#201 Isambard Kingdom Brunel James Dysons Hero



In the 19th century, Isambard Kingdom Brunel emerged as a pioneering force in engineering, transforming England's infrastructure and influencing future innovators like James Dyson. Renowned for his audacious projects like the Great Western Railway and the massive ship Great Eastern, Brunel's relentless pursuit of unprecedented feats and his refusal to yield under pressure became his legacy. Despite facing ridicule, adversity, and health issues, Brunel's dedication to his work was unwavering, ultimately leading to his untimely death just as his greatest ship faced disaster. His life, marked by bold plans and a disregard for the cost of ambition, exemplifies the spirit of innovation and the impact of individual genius on the progress of technology and society.

Summary Notes

Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Impact on the Industrial Revolution

  • Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a key figure in the transformation of England during the Industrial Revolution between 1760 and 1860.
  • Brunel's work had vast economic and social impacts, affecting every person in the country.
  • He initiated a rapid technical evolution that persists to this day.
  • Brunel is recognized for his engineering feats, such as the broad gauge railway and the ship Great Eastern.
  • His name symbolizes the pride and self-confidence of his era.
  • Brunel was more than an engineer; he was an artist, a visionary, and had a magnetic personality.
  • Understanding Brunel's private thoughts and spirit provides insight into the driving force behind the Industrial Revolution.

"Of this small group of men whose lives had such prodigious consequences, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was perhaps the outstanding personality."

This quote highlights Brunel's significant role in the Industrial Revolution and his standout contributions compared to his contemporaries.

Inspiration from Brunel's Life and Work

  • James Dyson was profoundly influenced by Brunel, considering him his personal "God."
  • Dyson attributes the foundation of his multi-billion-dollar empire to the principles he learned from Brunel.
  • Brunel's persistence, perseverance, and self-belief were qualities that Dyson admired and emulated.
  • Dyson's autobiography emphasizes the importance of learning from the lives of great individuals.

"Isambard Kingdom Brunel was unable to think small and nothing was a barrier to him. The mere fact that something had never been done before presented to Brunel no suggestion that the doing of it was impossible."

Dyson's quote reflects Brunel's boundless ambition and disregard for the impossible, which Dyson found inspirational for his own career.

Brunel's Personality and Drive

  • LTC Rolt's biography of Brunel, written in 1957, delves into Brunel's character.
  • Brunel's personality was characterized by high spirits, resilience, and a burning desire for success.
  • Despite his cheerful demeanor, Brunel was driven by an intense inner fire and was willing to sacrifice his life for his work.
  • Brunel's dogged persistence and hard work were central to his success.
  • His imaginative flair allowed him to combine ideas innovatively.
  • Brunel maintained a confident public persona but privately acknowledged his self-doubt and weaknesses.
  • His life was treated as a grand adventure, and his faults, along with his virtues, were evident to all.
  • Brunel's belief in living life fully and intensely is a reminder to embrace life as an adventure.

"A great man achieves eminence by his capacity to live more fully and intensely than his fellows."

This quote captures the essence of Brunel's approach to life, emphasizing the importance of passion and intensity in achieving greatness.

Brunel's Early Career and Apprenticeship

  • Brunel's apprenticeship under Louis, a master watchmaker, honed his mechanical skills and workmanship standards.
  • At 16, Brunel began working with his father, Mark Brunel, and quickly became a trusted partner due to his talent and enthusiasm.
  • Brunel played a major role in his father's ambitious project, the Thames Tunnel, at the age of 20.

"The exacting standards of workmanship under which Brunel insisted throughout his lifetime were undoubtedly formed at this time."

This quote highlights the influence of Brunel's apprenticeship on his lifelong commitment to precision and quality in engineering.

Challenges and Perseverance in the Thames Tunnel Project

  • The Thames Tunnel project faced numerous difficulties, including sickness among workers due to poor conditions.
  • Brunel's father and the resident engineer, William Armstrong, both fell ill, leaving Brunel in charge at a young age.
  • Despite being only 20, Brunel's leadership of the project was met with little surprise due to the value placed on practical experience over theoretical knowledge at the time.
  • Brunel's work ethic was characterized by long hours and relentless energy.
  • The Brunels' refusal to succumb to misfortune exemplifies the resilience required for success.

"The Brunels were not men to sit down with folded hands and bewail their misfortune."

This quote reflects the Brunels' proactive and resilient approach to overcoming adversity, a trait shared by successful entrepreneurs and innovators.

