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Isambard Kingdom Brunel Is Not Abraham Lincoln

During the Opening Ceremony in London Olympics, many Americans couldn’t tell who Kenneth Branagh’s character was. And that’s a shame.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel is a man more Americans should know. Credit: Leo Reynolds on Flickr

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Watching Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics was certainly something. But I’m not here to talk about squadrons of Mary Poppins doing battle with Voldemort.

Instead, I’m here to talk about the Industrial Revolution sequence, in which Kenneth Branagh, a famous Shakespearian actor dressed in appropriate period costume, stood triumphantly among top-hatted industrial capitalists as they directed the laboring masses.

But back across the Atlantic, a question reverberated all around: Is Kenneth Branagh supposed to be some sort of British Abe Lincoln?

Why couldn’t Americans figure out who Branagh was portraying, when in fact his character, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was perhaps one of the greatest Britons ever to have lived? Actually voted the second-greatest Briton of all time (beaten only by Churchill), Brunel has been honored numerous ways across the United Kingdom: Statues, postage, special edition coins of the pound sterling, etc.

In many ways, Brunel built modern Britain. Regarded as a great civil engineer, he helped build the world’s first underwater tunnel (the Thames Tunnel is still in use as part of the London Underground system), one of the world’s first metal suspension bridges (as well as many other innovative metal bridges), the Great Western Railway and the world’s first ironclad steamships capable of crossing the Atlantic.

Though his wide railroad gauge was eventually beaten by rival engineer George Stephenson’s standard gauge, Brunel is admired by the British people for his engineering prowess that built modern Britain. In a documentary on Brunel, host Jeremy Clarkson pointed out that if Britain built the modern world, and Brunel built Britain, then Brunel built the modern world.

Which raises the question: Why don’t Americans know who he was? It may be telling of a country where respect for the power and need of great infrastructural works hasn’t been heeded for quite some time, and where controversy follows every civil project on the basis of ideology rather than practicality. In contrast, the British invested their wealth into engineering projects from the London Underground and the network of railways that still connect the United Kingdom, to amazing feats like the Suez Canal. It’s best said by Sherlock Holmes: “What an industrious empire!”

And contemporary Britain still believes in the wisdom of infrastructure investment. Despite severe austerity measures, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and London’s Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson have backed billions of pounds in modernizing the Victorian railways that Brunel himself built, as well as the construction of new tunnels underneath London.

Infrastructure investment is, in a sense, a type of nation building. The Golden Spike at Promontory Point was not just a symbolic moment for an America still bleeding from the aftermath of the Civil War, but the beginning of an era of economic prosperity. Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, began construction of his country’s transcontinental railway as an attempt to seal the confederation and protect Canadian sovereignty against American expansionism.

Engineers like Brunel are the ones who are responsible for the tremendous growth of cities and their fortunes. Maybe it’s time that we start dreaming big again.

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Tags: infrastructurelondon

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