The influence of Brunel and the Stephensons.

London & North Western Railway engineers and navvies at Stockport, after having widened the Edgeley Viaduct around 1890.
Credit: National Railway Museum

From the outset the railway companies needed railway designers and builders who could combine new skills in civil, architectural and mechanical engineering on an unheard of scale.

They needed people who could fire the public imagination; men like Isambard Kingdom Brunel or George and Robert Stephenson. Driven by a passion for progress, their railways transcended mere utilitarian transport systems.

They needed men who could fire the public imagination

Brunel, for instance, created a new, broad gauge rail system suitable for high-speed rail travel.  It was punctuated by the spectacular architecture of his stations, tunnels and viaducts. But he envisaged his new Great Western Railway line from London to Bristol as merely the first stage in a journey all the way to New York, and designed a steamship to carry passengers across the Atlantic during the second stage of that journey.

George Stephenson was the archetypal self-made man. A rough and ready colliery engineer from north-east England, he overcame lowly birth and the opposition of the railways’ critics by sheer force of personality and technological genius. His son, Robert, was both a locomotive designer and civil engineer. He built pioneering engines at the works he founded in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and also executed massive civil engineering projects.

Faith in progress brought great authority to the men who made it possible and engineers, who as a professional group had once been regarded as ‘rude mechanicals’, forged a new, sometimes powerful caste deserving of respect.

Yet the engineers’ public profile declined as railways became commonplace and design came to rely on teamwork rather than the vision of one person. By the twentieth century the greatest public recognition was given to the railways’ chief mechanical engineers, because they were responsible for the design of the locomotives that could be seen at every station or engine shed.

Today, major construction projects and locomotive design are carried out by large teams of specialist civil and mechanical engineers. Unlike architects, engineers are virtually unrecognised by the general public, but their works speak for themselves.

Background: Class 87