Bristol looks back to inspire people 'in love with the impossible'
Financial Times: April 15 2006
By John Willman, Business Editor
Two hundred years after the birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Bristol is celebrating the achievements of the great engineer this weekend - with an eye to the future, as much as the past.
Brunel's work shaped much of the city, from the Clifton suspension bridge across the Avon gorge and the docks to the rail links with London and Cornwall and Temple Meads station.
His legacy is an important factor in Bristol's present success but the sponsors of the celebrations hope to reinforce the city's reputation as a good place for engineering businesses and creative industries.
"We want to inspire a new generation of Brunels who, like him, are in love with the impossible," said Andrew Kelly, director of Brunel 200, the organisation which is co-ordinating the celebrations.
Bristol's programme was launched last Sunday on the downs beside the suspens-ion bridge, the best-known image of the city.
Brass bands, choral music and a specially commissioned piece for 200 saxophones recreated the atmosphere at the bridge's original opening in 1864, followed by a fireworks display.
Today, the city's museum and art gallery launches an exhibition on Brunel and the art of invention, one of a series of exhibitions to mark the life of the man voted second only to Winston Churchill in a 2002 BBC poll to choose the greatest Briton.
There has also been a makeover for his SS Great Britain, the first iron-hulled,propeller-driven, steam, passenger liner.
A booklet on the management lessons of Brunel is to be published - highlighting the genius and weaknesses of a man whose projects rarely made money.
"He was not a good delegator," said Mr Kelly. "He tended to micro-manage every project - right down to designing the lamp-posts on Great Western stations.
"Yet he fought against opposition to his ideas, and designed structures that are as beautiful as they are efficient. The suspension bridge was built for horse and cart, yet it can still carry 1,200 motor vehicles every day 142 years after it was opened."
The biggest contributor to the celebrations is the Heritage Lottery Fund, which contributed £1.5m towards Brunel 200's £2.4m budget for Bristol and the south-west. Businesses sponsoring the organisation include Osborne Clark, the legal firm that advised Brunel on the creation of the Great Western Railway.
The GWR is now part of train operator First Great Western, which is also a sponsor. It renamed a locomotive after the engineer this week. Other events include a steam fair at Box in Somerset where Brunel created what was then the world's longest railway tunnel. A plaque will also be placed on the Saltash rail bridge built to link Devon and Cornwall across the Tamar estuary.
Another supporter is Business West, which represents local private sector interests. "Such events raise Bristol's profile for tourism and business," said Nigel Hutchings, its regional affairs director.
The city council says its £50,000 contribution has already been repaid in terms of increased tourism. But the biggest dividends will come from the enhanced image of Bristol for creative industries, where it is already an important centre.
"Brunel first recognised the strategic importance of Bristol and built infrastructure still used today," said the council's Simon Caplan. "Brunel 200 can help stren-gthen our reputation for innovation and engineering research and development."
Mr Hutchings said: "Interest in Bristol is considerable We have lost so much of our manufacturing base, yet we don't have high unemployment.
"We have attracted new inward investment because of our heritage - helped by the social and cultural aspects of living in the city stimulated by organisations such as Brunel 200."