Thursday, December 05, 2002

Every now and then, someone in Britain publishes a book or makes a TV program which extoles the virtues of some Briton who did something important. A few years ago, Dave Sobel wrote the book Longitude, which told the story of John Harrison, who in the 18th century succeeded in producing watches robust enough and accurate enough that mariners could then determine their longitude. (Longitude is hard, as you must know both the time and the position of the stars. Latitude is easy, because you can do it with the stars alone). People bought this book in huge numbers, and Harrison's achievements are now consequently quite well known. (Harrisons clocks and watches can today be seen in the Greenwich Observatory, which is well worth a visit, also because Greenwich is an extremely nice spot, with a large park including the observatory surrounding the hill, and a nice view.

The one good thing to have come out of the BBC's recent effort to find the Greatest Briton is Jeremy Clarkson's superb documentary about Isambard Brunel. He isn't the greatest ever Briton, but the British are much more aware of what he did than they were a couple of months ago. You hear his name being mentioned in the media and other contexts now. (How long this will last, remains to be seen). For now though, his is great. Just this morning I was on a train approaching London Bridge from the south-east. There was a rather well spoken English chap sitting near me, having a conversation with a couple of travelling companions. He was talking about the various buildings nearby, and how warehouses were being refitted as residential property, and how Dickens had once worked in one of the arches of the railway to Greenwich etc. He mentioned that he had been through the Rotherhithe tunnel, which had been built by "Brunel" in 1840.

I was very tempted to pipe up that there were actually two Brunels: and the tunnel , which was the first tunnel in the world to be built under a navigable waterway, was actually built by Marc Brunel, not Isambard. (While Marc Brunel was an important engineer, he was nowhere near as important as his son, which is why if you just say "Brunel" you are referring to Isambard). However, this is England and you don't do this. (If you are in London and are going to Greenwich to see the observatory, it is well worth going through the tunnel, however. To do this, you have to go on the East London Line of the underground, which is orange on Harry Beck's famous map.

No comments:

Blog Archive