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Primary Magazine - Issue 21: Focus on

This page has been archived. The content was correct at the time of original publication, but is no longer updated.
Created on 26 February 2010 by ncetm_administrator
Updated on 22 March 2010 by ncetm_administrator


Primary Magazine Issue 21

Focus on...The structures of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born in Portsmouth on 9 April 1806. His father was the distinguished French engineer, Sir Marc Brunel. Isambard received a high quality education and practical training. When he was 16 he began working for his father. It was not long before he was in sole charge of large projects. The first was the Thames Tunnel at Rotherhithe, now part of the East London over-ground railway system. At 26, he was appointed Engineer to the new Great Western Railway. He designed the railway line from London Paddington to Bristol and eventually engineered over 1 200 miles of railway.

Clifton Suspension Bridge - Photograph by Hari Kr used under the Creative Share Alike licence

Brunel is probably best known for designing the Clifton Suspension Bridge. At 210 metres long, it had the longest span of any bridge when it was first constructed. It was not completed until 1864, five years after Brunel’s death. Almost all his bridges are still standing and in use. In 1858 he designed and built his first ship, the Great Eastern. Although he was only responsible for three ships, each represented a major advance in naval design.

SS Great Eastern

Isambard Kingdom Brunel died of a stroke on 15 September 1859, aged 53. During his career, he achieved many engineering ‘firsts’:

  • first tunnel under a navigable river
  • first propeller-driven, ocean-going iron ship
  • his steamship the Great Eastern played a significant part in laying the first, lasting transatlantic telegraphic cable in 1865
  • widest brick-arch bridge.

In 2002, the BBC conducted a poll to find out who were the 100 Greatest Britons. Brunel came in second place, after Winston Churchill. Charles Babbage, the mathematician who supported Brunel’s construction of a broad gauge railway, carrying out a range of tests to support its safety, was 80th in the list. Brunel also featured in the 2003 BBC series Seven Wonders of the Industrial World. The first programme in the series dramatised the construction of the SS Great Eastern.

Brunel University in London dedicates several pages of its website to the life and achievements of Brunel. As well as an overview of his life, there is a very useful 3 minute video (also available on YouTube) and pictures of his greatest works.

different railway gauge illustration

Short activities
Use the timeline of Brunel’s life on the Brunel University website or Wikipedia to answer questions such as:

  • how old was Brunel when he won the Second Clifton Bridge Competition?
  • how long did it take to build the Saltash Bridge?
    • how old was Brunel when he got married?
    • how many years did it take to build the Thames Tunnel?
    • how...?
  • how far is it from London’s Paddington station to Bristol Temple Meads station? How could you find out? Estimate, then find out
  • what is the difference in width between broad gauge, standard gauge and 3ft narrow gauge tracks? Is the difference in width between broad and standard the same as between standard and narrow?
  • in class, view the Telegraph’s Top 10: Isambard Kingdom Brunel's great surviving structures or download and print the pictures. Remove the picture number but retain the date. Ask children to order them by date
  • how long does it take to count to 100? Estimate, then time some volunteers. Challenge children to count to 100 in 100 seconds.
Royal Albert bridge illustration

Longer Activities
  • explore the BBC Schools Famous People pages on Isambard Kingdom Brunel. This is appropriate for Key Stage 1 children
  • work in small groups to design and build a closed railway track exactly five metres long. Use existing track if you have sufficient or construct from strips of card and art straws. Invite groups to measure each other’s tracks. How close are they to the target length?
  • how long did it take to complete each metre of track during the building of the railway line from Paddington to Bristol? The Brunel University site has many of the facts and figures that would be needed to work this out
  • build a bridge over a tray such as those used by children to store their own possessions in the classroom. Prepare a cost list for each piece of construction equipment or other materials and ask the children to calculate the cost of their bridge. Work in twos, threes or small groups if equipment is limited. It will be easier to keep track of costs as the bridge is being built in larger groups. Each member of the group could take on different roles. You could set a target figure or an upper limit
  • what does 100 look like? Collect a hundred of some everyday objects – straws, cotton wool balls, tissues, sweets, etc. Set bringing in a hundred of something as homework – the children will have many ideas. How could you rank them – by weight? By size?

Information on Brunel from:

YouTube videos:

Other follow-up information:

 View this issue in PDF format
 Visit the Primary Magazine Archive
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