Museum Week: Isambard Kingdom Brunel Superhero?

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Recently watching a re-run of the Crystal Skull, I mused on a vague similarity between Indiana Jones and IKB. Both extremely attached to their different hats and with a touch of the same reckless disregard for their own safety!

During his lifetime there are many accounts of his daring and frequently foolhardy deeds. Was IKB an early version of a Superhero?

At the age of just 19, Isambard became his father Marc Brunel’s chief engineer on the project to dig a tunnel under the Thames from Rotherhithe to Wapping. After sinking the shaft, tunnelling started in October 1825. By September 1826 things were at such a precarious stage that Isambard spent 5 consecutive days and nights at the workface, with water, clay and silt leaking in through the top of the tunnelling shield. His father urged him to go home to his bed, but he simply napped on the wooden platform next to the shield.

On the 18th May 1827 the first serious flood occurred in the tunnel. The workmen, Isambard and Mr Beamish had left the workface and were on the stairs in the shaft watching the water slowly filling the tunnel. It was pouring in steadily from the east to the west arch when a tremendous burst was heard and all the lights went out. The flood of water carried away the lower flight of stairs. Brunel shouted to the men to run up the stairs and get out – instead he climbed down by a rope to rescue a man in the water. He tied another rope around the man’s waist allowing him to be hauled out.

On the 12th January 1828 the second serious flood occurred and put a stop to the work for seven years. Once again Isambard was down in the tunnelling frame with the men. They watched as the ground in front of them suddenly swelled and a large body of water burst through. The rush was so violent that he realised it could not be stopped and shouted at the men to get out. All were doing so, except IKB himself and the three men who were with him who unwisely walked into the other archway to get a better view of what was happening. There was a sudden rush of air, all the lights were extinguished and they found themselves up to their waists in water. IKB started directing the men how to get out, when he and they were knocked down, submerged and trapped by part of the timber platform. Isambard struggled underwater with a badly damaged knee but managed to free himself, encouraging the others to do likewise. His knee was so injured that he could hardly swim, but a wave of water fortuitously carried him up the shaft. Sadly, the other men were unable to extricate themselves and were lost. Isambard also sustained serious internal injuries that necessitated several months medical treatment. However, before being taken to hospital he lay on a mattress in great pain on the deck of a barge, in order to direct the operation of the diving bell to establish what had happened!

My favourite of his crazy deeds which I think really proves my point, occurred at the site of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Just before the first stone was laid in August 1836, a single iron rod just 1½ inches in diameter and 1,000 feet long, was hung across the gorge. To help facilitate the work, a basket was pulled along the rod by ropes. Brunel himself sometimes travelled in the basket, but on one occasion it became jammed part way across and over 200 feet above the river. Our hero left the basket, climbed up the connecting link and on to the bar before he could release it.

I rest my case!

Gill Howard – Volunteer
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If you’d like to see someone else’s take on I K Brunel (and a variety of other engineers) as superheroes, check out the Institute of Civil Engineers Invisible Superheroes Exhibition.

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Originally published 13th May 2020, updated to add audio and postscript 20th July 2020