Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Early life & education
Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born in Portsea, near Portsmouth, at five to one in the morning on 9 April 1806 the event is marked precisely in his father's diary. He was the third child and only son of Marc Isambard Brunel (later Sir Marc) and Sophia Brunel née Kingdom.
Marc was an engineer and mechanical designer of considerable skill, although mixed fortunes. At the time of his son's birth he was working on a machine to mass-produce blocks used in ship-building, in collaboration with the master machinist, Henry Maudslay.
He had been forced to flee the revolution in his native France, eventually arriving in England via America. He and his English sweetheart, Sophia, were thus reunited and they married on 1 November 1799 at St Andrew's Church, Holborn. They moved almost at once to Portsea, where their children Sophia, Emma and finally, Isambard were born. By all accounts they were a close and happy family.
Isambard was a precocious child, reported to have demonstrated skill at drawing when only four years old and mastering Euclid at six. The family moved to London, where Marc worked on improvements to a sawmill in Battersea, and Isambard was sent to Dr Morell's boarding school in Hove.
Here, he used his spare time to survey and draw local structures and is supposed to have astonished his friends by accurately predicting the collapse of a building opposite the school house. All this delighted his father, who insisted on the importance of producing and understanding technical drawings as a fundamental skill for an engineer.
When Isambard was 14, Marc sent him to France for two years to complete his education. He first attended Caen College in Normandy, then moved to Lycée Henri-Quatre in Paris, famous for its mathematics teaching. Finally, he was lucky enough to spend some months as apprentice to Luis Breguet, one of the world's most famous watch and instrument makers and already an old man.
In Isambard's absence, the family endured hard times. The failure of Marc's most recent enterprise, mass-producing boots for the army, landed him in debtor's prison for two months in 1821. Undaunted, he continued to produce prototypes for ingenious machines. The most significant was an innovative tunnelling shield for boring through soft material, which he had patented three years earlier. It was soon to make his own name and provide his son with his first taste of heroic engineering.
In 1822, Isambard returned from Paris to London. Now 16 years old, he split his time between his father's tiny office at 29 Poultry and the factory of Maudslay, Sons & Field in Lambeth, where many of Marc's machines were crafted and refined. Observing and working alongside Henry Maudslay, his training was completed.