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Special feature - Brunel Bicentenary

Ask any Briton to name a famous engineer and the chances are they will answer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Two hundred years after his birth, he is, without question, the popular embodiment of civil engineering.

A glance through Brunel's portfolio explains why.

Starting with his father Marc on the Thames Tunnel, his achievements include Clifton Suspension Bridge, the Great Western Line, Box Tunnel, Maidenhead Bridge, the Royal Albert Bridge, Paddington Station and his ships the Great Western, Great Britain and the massive Great Eastern.

Brunel's technical achievements marked him out for greatness alongside the likes of Telford, Smeaton, Stevenson and Bazalgette. But ultimately he was more than simply a technical genius. He did, without question, lead the early developments in tunnelling, bridge building, railway and ship design. As an engineer he sought to do what had not been done before and constantly - sometimes to his personal cost - knocked on the door of what was technically possible.

What really sets the man apart was his ability not just to nd elegant technical solutions to problems. His skill was to examine the processes and actually foresee the infrastructure needs of business.

His success came from identifying the solutions before his clients realised they had a problem. His legacy comes from a passionate engagement with the business, logistical and technical issues of the day and determination to make his dreams happen.

Brunel was a showman and a considerable celebrity in his own time. He had to be - to set forth, often alone, to plan the unthinkable, persuade critics and convince wary nanciers to part with the huge amounts of money required.

The profession today has changed far too much to harbour anyone truly like him.

We have certainly moved forward in terms of what is technically possible, but in other respects we have lost ground. There is no individual in the profession able to wield Brunel's persuasive power. There is no one quite so close to the ear of government or with such direct access to funding. There is no one in the profession who could deliver what Brunel personally, continuously, delivered.

But we should celebrate and aspire to his ideal of how engineers should interact with society. And there are a handful of engineers keeping that ideal alive.

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