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Director’s Diary: Difference Engines and Steam Engines

Brunel built steam engines, so how appropriate he is named Isambard, meaning ‘man of iron’. Even more appropriate, his friend Babbage – troublesome neighbour and fractious supporter – is remembered for a computer which he called a ‘Difference Engine’. Brunel is known for his eccentric detractors like Dionysus Lardner, but his friends and supporters were also flamboyant figures. Babbage was constantly at war with noisy street traders and hawkers, whom he sued or physically attacked or both. If there was disagreement to be found, Babbage could be relied upon. He could nose out disharmony and difference where all sides thought they were in agreement. He was a great champion of lost causes. Many put the ultimate victory of Stephenson’s Standard Gauge down to the fact that Babbage was a tireless champion of Brunel’s Broad Gauge.

Brunel built railways in Italy, here in Piemonte, with the help of  Babbage. Not Charles Babbage, mathematician, but his young nephew. Brunel’s friendship with Babbage led to complications in Italy. A rival company, bidding for the Piemonte railway contract, lured Babbage’s nephew from Brunel’s employ with mouth watering terms. A fatherly Brunel urged him not to leave for what was probably a ‘spoiler’, but the young man would not listen. Two months later, contract terminated, a sheepish young Babbage asked for a meeting and Brunel gave him his job back. Brunel was a strict employer who prized loyalty highly and did not suffer fools gladly, so his indulgence of his friend’s young nephew is rather uncharacteristic. His ringing rebuke on another occasion to another young draughtsman: You have wasted more of my time than the whole of your life is worth.


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