On the 6th and 7th of July a celebratory conference was held in Bristol Temple Meads as part of a series of events to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The conference, organised by the ICE and sponsored by Airbus, was a chance to celebrate the man and his profession, and provide inspiration to the next generation of engineers. To this end, five students from Imperial College were sponsored by the ICE to attend the conference: Amandhi Kularatne and David Horton from Mechanical Engineering and John Collins, Oliver Broadbent and myself from Civil Engineering. Most appropriately, the conference was held in Brunel?s Historic Train Shed, in Bristol Temple Meads, which is now the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum.
The conference was only one of a multitude of events held in 2006 to celebrate this important anniversary of British engineering as part of Brunel 200, a national programme focused on Bristol and the South West. The celebrations were launched in January with the UK?s biggest community reading project, which included 200,000 people visiting the South West to enjoy reading Jules Verne?s classic ?Around the World in Eighty Days?. It has since included major exhibition openings, the Bristol Festival of ideas, new art projects, the publication of ?Brunel: in love with the impossible?, the switching on of the new lighting system at the Clifton Suspension Bridge, and a unique journey by steam in the ?King Edward I? locomotive traveling on the Great Western Railway between London and Bristol, carrying a special headboard made for the event.
The event proved extremely interesting, inspiring and educational. The conference sessions held on the first day explored a wide range of topics, including the role of engineers in today?s society and the social impact of transportation networks. The speakers invited came from varied backgrounds, and included some very prominent names, such as John Armitt, Chief Executive of Network Rail, Malcolm Denham, Head of Engineering at BP, Steve Norris, former minister for transport, Philippe Jarry, senior vice-president at Airbus, and many more.
The day ended with a gala dinner and awards ceremony, which gave an excellent chance for networking and making acquaintances within the engineering profession. Those attending the dinner had the chance to listen to music by the Band of the Royal Air Force Regiment, playing by permission of the Air Force Board of the Defence Council, and witness an auction of the headboard carried by the ?King Edward I? on its ceremonial journey to Bristol the previous day. The winning bid for the headboard was that of the President of the ICE, Gordon Masterton. A number of awards were presented after the dinner, such as the Airbus Brunel Bicentenary award, the Brunel Bicentenary International Award, the Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and the ICE President?s Medal. On behalf of all the Imperial students who participated, I can safely say that we had a great time at the dinner and afterwards!
The second and last day of the conference focused on some ambitious engineering projects of our time, which were designed and undertaken in a spirit similar to that shown by IKB himself. On this day we had the chance to listen to the engineers most intimately involved describe ambitious projects such as the building of the new double-decker airplane Airbus A380, the design and construction of the Millau Viaduct and the planning and construction of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. The day closed with an overview of the engineering challenges involved in the Olympics of 2012, given by Jack Lemley, Chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority. The conference ended after two very exciting days of meeting important people and having great fun in a celebratory and at the same time relaxed atmosphere.
The significance of I. K. Brunel
The spectacular events which occurred as part of the Brunel 200 project, the conference itself, as well as the extensive media coverage which all these events received raise the question: why is Brunel so special?
In 2002 BBC television held a nationwide competition to establish the Greatest Briton in the eyes of the public. I. K. Brunel came second in the competition, with Winston Churchill taking first place. Hence it became obvious that in the eyes of the wider public Isambard Kingdom Brunel is considered ?the Greatest British Engineer?. However, Brunel is arguably only one of many inspired Victorian engineers, which contributed to the golden era of British civil engineering in the mid-nineteenth century. During their time Robert Stephenson was seen by his peers as much more influential than Brunel, whilst Brunel?s name featured together with many others including William Barlow, George Bidder, Thomas Harrison, James Walker and so many more.
However, Brunel?s originality of thought and boldness of character have made him an inspirational figure in the eyes of today?s engineers. The Clifton Suspension Bridge, the Hungerford Bridge, the Great Western Railway, Paddington Station, the Royal Albert Bridge, the SS Great Britain and the SS Great Eastern are his most well known achievements. His dynamism and audacity, his ambitious visions of mass movement of people and goods through railway and transoceanic services, his wide interest in all areas of engineering, combined with his attention to detail and his ability to be spectacular even in his failures make him a symbolic figure for the greatness that engineering and human genius can achieve.