The Expected and Unexpected Successes of I.K. Brunel

By Peter Fedoryk, Class of 2021

Isambard Kingdom Brunel fundamentally reimagined the breadth and speed of human networks across the world through his life’s work. One of the nineteenth century’s engineering titans, Brunel drew on new technologies to fundamentally change the way humans travel. In addition to his innovative work with Britain’s rail system, he designed three ships—the SS Great Western (1838), the SS Great Britain (1843), and the SS Great Eastern (1859)—each intended to radically reimagine naval travel.


Before the SS Great Western, trans-Atlantic crossings had remained relatively unchanged for several hundred years. By incorporating a steam-powered paddle wheel into the design of a 235-foot, oak-hulled passenger ship, Brunel halved trans-Atlantic travel (down to about two weeks, 13 days from New York to Bristol; 16 days from Bristol to New York). Brunel’s SS Great Western reimagined space and time from a human perspective, only inspiring him to dream even bigger.

the stern of a large ship with flags

SS Great Britain displayed in Bristol, in the dry dock where it was originally built. Photo by author.

His second ship—the SS Great Britain—was a six mast, single screw propeller, iron-hulled, 322-foot passenger ship. It was the first iron, steam-powered ship to cross the Atlantic. After making trans-Atlantic passenger voyages for three years, the SS Great Britain would spend nearly thirty years ferrying immigrants from the United Kingdom to Australia. Brunel’s creations had a knack for affecting unexpected historical trends, in their tendency to enact change in ways Brunel likely never imagined. Today, over half a million people in Australia and New Zealand can trace their ancestor’s immigration to travel on the SS. Great Britain.

A view of a ship in drydock

View from the walkway leading to the top deck of the SS Great Britain. Photo by author.

Perhaps the creation most recognized for this talent was the third of Brunel’s ships. The SS Great Eastern was built with five steam engines to power four paddle wheels and one screw propeller, on top of the six masts equipped with sails. It measured 692 feet long and could theoretically transport 4,000 passengers. Intended to support passenger voyages from the United Kingdom to East Asia, the SS Great Eastern was ultimately only used to transport passengers across the Atlantic. Brunel dramatically overestimated the market for sea voyages and thus never really took advantage of the high passenger cap on-board. After several years in service, the ship was sold to the newly formed Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company in 1864. The following year, Brunel’s final ship would lay the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable. Never intended to be used as such, the SS Great Eastern’s new life resulted in even further transformation of the world. Again, Brunel likely had no idea of the diverse impacts his creation would have. Communication would never be the same, and to this day massive amounts of data are transmitted every second through trans-Atlantic cables.


Today, the SS Great Britain lies in Bristol, England at the dry dock in which it was originally built. The ship itself, open to visitors for touring, is the most visited attraction in Bristol. In 2010 the SS Great Britain Trust and University of Bristol partnered to open the Brunel Institute, to house an extensive maritime collection and support further research about maritime history and technology. Brunel History Fellow, Dr. James Boyd, has been using the collections of the Brunel Institute and new technology to better understand the networks of engineers, investors, and patrons behind Brunel’s three revolutionary ships. Boyd’s Brunel’s Network embraces the complicated nature of design development and construction to demonstrate how people worked together to change history—in expected and unexpected ways.

a man in a whiter shirt gives a presentation on a screen

Presentation given by Brunel History Fellow, Dr. James Boyd, to the British Design History Class of 2019-2020. Dr. Boyd presented updates on his research that uses social and craft networks to understand how Brunel’s ships were designed and built.

See the exciting work of the Brunel Institute at:

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