March 16: I’m not a lot of men

2012/03/16 § 3 Comments

On this day in 1831 Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59) won the competition for the Clifton suspension bridge.

Of all colossuses of awesomeness (say that five times fast) raised in the magnificent nineteenth century, bridges were some of the most spectacular.  Clifton was not the first suspension bridge, but it was, and remains, one of the greatest anywhere, ever, especially when you consider that judge Thomas Telford (who knew from bridges) poo-poo’ed Brunel’s design, announcing that his own 577′ span at Menai Straits could not be out-spanned.  What a chump!  He was wrong, and the Clifton Bridge leaps across just over 700′ of open air–a full 125′ farther than Telford’s bridge (or, 187.5 stove pipe hats, in British measure).

We could tell you all about the massive 110′ tall sandstone towers; we could enthuse over the three wrought iron chains each side; we could wax eloquent on the hundreds of bolted bars anchored 60 feet into the rock of the gorge; we could go on and on about the deck is 245 feet above high water level.  But at the end of the day, we really just want to direct your attention to the master of metal and stone who made it possible, who was way more than just a bridge guy.  For Brunel (the subject of  this truly spectacular portrait), this was just one more project: another heroic bridge to add to a resume that also listed extensive dockyards, the first major British railway (the Great Western), a bunch of transatlantic steamships, including the first one that was propeller-driven, and the famous tunnel under the Thames.  In a 2002 poll he was named the second Greatest Briton by the BBC, between Winston Churchill and Lady Diana (outranking Shakespeare, Newton, Darwin, and everyone named Elizabeth).  We’ll let you guess which was #1 and which was #3.  Brunel received further honors in April 2006 when the 200th  anniversary of his birth was celebrated with a huge celebration that concluded with fireworks on the bridge.  Brunel’s achievements are great, even Herculean.  Like that ancient hero, he deserves to be celebrated in operatic ballads.  His praises are so aptly sung by The Men Who Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing, we will give them full reign here–although TMWWNBBFN anthem makes us wonder, why aren’t there more epics dedicated to the exploits and achievements of the nineteenth century?  More than any other era, it’s ripe with tough, dirty, sweaty material that puts today’s dainty plastic gizmos invented by khaki-clad, bespectacled geeks to shame.  Brunel could take on five Silicon Valley types at once and emerge victorious without dropping his cigar.

image: Clifton Gorge with Brunel’s bridge (from this source)

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§ 3 Responses to March 16: I’m not a lot of men

  • Sam says:

    Abby and I saw the bridge this summer! It really is incredible in person!

  • Nina Baker says:

    I am proud that I was invited to take part in the Brunel 200 events by giving a special lecture on lady bridge designers/builders to the AGM of the Townswomens Guilds.

    I love the British Standard Measurement of stovepipe hats (aka top hats)

  • Clio says:

    Prof. Nina, What a wonderful opportunity to take part in that grand celebration! The mind reels at the thought of Mr. Brunel’s feelings about lady bridge builders. Can you enlighten us?

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