between mass and volume and water resistance).

He designed the ship “Great Western” which was the first transatlantic steam ship. Another of his ships was the “Great Britain” – the world’s first iron-hulled, screw propeller-driven, steam-powered passenger liner.

SS Great Britain

The “Great Eastern” was by far the largest ship ever built at the time at over 700 feet long. It wasn’t surpassed in size for nearly 50 years.

SS Great Eastern

Other great Brunel structures:

View south down St George’s Road of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s original timber fanned viaduct. This viaduct was replaced by an all stone structure which opened on the 17 August 1902. St George’s church can be seen on the right
Royal Albert Bridge

*Quote from:


  1. Terrific article John.
    I don’t recall hearing about him before this. Brunel was obviously a giant of engineering. This work is beyond my ability to fully understand, but I certainly appreciate it. It’s fortunate that his work and legacy is still prominent today.
    It’s amazing to look backward and find forward thinking people who brought society forward.
    Their impact is probably magnified when the society around them is successful and can learn from and carry such advances forward. Imagine all the great inventors an innovators in history, that were not historically recorded? Their forgotten or ignored advances didn’t have the impact we needed.
    Unlike when history continues to detrimentally repeat itself by revisiting our darker tendencies…(i.e. war, genocide, group think, etc.), true genius and problem solving is rarer.
    It far easier for humanity to destroy than create. As our modern world hurtles forward with massive data, communication and multiplicity, I don’t fear that information may be lost. Rather I think we have so much it will be harder to pull the “needles out of the haystack” that will allow true progress.
    And knowing everything about a celebrity or reality star isn’t going to bring society forward…unless it’s about me ; )

  2. Just when I think I know most of the important stuff in the world, something comes along to remind me I don’t know even 1% of the good stuff. This was fascinating and inspiring.

  3. I had no ideal. How amazing for such a short life. I especially liked the Royal Albert bridge design ; and his name of course


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