ISAMBARD KINGDOM BRUNEL
1806 – 1859
One of the greatest engineers of the Victorian era, designer of Maidenhead’s railway bridge.
Brunel was the leading architect of his day, a talent he inherited from his father Marc, a French engineer. At the age of only 28, Brunel was appointed chief architect to the Great Western Railway.
The first section of the GWR line, from London to Taplow, was opened to the public in June 1838. But the next stretch, westbound from here, presented more of a problem. The Thames is 100 yards wide at the point where a bridge needed to be built, and the Thames Commissioners stipulated that it must in no way impede the navigation channel or the towpath.
Brunel’s design for the bridge was controversial, as it contained two of the widest and flattest arches that had ever been constructed in brick – each of the arches has a span of 128 ft and a rise of 24 ft 3ins. The critics were sure that the whole structure would collapse into the river, with many resulting fatalities.
At 778 ft long, the bridge is the largest brick-built arch bridge in Europe, and features in the famous painting by Turner called Rain, Steam and Speed. The first train travelled over it on 12th April 1839, and the official opening was on 1st July 1839. In January 1840 there were gales and floods, with the river level rising 5 inches. Again there were fears for the safety of the bridge but it stood firm, silencing the doubters once and for all.
The bridge soon became known as the Sounding Arch, as it gives off a strong echo as anything noisy passes under it. Stand on the towpath under the arch (on hte Taplow bank) and clap your hands: you should hear six or even more echoes.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel also designed the Clifton suspension bridge, which was built after his death, and he pushed naval architecture into a new era when he designed and built three iron ships – the Great Western in 1837, the Great Britain in 1843 and the Great Eastern in 1858.
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