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Words spoken by: David Evans ‘Brunel and Egypt’

“That, like an engine, wrench’d my frame of nature” King Lear Act 1 scene IV

It was perhaps inevitable that Isambard Kingdom Brunel (after IKB) would visit Egypt,  after all, that is where, somewhere around 60CE in Alexandria  a certain Greek called Hero or Heron invented the steam engine (Fig 1)  to open temple doors mystically and as a power source for the slot machine to dispense incense. (Woodcroft, 2009). Following Egyptological trends of the post Napoleonic era, the Clifton suspension bridge was planned with hieroglyphs telling the history of the construction and the towers were to be topped with sphinxes (Fig 2) It has been suggested  that IKB took his Egyptian inspiration from the temple of Hathor at Dendera (Curl 2005), however a probable source of this suggestion, a painting by David Roberts (now in the Bristol Museum) was not completed until 1841, and there are few, if any similarities between the temple and IKB’s designs.  Due to a massive over run in construction costs, funds ran out and the bridge was not completed until 1864 omitting the Egyptian decoration and  using the chains from the Hungerford bridge over the Thames in London, another IKB project.

Left Fig 1 Reconstruction of Hero’s steam engine made by Katie Crisalli. Photo from an article ( at the AFRL Propulsion Directorate website. Public Domain.  

 Fig 2 Drawing of Clifton Suspension Bridge-courtesy of the Brunel institute – a collaboration of the ss Great Britain and the University of Bristol.  Fig 3 Brunel statue Author’s own photo

IKB’s visit was not only an historical tour but was taken for health reasons. He had been seriously injured during the maiden voyage of his first steamship, the Great Western.  IKB and family sailed from Marseilles to Alexandria. He was impressed and writes in a letter to his sister, Lady Sophie Hawes, that he arrived in Egypt to “a continuation of the river, with distant islands shut in by mountains, of beautiful colours, some a lilac sandstone, some of the bright red yellow of the sands of the desert” (Brunel, 1870).

At Alexandria he met fellow engineer Robert Stephenson, son of George of rocket fame. IKB and his family spent Christmas day together. Brunel and the Stephensons had disagreed about the future of railways and steam in general, but IKB and Robert had become firm friends and even collaborators. Although the fact of the meeting is recorded the subject is not, perhaps they discussed plans for an improved pyramid! 

Fig 4 Khonsu Temple-Photo copywrite Chris Naunton

 To visit the monuments of Egypt IKB soon secured an iron river boat which he fitted out himself and travelled to Thebes. No visit to the Dendera Temple is mentioned but it is hard to believe that with his scientific interests IKB did not visit it. Arriving at Thebes where he visited temples and made extensive sketches, one in the Brunel Institute shows an accurate view of the Temple of Khonsu, within the main Karnak complex, a view which has hardly changed today (fig 4). Although extensive sketches are noted so far I have only located one – the search goes on! Soon after he moved on to the first cataract where his engineering and navigating skills came into their own. This time only a wooden boat would be effective and while in the south, he made extensive visits to Elephantine and Philae but again the records are silent as to his adventures and interactions with ancient Egypt. After a trip via Italy he returned to the UK by May 1859, he died shortly after, but I am sure there is much more to learn of his Egyptian story. A mystery remains: where are the other drawings IKB made in Egypt?


Brunel I (1870) “The Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel: Civil Engineer

 J S Curl (2005) “The Egyptian Revival: Ancient Egypt as the inspiration for Design Motifs in the West”

Ross D (2010) “George & Robert Stephenson: A Passion for success

Rolt T C (1957; revised edition (1989) “Isambard Kingdom Brunel”

Vaughan A (1991) “Isambard Kingdom BruneL; Engineering Knight Errant

Woodcroft B (editor) 2009, “The pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria”


Fig 1 Reconstruction of Hero’s steam engine made by Katie Crisalli – The photograph comes from an article ( at the AFRL Propulsion Directorate website, Public Domain

Fig 2 Drawing of Clifton Suspension Bridge-courtesy of the Brunel institute

Fig 3 Brunel statue Author’s own photo

Fig 4 Khonsu Temple-Photo copywrite Chris Nauntons

David Evans

David is a retired local government Historic Environment Officer and archaeologist with many interests including cricket, history and American Football. After school he had a varied career much of which involved archaeological field work. Entering university as a ‘mature’ student he gained a degree in Ancient History and Archaeology, becoming an expert in Nero and Roman vici. After university his work included writing, editing and publishing archaeological reports and pottery studies, later involved in the  world of planning archaeology and monument mapping. His interest in Egypt came late, and is eclectic, with particular interest in Horemheb, Seti I and the Greco-Roman period

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