Friday, 5 February 2016

Brunel — A Heroic Failure?

When one looks more closely at the career of Isambard Kingdom Brunel — the really famous one of the three Brunels — it is disturbing to find that some of his greatest achievements weren’t after all achieved. I’ve already written about the Rotherhithe Tunnel, which he had to abandon and which was only completed by others after his death.

Then there’s the Great Eastern; the vast (for its time) steam ship equipped with both side paddles and stern screws; there were also masts of the more than vestigial size common on later ships; these were masts that could, I think, have sails hoisted up them. Andreas Embeirikos wrote a pornographic novel almost as vast as the ship itself — certainly longer than Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ — about the ship’s maiden voyage. Trouble was, it was a maiden voyage that never really happened; I may write about that another time.

Well what about the Clifton Suspension Bridge then? Surely that was a great achievement? Yes indeed. Still in daily use, slung high above the Avon gorge, it is a magnificent sight. Once as I sat gazing at it from a high point on the Clifton side I noticed what looked like a garden shed built near the top of one of the suspension chains. At lunchtime a chap — I suppose he’d been painting the chain, or checking its link pins — emerged from this and strolled nonchalantly — I seem to remember he had his hands in his pockets; a surely unnecessary piece of bravado — down the chain to where, at the middle of the span, it is almost at road level, and where he stepped off (on the road side of course; don’t be silly) and went to get his lunch.

But even this wasn’t finished until after Brunel’s death. Not his fault: he’d submitted his design for the competition, but the judge was Telford, and one suspects professional jealousy: Brunel’s design had a wider suspended span than Telford’s own Menai Bridge, and Telford claimed to believe that his bridge had the largest physically possible suspended span. He said that any design for the Avon gorge would need a dauntingly high central supporting pier, the cost of which would on its own exceed the sum earmarked for the whole bridge. So he rejected Brunel’s design, and for the same or other reasons rejected all the others too. The committee then decided that the only thing they could do was ask Telford to submit his own design, which he readily did. But the committee didn’t like it, so the whole project was shelved.

When it was revived some time later, Brunel re-submitted — Telford this time neither submitted nor judged — and his design was accepted. But he didn’t live to complete it himself. Still, there it is, and to Brunel’s design. Of course Brunel was heroic, and of course he wasn’t a failure — I only said that to get your attention. Here’s the Clifton Suspension Bridge in all its glory:


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