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Thorough, entertaining and fascinating
on 18 June 2004
Biographies of engineers can fall into a stereotypical format. A chapter on their childhood and education, then a series of chapters discussing their main works. Personal insight is usually minimal.
Rolt's biography of Brunel is light-years away from this - it is first and foremost a portrait of a complex, ambitious and determined genius, with his engineering placed in a personal, social and historical context. The chequered career of his father and his family background serve to place Isambard in context, too.
Sure, if you want to know how much per foot the rails on the GWR weighed, it's here, but you'll also find fascinating fragments of Brunel's diaries and letters, descriptions of London society in the early nineteenth century, and the remarks of many of those whose paths Brunel crossed during his life.
Brunel's own words are as vigorous and fascinating as those Rolt uses; this is a lively, fast-paced book covering all aspects of a very full life full of innovation.