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The world is going through an industrial revolution. Everything we know and take for granted is under threat and looks set for radical change. The previous captains of industry appear powerless to harness the hitherto unthought of technological wonders which every new week brings. Against this backdrop of uncertainty and turmoil, a few individuals stand tall and have a prophet like ability to navigate the turbulent waters, building new industrial empires which span multiple fields and one master of publicity is head and shoulders above them all.

A workaholic, his projects have yet to make to the large profits they promise and even run at staggering losses. However, investors still flock to pour money in at every opportunity and his dream to take humanity where it has never been before brings crowds of admirers from around the globe and mass media attention.

I think you all know who I’m talking about by now: Isambard Kingdom Brunel the 18th century engineer, visionary and a personal childhood hero. But yes, I will you grant there is a striking similarity to a certain Elon Musk. As any historian will tell you, history keeps repeating itself so what other parallels can be drawn and lessons learnt from comparing the two?

Clifton Suspension Bridge

They both started young. Brunel was only 23 when he designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Musk only a year older when he dropped out of Stanford to start Zip2.

Lesson 1: Do make room for new thinking in an established market

Transport is strongly associated with both men. Brunel wanted the Great Western Railway to be fastest, most comfortable in the world. To do this, he went against all established practice and instigated broad gauge – setting the rails 7ft ¼in apart vs the rest of the counties 4ft 8 ½in. The trains worked great, but it doesn’t take a world leading engineer to work out what happened when the GWR met another company’s line. Musk’s transport for the ‘masses’, Tesla, has a similar problem. While the cars run on the same roads they need a different ‘fuelling’ infrastructure. Here Musk has learnt, through deployment of his own network of dedicated charger, many at existing service stations and car parks. What’s more, by making these exclusive to Tesla owners, he is creating a barrier to entry for potential rivals. 

Lesson 2: Do plan for compatibility with legacy systems

When the SS Great Western launched in 1837 she was the largest and fastest passenger ship afloat. Critics said she was too big and would fail in service. When Musk introduced the Falcon 9 and its planned main stage recovery, he received a similar response. Both learnt lessons from these projects and again their confidence was rewarded when they pushed further, with the SS Great Britain and the Falcon Heavy.

Lesson 3: Do use your successes to fuel further innovation

SS Great Britain

Brunel’s next ship, the SS Great Eastern, was the one that arguably broke him. The biggest ship the world had ever seen by far, costs forced her to be launched sideways down a river bank, rather than from the intended traditional dock. The process took three months and severely damaged his reputation. Based upon SpaceX’s history of meeting deadlines, it’s safe to say the Mar’s destined BFR will make service more than 3 months behind schedule. With the reduction to a 9m main diameter from the original planned 12m so they can use existing factories, Musk has learnt from his predecessor.

Lesson 4: Do plan for manufacturing and implementation of a product from the outset

One of Brunel’s now lesser known projects is the atmospheric railway on the south coast. This saw a rolling stock run with a piston in a central pipe, which allowed a vacuum to suck them along. It was clean and quiet (no sooty steam trains needed), but unfortunately the sealing proved too difficult to maintain and it was abandoned after a year’s operations. Musk’s Hyperloop will have to overcome similar issues if it will run for more than a year. 

Lesson 5: Do identify, assess and mitigate risks fully

All of which brings me to my final parallel between the two:

Lesson 6: Everyone loves a good hat

Stuart Watson
Principal Engineer

I am a chartered engineer within the Analytical Engineering group, where I get to work on a wide range of interesting projects. Prior to joining Cambridge Consultants, I spent several years engineering mechanisms for spacecraft and also have experience in mass production.