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Isambard Kingdom Brunel - Creativity and EngineeringIsambard Kingdom Brunel - Creativity and Engineering


Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859)


English engineer (pictured right), and builder of

  • over 1200 miles of railway in England and Wales (including the London to Cornwall line).
  • railway stations ( including Bristol Temple Meads and London Paddington).
  • three great passenger liners (including the Great Britain, now in Bristol, England).
  • bridges (including the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, pictured right below). Isambard Kingdom Brunel - Creativity and Engineering

Voted the second greatest Briton behind Winston Churchill in a 2001 BBC poll.


Why was he so creative?


1. Vision

He wanted to create a new and exciting world, using new technology to build something beautiful as well as functional.

Money didn’t interest him so much.

Getting the job done well and quickly was always his top priority.


2. Customer focus

He built things for the people who used them, satisfying three important customer needs:

  • speed.
  • reliability.
  • pleasure.

All three were evident in Brunel's great passenger liner, the Great Britain,  - then the world's largest ship.

His hotels and some of his carriages were luxurious for rich customers.

He attended to the smallest detail including the colour of the carriages.


3. Determined risk taker


  • invested some of his own money in his work
  • risked his own safety (he was injured making the Thames Tunnel, and the ship, the Great Eastern).
  • always saw a project to its completion (never accepting defeat).


4. Continuous improvement

He was always willing to:

 Isambard Kingdom Brunel - Creativity and Engineering

a) use new engineering methods 

For example, he improved his ships by strengthening along the line of the hull as well as across it (then the usual practice).

His liner, the Great Britain (pictured right at its launch in 1843), was revolutionary - the first ship with an iron hull and propellor propulsion.


b) challenge existing knowledge

 Isambard Kingdom Brunel - Creativity and Engineering

c) freely exchange ideas with other engineers

(like his friend, Robert Stephenson , the inventor of the locomotive, pictured right).

So Brunel never took out a patent.


5. Lifelong learning

Brunel learned from:

 Isambard Kingdom Brunel - Creativity and Engineering

a) his father

(Marc Brunel, a brilliant French engineer, pictured right).


b) his mistakes

(particularly his disastrous, South Devon railway, powered by air pressure).

He learned that technical brilliance isn’t everything, when he had to abandon his broad gauge railway track in favour of the more widely used narrow gauge.

 Isambard Kingdom Brunel - Creativity and Engineering

c) other people’s mistakes

He improved the Clifton Suspension Bridge’s suspension chain after closely examining Thomas Telford’s (pictured right) Menai Bridge in Wales that had been damaged by gales.


d) using mathematics

He discovered that it isn’t the ship’s weight that’s important (as people then believed), but the weight of water it has to push against, making the surface area of its hull vital.


5. Ambition and hard work


  • lived to work and had incredible energy (starting work at 6 or 7 a.m. and finishing late).
  • was always seeking new and harder engineering projects (wanting them to be the biggest and best).
  • drove himself to exhaustion (to overcome his doubts and depression)
  • sacrificed his leisure and family .

“My profession is after all, my only fit wife”, he once wrote.

 Isambard Kingdom Brunel - Creativity and Engineering

6. Seizes opportunities

He was lucky to be born during the Industrial Revolution, when new railways and bridges were needed.

But he was always quick to take full advantage of his opportunities.

In 1835, when he was questioned by his Great Western Railway bosses about the cost and length of the proposed London to Bristol line, he proposed to extend it to New York by building the Great Western liner (pictured right above)!Isambard Kingdom Brunel - Creativity and Engineering

Brunel also:

  • designed and built a portable hospital for Florence Nightingale (pictured right) in the Crimean War. 
  • helped to build the Crystal Palace (then the world’s biggest building, pictured right below).


7. Technical skillIsambard Kingdom Brunel - Creativity and Engineering

Brunel was tremendously talented and versatile: architect, surveyor, civil engineer, mechanical engineer and ship designer.


8. Teamwork and toughness



a) always wanted to do the best work possible 

So he:

  • demanded that his employees had the same high standards.
  • picked the best people
  • worked them very hard 
  • made all the important decisions.
  • was ruthless with his building contractors (forcing many of them into bankruptcy).


b) earned the respect of his employees

They respected him because he:

  • led by example.
  • could be kind
  • forgave people’s mistakes (if they were doing their best).


9. Sense of responsibility

Brunel always:

  • admitted his mistakes
  • took full responsibility for the success of a project.

 Isambard Kingdom Brunel - Creativity and Engineering

10. Bureaucracy

Brunel (pictured right at the launch of the Great Eastern liner in 1857) hated bureaucracy and rules and regulations, particularly if they hindered:

  • innovation. 
  • improvement. 
  • speed of construction.


Key quote on creativity

I...stick obstinately to one plan until I believe it wrong.


Key quote on management and bureaucracy

I am opposed to the laying down of rules or conditions to be observed...lest the progress of improvement tomorrow might be embarrassed or shackled by recording or registering as law the prejudices or errors of today.

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