Brunel triple bill

This summer I’ve taken the opportunity to have a number of days out around London with my family.  One of the most successful was a trip to Bristol, focused around two pieces of work by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  One, the SS Great Britain, was an innovative 19th century steamship, combining a screw propellor with an iron hull.  Like many technically ambitious projects since, its commercial success initially didn’t quite match its novelty.  But the ship did have a long life in service, in later years ironically as a sailing ship, before being abandoned in the Falkland Islands and finally salvaged and towed back to Bristol in 1970.  The other, the magnificant Clifton Suspension Bridge, occupies a beautiful setting over the Avon Gorge, and is another triumph of 19th century engineering.

And the third element in the triple bill?  My train ride to Bristol also owed much to Isambard Brunel, who had been the engineer responsible for the Great Western Railway running from London to Bristol.  There are parallels between the railway innovators of Victorian times and Internet entrepreneurs in the first few years of the 21st century: in both cases there were challenges introduced by rapidly evolving technology, and entrepreneurs varied in their views on what business opportunities were most likely to succeed.

The Brunels were an engineering family, and while Isambard is the best known, his father Marc Brunel was also ambitious: the Thames Tunnel was his greatest achievement.  I do wonder what ideas were discussed over breakfast in the Brunel household – whether there was talk of the finer points of engineering maths, or whether father and son bounced around ideas about what new projects they might work on, and how they might extend the limits of the technology available to them.  And I do think that their experience still retains a lot of relevance to management of innovative ideas.


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