So, as you can imagine, I’m not really the biggest fan of industrialisation in general, but by got that’s a sexy Cornish. (Except my research has just told me he was born in Portsmouth, and so isn’t a Cornish, which I find immensely disappointing, for personal reasons).
My pub, the pub I love and consider an extension of my living room, is called the Great Eastern. Outside it has a picture of a giant Isambard clutching the eponymous boat, inside it has the famous photo of him in front of it’s immense chains. Tis a good pub, and a fine ship. (I guess, though apparently it had trouble with explosions on it’s maiden voyage, and ended up as a Music Hall in Liverpool, which could happen to the best of us).
Anyway, Brunel did a lot of stuff. He built bridges and railways that genuinely united communities. The reason I assumed his Cornishness is because he was responsible for essentially connecting Cornwall to the rest of the UK. He built this huge railway from London to the very westernmost edge of the west country and then told everyone he was going to extend it further (though he did agree to switch to boats at that point, being more practically minded than Magnus Volk).
He also did things his own way. Insisting on wide guage tracks that were more expensive but more comfortable, and largely incompatible with everyone else’s rails. They got made illegal after his death, leaving his company with the huge expense of re-laying the entire network, which probably made them a bit pissed off with him. But by that point, he was pretty much a Victorian Hero.
He’s your engineer baron par excellence.
Of course, today everything would’ve happened differently. Infrastructure, regulations and so forth are already in place. Some wild card engineer is going to find it harder to find a place. But then, presumably he was a pretty shrewd business man, so he’d probably find a niche.
Then there’s the paradox question. If he was doing stuff now, would he have been able to do anything then? Would his works already be in place? Would the present infrastructure exist in the same way?
Would the revolutions of the Victorian age have happened in the same way? Would Kernow have never got connected and currently be independent (or just crumbled)?
It’s all a bit complicated.
Would he even get into railways? Would he be more impressed by skyscrapers or aeroplanes or space ships or web design?
You can’t really take a figure outside of their time and assume anything. His sideburns would be immediately out of place, for a start (not in certain parts of Brighton or Cornwall, of course, but certainly in the business world).
The answer is definitely no. He would not achieve what he did then. The same things wouldn’t be there for him to achieve.
But he would do something.
And I bet it would be interesting.
And probably ‘wide gauge’.
Illustration by Adam.