Looking big

Asa Briggs

  • Isambard Kingdom Brunel: Engineering Knight-Errant by Adrian Vaughan
    Murray, 285 pp, £19.95, October 1991, ISBN 0 7195 4636 2

When Samuel Smiles was preparing to write his Lives of the Engineers in 1858, Robert Stephenson was doubtful about whether the subject would prove attractive to readers. He had already been surprised by the success of Smiles’s biography of George Stephenson, his father, which had appeared one year earlier. Robert Stephenson died before the first volume of the Lives of the Engineers appeared in 1861, and Martin Wiener and others have taken his funeral to represent symbolically the end of a great era in cultural as well as in British economic history. As the 20th-century historian of engineering L.T.C. Rolt has put it, ‘never again would a British engineer command so much esteem and attention, never again would the profession stand so high.’ Yet it was after this climacteric that Smiles’s book had an immense success. Indeed, it was a bestseller, and one of its greatest admirers was Gladstone, who told Smiles that his Lives had established a ‘weighty truth’: ‘that the character of our engineers is a most signal and marked expression of British character, and their acts a great pioneer of British history.’

Another great engineer died a few weeks before Stephenson, and according to his new biographer, who is critical of Rolt’s earlier account of Brunel’s life, published in 1957, Brunel was more French in his attitudes than British. It was generally recognised at the time that he was very different from Stephenson. Both men were sons of outstanding engineers, Marc and George, and both were mainly, if not solely, involved in railway development. Yet there the resemblance stopped. Smiles himself put the difference between them in a nutshell.

Mr Brunel had always an aversion to follow any man’s lead; and that another engineer had fixed the gauge of a railway, or built a bridge, or designed an engine, in one way, was of itself often a sufficient reason with him for adopting an altogether different course. Robert Stephenson on his part, though less bold, was more practical, preferring to follow the old routes, and to tread the sale steps of his father. Mr Brunel determined that the Great Western should be a giant’s road, and that travelling should be conducted upon it at double speed. His ambition was to make the best road that imagination could devise: whereas the main object of the Stephensons, both father and son, was to make a road that would pay. Although tried by the Stephenson test [and it is interesting that Smiles did not make it his own test], Brunel’s magnificent road was a failure so far as the shareholders in the Great Western Company were concerned, the stimulus which his ambitious designs gave to mechanical invention at the time proved a general good.

Smiles wanted to write at length on the two Brunels, just as he had written on the two Stephensons, but the Brunel family preferred to arrange for a life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel to be written by his son, a not uncommon preference among Victorian engineers. A Smiles biography would have been more revealing, for although Smiles has been accused of overlooking the role of fortune in the lives of his great men and of overemphasising the importance of work, what little he did write about Brunel focused on the extraordinary power of his imagination rather than his indefatigable powers of endurance. ‘It is as well for a country,’ Smiles insisted, ‘that it should possess men such as he, ready to dare the untried and to venture boldly into new paths. Individuals may suffer from the cost of the experiments, but the nation, which is an aggregate of individuals, gains, and so does the world at large.’

Brunel’s fame eclipsed that of his father. His close friend Daniel Gooch, whose memoirs and diary only became generally available after 1972, called him ‘the greatest of England’s engineers’. Vaughan, who has written many books on railways, does not question Brunel’s genius, yet he accuses Rolt of the same fault that Rolt had found in Smiles’s life of Telford – that of being too adulatory. Rolt did not believe that the Smiles life was a ‘true revelation of Telford’s personality’: for his part, Vaughan believes the Rolt life of Brunel was ‘distorted by an uncritical hero-worship of his subject’ and claims that it was written ‘to support his preconceived ideas’. This charge is not a new one. A.R. Buchanan in his admirable book The Engineers: A History of the Engineering Profession in Britain 1750-1914, published in 1989, accused him of ‘over-adulation’. He also called it a ‘curious fact’ – and he admitted that it might support Wiener’s thesis – that between the publication of Smiles’s Lives and the mid-20th century, ‘insofar as any studies were made in engineering biography, they tended to concentrate on figures in the earlier generation already explored by Smiles rather than on engineers who flourished after 1860.’