Brunel's Accident and Unusual Response

  • Brunel experienced a catastrophic tunnel accident that nearly killed him.
  • Despite severe injury and being bedridden, Brunel directed diving operations from a mattress.
  • Brunel's resilience and unusual mindset are highlighted in his private journal entries.
  • His writings reveal a lack of fear and a sense of drama and excitement during life-threatening situations.

"Although it was obvious that Brunel was seriously ill and that his leg was giving him acute pain, he remained, as usual, quite undaunted and refused to leave."

This quote illustrates Brunel's determination and refusal to abandon his work despite his serious injuries.

"I have now been laid up quite useless for 14 weeks. I shan't forget that day."

Brunel reflects on the extended period of his incapacitation due to the accident and the lasting impact of that day on his life.

"When the danger is over, it is rather amusing. While it existed... it wasn't uncomfortable... In this instance it was an excitement."

Brunel describes his counterintuitive feelings towards the danger he faced, finding amusement and excitement in retrospect.

"The sight and the whole affair was well worth the risk."

Brunel expresses that the experience of the accident, despite its dangers, was valuable and exhilarating to him.

Brunel's Years of Frustration and Ambition

  • At age 22, Brunel contemplates his future and ambitions during a low point in his life.
  • He aspires to build ships, bridges, and tunnels, and to achieve greatness as an engineer.
  • Brunel experiences a mix of emotions, oscillating between euphoria and terror, as he faces professional challenges.

"What will become of me?"

Brunel questions his future prospects in his journal, indicating a moment of uncertainty.

"I will build a fleet of ships and build a new London bridge. I will build tunnels and at last be rich and have a house built."

Brunel sets ambitious goals for himself, demonstrating his drive and determination to succeed and make a significant impact.

"Palmer has already built new London docks and thus has established his fortune while I have been engaged on the tunnel, which failed."

Brunel compares his situation with that of a successful contemporary, feeling a sense of frustration and self-doubt.

"A mediocre success, an engineer sometimes employed and sometimes not."

Brunel contemplates the possibility of having an average career, a far cry from the greatness he aspires to.

Brunel's Life Motto and Perseverance

  • Brunel adopts the motto "Never despair" to guide him through difficult times.
  • Despite setbacks, he remains determined to persevere and not lose faith in himself.
  • Brunel's resilience is seen as a key factor in his eventual success.

"Never despair has always been my motto. We may succeed, yet persevere."

Brunel reaffirms his commitment to perseverance and optimism, even in the face of daunting challenges.

"The next few years must decide whether he would become a mediocrity or the first engineer and an example for future ones."

The author of the biography highlights the pivotal moment in Brunel's career where his future success hangs in the balance.

Brunel's Struggle and Learning from Experience

  • Brunel faces numerous disappointments and struggles as he works to establish his reputation.
  • He refuses to let pride prevent him from taking on smaller projects, seeing each as a learning opportunity.
  • Brunel's ability to recover quickly from failures and focus on the next project is emphasized.

"He could and undoubtedly did... plumb into depths of despondency."

The author acknowledges Brunel's emotional struggles but also his ability to recover and move forward.

"Once... one project on which he had pinned his hopes had failed, he would rapidly recover from that blow, dismiss it from his mind, and concentrate upon the next with undiminished energy."

Brunel's strategy for dealing with failure is to quickly shift focus to the next opportunity, maintaining his drive and commitment.

Brunel's Fortunate Opportunity and Clifton Suspension Bridge

  • A seemingly trivial event leads Brunel to Clifton, where he will enter a competition that marks a turning point in his career.
  • The author reflects on how unpredictable life is and how small events can have significant consequences.

"It is impossible to read history or biography without being struck by the momentous consequences of trivial events."

The author comments on the role of chance and seemingly minor occurrences in shaping significant historical outcomes.

"The most humdrum or apparently wasted day may afterwards be seen in recollection to mark a significant turning point in our lives."

This quote suggests that even days that seem mundane or unproductive can later be recognized as pivotal in one's life journey.

"Had he not been guilty of overindulgence immediately after his accident in the tunnel, his future might have taken a different course."

The author speculates that Brunel's actions following his accident inadvertently set him on the path to his future successes.

Early Life and Inspiration

  • Brunel spent time sketching and enjoying the scenery of the gorges while recovering from an illness.
  • His interest in the beauty of engineering was sparked by a proposal to build a bridge in the area he was studying.
  • Brunel believed in creating engineering works that were not only functional but also aesthetically pleasing, a philosophy that influenced James Dyson.
  • Dyson admired Brunel's approach to design, emphasizing the importance of physical appearance in products.

