Andrea here, musing today on technological innovations and how fast they can change our world. I don’t know about you, but for me it sometimes feels that the ground shifts beneath our feet weekly—or even daily if one peruses the news reports carefully. Much of it is good, of course, making us healthier, safer, more comfortable and productive in our daily lives. Still, the dizzying rate of change can be disorienting, if not downright frightening.
My Wrexford & Sloane historical mystery series uses technological innovations as the "McGuffin” in the plots because one of the things that fascinates me about the Regency era is that it, too, was a time of momentous change because of technological innovations. In fact, I love that I find parallels in the past to so many issues that we grapple with today.
Getting back to technology, in doing my research, the innovators I discover are as fascinating as the things they invent. My latest release, MURDER AT THE MERTON LIBRARY revolves around ocean-going steamboats and the next book in the series, which I just turned in, revolves around . . . heh, heh, no spoilers yet, but they both involve a father-son team of engineering titans—Marc Isambard Brunel (above) and Isambard Kingdom Brunel—who were really major players in the Industrial Revolution, though most people have never heard about them.
Marc Isambard Brunel was born in France and early on showed an aptitude for mathematics and drawing. His early education was at a seminary, but as he showed no inclination to enter the Church, his father allowed him to leave. As he was interested in naval matters, he became a cadet in the French Navy and made several transatlantic cruises. But when the French Revolution broke out, he fled—like his family, he was a Royalist—and made his way to New York City where he became an American citizen and was appointed chief engineer of the city. He designed a number of buildings and docks, but was intrigued when he heard that the British Admiralty was facing great difficulties in getting enough pulley blocks (above) for its warships—a huge problem as the war with France was heating up.
He had an idea . . . and sailed to London with plans for a series of machines to mass-produce the pulley blocks. He was introduced to Henry Maudslay, a genius at engineering precision machinery, and the two of them built a working model of Brunel’s idea and presented it to the Inspector General of Naval Works. The Admiralty quickly ordered a factory to be built and by 1808, it was producing over 130,000 pulley blocks! Many people credit Brunel for creating the first “assembly line” of mass-produced items. (He also created machinery for mass-producing boots for soldiers.)
His interest in naval matters also sparked another ingenious invention. Inspired by the Teredo navalis—commonly known as the shipworm—which possesses a hard shell around its head, allowing it to bore through the wooden hulls of ships, Brunel designed a machine to bore tunnels, and patented a tunneling shield that protected laborers during the dangerous work. A tunnel was then commissioned to go under the Thames. It took years and numerous delays, but Queen Victoria and Prince Albert took a keen interest in the project—the Queen bestowed a knighthood on Brunel in 1841 for his long service to his adopted country—and it was finally opened in 1842. Brunel was quite ill and infirm by that time but attended the ceremony—along with his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who had done much of the later engineering work to solve the complex problems.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel (left) is considered "one of the most ingenious and prolific figures in engineering history" and was instrumental in many key technological developments that changed the world of transportation. He founded the Great Western Railroad Company and designed many of the innovative new bridges required to bear the weight of steam locomotives, allowing the first network of commercial railways to be built in Britain. (JMW Turner created a famous painting of Brunel’s Maidenhead railway bridge (below) that celebrated the new sense of steam-powered travel.) His Clifton Suspension is considered a marvel of engineering to this day.
Brunel the Younger also built the first propeller-driven ocean-going steamship, the SS Great Britain (thus his ancillary tie-in to my recent book!) in 1843.
(All images except for the book cover are public domain/courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick glimpse at this remarkable father-son team of brilliant innovators who materially changed the world in which they lived. What about you? Do you have any favorite inventors or innovators? And what invention in your lifetime do you think is most important to your life? (Yes, I know that’s an impossible question, but have some fun with it!)