In preparing his new biography, Vaughan has read widely, and he has also brooded deeply on Brunel’s top-secret private diaries. Some of the passages he quotes from Brunel are memorable. ‘My self-conceit and love of glory or rather approbation,’ Brunel confided to his diary in October 1827, ‘vie with each other which shall govern me. The latter is so strong that, even on a dark night, riding home, when I pass some unknown person who perhaps does not even look at me I catch myself trying to look big on my little pony.’ This entry was written on the third day after Brunel had started working on the tunnel under the Thames, a project of his father’s to which posterity chose to attach one of Brunel’s favourite adjectives. The Great Western Railway was to be followed by the Great Eastern steamship, the biggest ship that had ever been built. Yet the adjective was common in an age that made much of great men as heroes; and Brunel’s diary, which hides neither his ambitions nor his fears, is perhaps less of a unique document than Vaughan maintains. Certainly the frank admission of ambition scarcely seems exceptional, although the language it is couched in is distinctive. In his urge to point to the inadequacies of Rolt’s biography, Vaughan sometimes seems to make too much of Brunel’s words, words which were initially designed to perish with him. It was because he felt that he was concealing things from himself, a not uncommon feeling either in the 19th century or now, that he decided to keep his diary, which he decided to bequeath to his brother-in-law and friend Benjamin Hawes, who became Permanent Under-Secretary at the War Office and, unlike Brunel, was knighted for his labours. So, too, of course, was Brunel’s father – in 1841.

Some connoisseurs of engineering projects, like some connoisseurs of literary projects, might well feel that it is the project that matters, not the life. There are, however, at least four reasons why it is more than a matter of curiosity to seek to turn to the life of an engineer. First, all great engineering projects are collective as well as individual achievements, and it is essential to explore the relationships between ‘great engineers’ and those who work with them, including those in whom they put their trust, if the carrying out of a project is to be examined and its success measured. In this respect, Brunel depended heavily on his assistant engineers and won the affection of his workers, although, as Vaughan points out, he worked them hard and some of them lost their lives when his projects, not always fully thought through, ran into disaster. Second, it is impossible, as 20th-century tunnellers appreciate only too well, to separate engineering from economics, and Brunel was relatively uninterested in shareholders’ profits, so that some of them did very badly out of his schemes. There was a disjunction. Third, the mixed motivation and satisfactions of engineers, like the range of their talents, are frequently misunderstood not only by historians but by the general public: engineering, as the American engineer Samuel Florman has always explained, has its ‘existential pleasures’. No one appreciated this more than Brunel, who was an artist as well as engineer, and in many ways a very un-Victorian character. Fourth, the Wiener thesis, which needs to be qualified for other reasons, pays too little attention to the lives of engineers and too much to selective images. So, too, does much 20th-century professional and public propaganda about engineering, although engineers now work in a very different organisational setting from engineers in the age of the Stephensons and the Brunels and often complain – rightly – that the images are damaging.

Brunel’s versatility as well as his skill comes out clearly in Vaughan’s pages, which deal at proper length both with the Gaz engine and the gauge and with bridges and ships. The balance is fair. There is also a brief chapter called ‘Jibes and Jealousies’ which mentions Brunel’s work on ‘model’ houses for the working classes and on a hospital for Florence Nightingale in the Crimea. (He had been involved earlier in making wire-wound gun barrels for soldiers fighting in the Crimea, so that he had been drawn into wounding as well as into healing.) The biggest difference between Rolt’s biography and that of Vaughan comes at the end in the description and evaluation of the role of Brunel’s colleague John Scott Russell in the story of the Great Eastern. Vaughan draws substantially on the important book The SS ‘Great Eastern’ by Russell’s biographer John Emmerson, marine engineer and Professor of Engineering Science at the University of Western Ontario, a book which clears Russell from a number of charges made against him at the time and since. He also challenges Rolt, who was himself an engineer, by stressing the importance of Russell’s contribution to the success of the venture. Russell, two years younger than Brunel, was a Glasgow engineer who had served as a Royal Commissioner for the Great Exhibition in 1851, and relations between him and Brunel were at times extremely sour during the course of building and fitting the ship. Yet Rolt was wrong, as Buchanan pointed out, to make Russell into a scapegoat. Russell himself did not minimise the significance of the ideas and achievements of Brunel, who was too ill to attend the banquet on board ship to celebrate the completion of the work. ‘Regretting the absence of Mr Brunel,’ the Times, more friendly to Russell than to Brunel, reports him as saying, ‘he paid tribute to Brunel as “the originator of the great idea”.’ As Vaughan observes, such a tribute would not have been enough to satisfy Brunel. He would like to have been given more credit for implementing a great idea as well as originating it. Buchanan, more balanced than Emmerson, if not Vaughan, concludes that the breakdown of the Great Eastern enterprise – and it was a tragic breakdown – remains ‘an intricate problem in engineering history’.

The publisher of Vaughan’s life of Brunel is the same publisher who produced Smiles’s Lives, and it was Smiles who produced almost a generation later the Life and Correspondence of the First and Second John Murray. Publishers and engineers have little in common, but Smiles, populariser though he was, knew instinctively how to deal with both.