Brunel project: Looking for the gen on Isambard Kingdom

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The Independent Online
Search for Brunel

My first search was suggested by a parent without a computer, who had sat up half the night marking passages in a biography of Isambard Kingdom Brunel that might be useful for her 10-year-old's history project. "The only other material we could find was some sketchy notes in old encyclopaedias," she explained. "There was no way he could read through a full biography."

Encarta CD-Rom, 9/10. I can see why it is served up undigested, because it does the job very well. There were pictures of his major projects, which were all described in a clear, 1,200-word essay, complete with vivid details such as a description of the long railway tunnel designed so that on his birthday each year the sun shone right through it.

Encarta on-line, 7/10. No links to any other Web sites dealing with Brunel, but a couple of useful articles in the library. One from the American Scientist giving a modern perspective on engineers and a long (5,000-word), colourful and detailed feature from the Smithsonian that told you all about his ship the Great Eastern.

World Book CD-Rom, 3/10. A 300-word entry of the sort that drove my original parent to her biography. Possibly OK for early primary school.

World Book on-line, 0/10. Eleven entries, all hopeless. For instance, an article from New Statesman about Dyson's vacuum cleaner (he was a fan of Brunel), the date of the launch of the Great Western, an entry from Colliers Encyclopaedia that was even less informative than the World Book.

The Web, 8/10. A search engine threw up 10 hits. One was a bizarre but wonderful 11-verse ode to Brunel which began: "Let me tell you of Isambard Kingdom Brunel/ Little Giant he stood under five foot four/ And smoked on the finest Tirincomalee cigars."

Many of the words provided links to other sites. One of them, for instance, gave a good account of his life, which in turn linked to a site entitled "London's Early Sewers", which had a fascinating essay, including details on the "great stink" of 1858 that led to Brunel being asked to draw up a plan to drain London. The word "Tirincomalee" led to a Sri Lankan tourist site, complete with a downloadable version of the national anthem.

Another of the hits led to a complete buff's site devoted to Brunel's ship the Great Eastern, with lists for collectors and a link to the Great Western railroad that Brunel designed. Other hits included "The Brunel Collection" at Brunel university - "Warning: many students have their own pages and the university does not guarantee the accuracy of any information."

Another search engine threw up a site run by Cable & Wireless that had a detailed and useful teachers' pack on Brunel, complete with recommended books, places to visit, etc.

Conclusion: highly worthwhile. A combination of all three sources would have yielded enough information for the most conscientious pupil. The Web works best when you are looking for something specific. However, you do need to be quite quick at reading to be able to follow all the links and then scan documents to see whether they are worth downloading. The total time taken here was about two hours.


Anyone much younger than A-level would have given up on the on- line stuff early on. "Volcanoes" is just the sort of broad topic the Web does badly. There's just too much information, some of it poorly indexed and most of it far too specialised and academic to be useful for a schoolchild. I tried some more narrow searches using phrases from the curriculum, such as "boundaries of the crustal plates", and "causes of volcanic eruptions", but that threw up stuff that was even more unusable. On the other hand, if the project had been on Montserrat it would have found lots of good material on offer, with both vivid descriptions and scientific data.

While eight- or nine-year-olds could probably find basic material on the CD-Roms, pursuing Web searches would need parental hand-holding until the age of 15 or 16. Even then, the task of collating the information would be quite challenging. The time taken for this task was about three hours.