While writing yesterday’s post on Adolphe Valette, I came across a photo that stopped me in my tracks. It was a photo by early British photographer Robert Howlett of a man in stovepipe hat and dress of the 1850’s standing in front of an immense spool of chain comprised of links that were a couple of feet in length. The man’s hands were jammed in his pockets and a cigar jutted from the corner of his mouth as he leaned in a jaunty manner against the chain. This man had confidence. And rightfully so.
His name was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a name that I was sure I hadn’t heard before because I would certainly have remembered it. But my ignorance of the name couldn’t hide the achievements of the man. Born in 1806, Brunel was a n engineer who designed and built some of the great structures and projects of his age. He designed and built numerous bridges and tunnels, built and innovated railroads and engineered some of the greatest ships of that era. The photo above is of him in front of the launching chains for the ship The Great Eastern. At first named Leviathan, The Great Eastern was the biggest of its time, over 700′ in length and with a capacity of over 4000 passengers. Although a commercial failure as a passenger ship after its launch in 1860, it was used for laying trans-Atlantic cables and remained the largest sea-going vessel for over 40 years. The great photo below, also by Robert Howlett, is a wide shot of the Great Eastern being built.
I think that both of these photos are remarkable images, perfect documents of the scale and power of the Industrial Age. The cocky confidence of Brunel as he stands dwarfed by the great chains and the huge ship towering above the ant-like workers represent to me our ability to do great things. Big things. To see possibility and find solutions to the hurdles that stand between us and that possibility. It’s a quality that I sometimes feel is lacking today for most of us. We could all use a little of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s vision and confidence.