Can this be true? A new book by Adrian Vaughan on the famous engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel is reported to claim that he didn't even design one of his best known structures, the Clifton Suspension Bridge (pictured right, courtesy of Damien Everett on Flickr).
Vaughan's earlier book, "Isambard Kingdom Brunel: Engineering Knight-errant", was a revisionist critique of the widespread view of Brunel as not merely a giant amongst engineers, but very nearly the greatest Briton ever. It drew extensively on archive research to depict a designer who was confrontational, dictatorial, and prone to making over-quick decisions which frequently led to his projects going well over budget. It sought quite consciously to provide a counter-balance to the widely read LTC Rolt biography of Brunel, which by all accounts bought quite deeply into the mythology of a Victorian hero.
The new book that has provoked the headline is Vaughan's follow-up, "The Intemperate Engineer: Isambard Kingdom Brunel in His Own Words". I haven't seen it, but understand it includes many of Brunel's letters and seeks to depict both his genius and his fallibility.
It's certainly not news that the Clifton Suspension Bridge wasn't entirely Brunel's design. His initial 1831 proposal didn't start on site until 1836, and money ran out in 1843. Work on the bridge only restarted in 1862, three years after Brunel's death, with the design revised by William Henry Barlow and Sir John Hawkshaw. In part, changes were made to the bridge width and suspension chain arrangement to make use of chains that became available from the recently dismantled Hungerford Suspension Bridge. Changes were also made to the tower design. But the span and general conception remained as Brunel had proposed.
This situation is hardly unusual even today. Is Stonecutters Bridge the design of Halcrow and Flint and Neill, who (like Brunel) won the design competition and developed the basic concept, or of Arup, who completed the detailed design and made various changes to the scheme? And even if one engineer at any of these firms were put forward as the key engineer responsible, how much did they personally contribute?
The modern era, with design tasks shared across a diverse team, is not that different from the Victorian period. Identifying, and lionising, the big names may help personalise history, but essentially it's the engineering version of the lamentable tendency to see national history as the history of royalty. Suggesting that Brunel designed the bridge at Clifton pays proper tribute to the central figure in its creation, while obscuring a more complex reality.
It's also worth considering to what extent Brunel's present-day reputation is based on his forceful personality as much as on his actual engineering achievements. Was he a better engineer than Thomas Telford, Robert Stephenson, or lesser known contemporaries like Thomas Kennard? There seems to me to be an almost willful desire in the popular media to treat Brunel as heroic in the manner of a great general, to gloss over his many flaws and the fact that many of his enterprises were disasters. Like Stephenson, his greatest bridge designs were spectacular and perhaps revolutionary, but rarely of such importance that they became templates for wider adoption.
It's interesting, perhaps, that most popular histories relating to civil engineering are of the royalist type: biographies of the famous names. I can't think, off hand, of any popular books that get to grips with the wider social aspects of the 19th century revolution in scientific bridge design, although there are certainly specialist histories that address it.
Of course, a headline that simply stated "new biography confirms what we already knew in old biographies" is neither going to sell newspapers nor justify a journalist's time and expenses. The need to manufacture controversy is understandable. What I'm less clear on is the underlying need to propagate a heroic mythology, and to defend it against any inquisition, however plausible.