Brunel was famed in his own lifetime as a maverick, rule breaker, innovator, risk taker and showman. His engineering output was prolific and his projects frequently had a heroic quality. He has become an icon of his age.
Next year's celebration of Brunel's bicentenary, in July 2006, sounds a fi tting tribute, as mapped out by instigators Julia Elton and Gil Howorth.
The birthday party they are planning involves two interlinked conferences, one at the ICE and the other in Brunel's original Bristol Temple Meads train shed.
The London-Bristol connection will be made physically as well as thematically by a steam train journey 'down Brunel's railway', says Elton.
'The Great Western is the last survivor of the early railways, and from Paddington to Bristol there are regular incidents - viaducts, bridges and tunnels, culminating in the station buildings themselves, like pearls on a string.' It is to receive World Heritage Site status, coinciding with the birthday party.
Brunel is to be the 'hook' for talking about and appraising 200 years of engineering innovation, a discussion that will be led by present day heavyweights including Network Rail chief executive John Armitt, Arup chairman Terry Hill, ICE past president Tony Ridley, English Heritage chairman Sir Neil Cossons and historian Michael Bailey.
Next summer's conference will look at the profound effect on the modern world of Brunel and other 19th century engineering pioneers, Elton says 'Before the railway, if you lived in Oxford you'd never eaten fresh fish because it would have rotted in carriage. The railway was capable of getting fresh fish from the coast to inland towns. It changed people's eating habits.
'You could commute. You could go on holiday. The railway became a huge employer in its own right. And they lit the nation's passion for travel. Mark Isambard Brunel [Brunel's son] wrote that steam was a great leveller: It gave working people a freedom of movement that had only been available to the very rich.' Brunel and his contemporaries also initiated a transformation in civil engineering methods and technology, embracing and developing materials 'to build an entirely new infrastructure.
Between 1830 and 1845 they built nearly 8,000 miles of railway. Imagine building that much of anything today', Elton remarks.
The railway catalysed dramatic urban development, parallels of which can be seen in today's use of railways to spur urban regeneration, says Howorth.
Next summer's conference will also look at engineering history and heritage. 'There's a big question about how to reconcile the demands of saving the old - the remains of our engineering heritage - with running the new.' The Brunel spectacular has already covered its £50,000 organising costs which have been underwritten by the ICE - which is also project managing the event - the IStructE, IMechE, learned body for engineering and science the Newcomen Society, the National Rail Museum and Association of Industrial Archaeology.
'Now we want consultants and contractors to book seats - there are 500 - and get their staff along. We want to see young engineers and company bosses - the whole spectrum of the profession, ' says Howorth.
The Brunel Bicentenary Conference 2006 will be formally launched at Civils 2005 in November.