"Brunel spent his convalescence sketching and climbing about the gorges while the tall ships came and went with the tide." This quote describes how Brunel spent his time during recovery, indicating his early fascination with engineering and the natural environment.

"Brunel decided that the site called for a suspension bridge." Brunel's decision to design a suspension bridge for the site reflects his dedication to creating structures that were appropriate and harmonious with their surroundings.

"He lavished upon his competition designs, infinite pains and exquisite draftsmanship so that it became not merely engineering drawings, but works of art." This quote emphasizes Brunel's meticulous attention to detail and his commitment to elevating engineering designs to the level of art.

Learning from the Past

  • Brunel studied previous bridge designs to learn what elements to emulate and what to avoid.
  • This approach is similar to how professionals study the careers of their predecessors to understand their fields better.

"Then he's traveling all around this area studying the bridges that came before him." Brunel's study of existing bridges demonstrates his thorough research process and desire to learn from past successes and failures.

"In this way, Brunell learned what to emulate and what to improve and then what to avoid." The quote captures Brunel's strategic approach to design, where he actively sought to incorporate the best aspects of previous work while avoiding their shortcomings.

Challenges and Setbacks

  • Brunel faced numerous obstacles, including civil unrest that halted his bridge project.
  • Despite these challenges, Brunel continued to work on other projects and maintained a strong belief in his abilities.

"All thoughts of proceeding with the Clifton bridge scheme were forgotten." This quote reflects the significant impact that external factors, such as civil unrest, can have on engineering projects, causing delays and requiring adaptability.

"Brunel took stock of his gloomy situation. So many irons and none of them hot." Here, Brunel expresses his frustration with the lack of progress, yet it also showcases his determination to persevere through difficult times.

Opportunity and Self-Belief

  • During a period of despondency, Brunel learned of an opportunity to build a railway, which he pursued with confidence.
  • He believed in his ability to win the appointment over his rivals, whom he did not consider formidable.

"Was this Brunel's long awaited opportunity?" This quote captures the moment of potential turnaround in Brunel's career, highlighting the importance of being prepared for opportunities that arise unexpectedly.

"He did not doubt that he could secure the appointment." Brunel's self-assurance is evident in his lack of doubt about securing the railway project, demonstrating the importance of self-belief in achieving success.

The Great Adventure Begins

  • Upon securing the job, Brunel dedicated himself tirelessly to the Great Western Railway project.
  • His arduous work schedule and relentless pursuit of his engineering goals likely contributed to his early death.

"Brunel wasted no time in getting down to work. The great adventure had begun." This quote signifies the start of a major phase in Brunel's career, reflecting his immediate and intense commitment to the project.

"Such pressure of work taxed even Brunell's extraordinary powers of endurance to the utmost." The quote illustrates the immense strain that Brunel's work ethic placed on him, showcasing the physical and mental demands of his profession.

Vision and Visualization

  • Brunel had a clear vision for his projects, often visualizing the completed work before it was constructed.
  • He surrounded himself with a team that could meet his high standards, and he was unforgiving of those who did not.

"I must try stronger language and stronger measures. You are a cursed, lazy, inattentive, apathetic vagabond." This harsh reprimand from Brunel to an underperforming assistant exemplifies his intolerance for mediocrity and his demand for excellence from his team.

"History holds no previous record of engineering adventure upon so heroic a scale." The quote underscores the unprecedented nature of Brunel's work on the Great Western Railway, highlighting the scale and ambition of his engineering feats.

Reflection and Satisfaction

  • Brunel experienced a rapid change in fortune, going from obscurity to being the engineer of a significant project.
  • He found immense satisfaction in his work, despite the personal sacrifices it entailed.

"When I last wrote in this book, I was just emerging from obscurity." This quote from Brunel's diary reflects on his dramatic rise to prominence and the transformative impact of his work on the railway.

"My profession is, after all, my only fit wife." Brunel's metaphorical comparison of his work to a spouse illustrates his deep commitment and passion for his profession.

First Principles Thinking

  • First principles thinking involves questioning precedents and starting from foundational truths.
  • Isambard Kingdom Brunel exemplified this approach in designing railways.
  • Critics viewed Brunel's drive for originality as unnecessary and merely for the sake of being different.
  • James Dyson advocates for being different to achieve monopolistic profits, even if it means not choosing the best known way.
  • Dyson's philosophy includes being different in ideas, products, and business operations.

