Full Steam Ahead!

1024px-Sir_Marc_Isambard_Brunel_by_James_NorthcoteAndrea 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.
Murder at the Merton Library-315My 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.

320px-PulleyShipMarc 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.)
Thames_tunnel_construction_1830His 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.
Robert_Howlett_(Isambard_Kingdom_Brunel_Standing_Before_the_Launching_Chains_of_the_Great_Eastern) _The_Metropolitan_Museum_of_Art_-_restoration1Isambard 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.
1024px-Turner_-_Rain _Steam_and_Speed_-_National_Gallery_fileBrunel 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!)

14 thoughts on “Full Steam Ahead!”

  1. Interesting, Andrea. I’d heard of the Brunels and their many brilliant inventions, but didn’t realize that Brunel the Elder had spent time in the United States.
    As to the most personally significant invention in my life? The personal computer since before that, I just had stories in my head. After I got my Leading Edge, I could write stories down and when errors were fixed, they stayed fixed. The rest is history. Or in my case, historical novels!

  2. Fascinating people, the Brunels. And this is a great period for inventions. I have a fondness for George Stephenson, the brilliant, self-taught railway pioneer. In fact, I still get annoyed at the way he was treated by the “southerners” in parliament and the snobbery that denied him the credit for the safety lamp.
    On an optimistic note, the personal computer has made writing and researching so much easier that I would love to give the palm to that invention. On a less optimistic note, there is the atom bomb. It was invented in my lifetime, and always in the background is the possibility of mass destruction and a nuclear winter to come.
    Sorry for ending on a downer.

  3. You are correct. I’ve never heard of this father and son duo before that I can recall. I found this absolutely fascinating, thanks for sharing.

  4. Mary Jo, I didn’t realize he was chief engineer either until I went down the rabbit hole.
    I have to agree with you that the personal computer affects my life the most, allowing creativity in both writing and art. (But then, it does need electricity to run . . .)

  5. Lillian, you are right that George Stephenson is an unsung hero in science, And I think you’re right that snobbism probably played a part in that.
    As for the Atom Bomb, that is the dark side of science.

  6. While a working at Bristol University I often walked across the Clifton suspension bridge. An awesome view down the Avon gorge and an inspiring way to start the day! I think the silicon transistor which replaced the old filament vacuum tubes might be the most important development for me as it underpins most of modern electronics and forms the basis of the chips that power computers.
    The hydrogen bomb is capable of destroying humanity if lunatics release its power irresposibly, but it also holds the potential for a glowing future. It is based on nuclear fusion (which powers the stars), and when we learn to control it, releasing the power slowely, then unlimited energy will become available and a vast new future should unfold … if used wisely!

  7. What a fascinating piece, Andrea; I was unaware of this father/son duo. (The younger looks quite roguish!)
    Cell phones and e-readers/small computers play a big role in my life; it’s not that long ago that they did not exist.

  8. I just got Murder at the Merton Library but haven’t started reading it yet. I suppose Thomas Edison is the inventor that first comes to mind, electric lights! But I think it was George Westinghouse who figured out how long distance transmission of electricity via high-power lines could be done.
    By the way, I don’t seem to be getting emails from the Wenches for the last few posts. Luckily I saw MJP’s Facebook post about this one.

  9. Thanks for an interesting article, Andrea. On a vusit to Bristol in the 1990’s i had heard about Brunel . When i returned home i looked him up in the llibrary(thus was pre internet days). What a fascinating duo!!
    The inventions that i feel are mist important in my life are electricty and tge telphine whuout which much if modern life couldn’t function.
    I am looking firward to reading Murder in tge Merton Library. I really enjoy your books very much and love all the characters. You make the periid come alive! Your plots are so different and i love tge fact that they involve inventions of the period!
    Thanks for all the pleasure you bring!

  10. How wonderful that you are familiar with the Clifton bridge, Quantum. I’ve seen photos and look forward to seeing it next time I visit England.
    The chip really is a momentous invention, allowing us and our personal computers to open the doors to both information and the tools for creativity.
    We all tend tend to be frightened of nuclear energy, but what you say about the possibility of hydrogen providing our energy needs is exciting could be a way to save our planet. So may scientists keep working on it!

  11. So glad you enjoyed the post, Kareni.
    Yes, Isambard looks like quite a fellow! He certainly was an amazingly creative engineer, with innovations in so many field. He would be a wonderful guest at a dinner party!
    Cell phone and e-readers, like personal computers have allowed us to access so much information, They really do enrich life.

  12. I hope you enjoy the book, Karin!
    Electricity runs all our marvelous devices, so yes, you’re right to make it your choice! Westinghouse is fascinating. There’s a great book on the “electric wars” that is really fascinating. (The name escapes me right now.)
    And so sorry on the Wench e-mail glitch. WeTypepad, our blog platform, is having huge tech problems. We are in the process of moving to a different platform, so stay tuned.

  13. Thanks you SO much for the lovely words about my books, Jane. I am so happy to hear they bring you reading pleasure.
    Electricity and the first telephone are the basis of all our modern computers and smartphones, so yes those two things really are key inventions to enrichinh all of our lives with so many opportunities to access people and information.


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