"Brunel rejected precedent and proceeded from first principles to design what he confidently believed would prove to be the perfect railway."

This quote highlights Brunel's approach of rejecting established methods in favor of first principles to innovate in railway design.

"To his critics, it appeared to be an example of a perverse striving for originality, for originality's sake."

This quote reflects the criticism Brunel faced for his unique approach, where critics misunderstood his intentions for innovation.

Brunel's Personal Reflections

  • Brunel expressed his struggles and the innovative nature of his work in personal correspondence.
  • He likened his work to inventing a new language that only he understood.
  • Brunel felt that invention was a finite resource and experienced mental exhaustion.
  • Despite the challenges, he never regretted his chosen path and viewed his career as an adventure.

"I can compare it to nothing but the sudden adoption of a language that's familiar enough to the speaker, but unfortunately understood by nobody but him."

Brunel describes the solitary nature of his work and the difficulty of communicating his innovative ideas to others.

"I have never regretted one instant the course I have taken."

Brunel's statement illustrates his unwavering commitment to his work and the satisfaction it brought him, despite the challenges.

The Great Western Railway

  • The construction of the Great Western Railway was an immense undertaking, relying on manual labor and rudimentary technology.
  • The project consumed vast amounts of resources, including a ton of gunpowder and candles weekly for over two years.
  • Brunel's vision for the railway, once thought impossible, became a reality through his determination.

"For two and a half years, the work consumed a ton of gunpowder and a ton of candles every week."

This quote emphasizes the scale and resource intensity of the Great Western Railway project.

"The railway had seemed to many so impossible of realization only eight years before, was now a magnificent reality."

Brunel's ability to turn a vision that many deemed impossible into a tangible and successful infrastructure is highlighted in this quote.

Brunel Against Bureaucracy

  • Brunel opposed anything that hindered building and decision-making, including government interference.
  • He believed in individual responsibility and the ability to make unequivocal decisions.
  • Steve Jobs shared a similar mindset, as evidenced by his leadership at Apple.
  • Brunel threatened to resign if not given full control over his projects.

"The innate caution of the civil service mentality, its inability to make unequivocal decisions or accept personal responsibility, represented the very opposite of all that Brunel stood for."

This quote contrasts Brunel's decisive nature with the cautious approach of civil service, underscoring his disdain for bureaucratic hindrances.

"Because I'm the CEO, and I think it can be done."

Steve Jobs' assertion of his authority at Apple reflects a similar attitude to Brunel's, where strong leadership and conviction are key to innovation.

Brunel's Final Project: The Great Eastern

  • Brunel was dedicated to the Great Eastern, a ship unlike any other, both in size and ambition.
  • The ship's construction faced numerous challenges, including bankruptcy and technical difficulties.
  • Brunel's commitment to the project was unwavering, even at the expense of his health and personal life.
  • The Great Eastern held the record as the largest ship for nearly 50 years.

"I must cease to be responsible and cease to act."

Brunel's insistence on having sole responsibility for the Great Eastern project underscores his commitment to his vision and his reluctance to compromise.

"To stick to the one point of attack, however defended."

Brunel's philosophy of perseverance is evident in this quote, where he advocates for increasing efforts rather than seeking easier alternatives.

Brunel's Legacy and Influence

  • Brunel's refusal to give up and his unique approach to engineering have inspired figures like James Dyson.
  • Dyson sees Brunel as a personal idol, reflecting the qualities he aspires to embody.
  • Brunel's life story provides deeper insights into the mindset of innovative entrepreneurs like Dyson.

"He was a God to me."

This quote from James Dyson shows the profound impact Brunel's life and work had on him, elevating Brunel to an almost mythical status in Dyson's view.

"The spirit broken at last, the light in his eyes went out."

The quote captures the tragic end of Brunel's life, with the failure of the Great Eastern's initial voyage being the final blow to his indomitable spirit.


  • The podcast encourages listeners to read the books discussed for a deeper understanding of the subjects.
  • The host reflects on the hours spent studying Brunel and how it enhances the understanding of other entrepreneurs like Dyson.
  • The podcast serves as a gateway to more extensive learning through reading.

"That's 201 books down, 1000 to go, and I'll talk to you again soon. Bye."

The host signs off, indicating the ongoing journey of learning and sharing knowledge through the podcast and the books covered.

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