Thursday, April 03, 2008




24 Hour Museum
April 03, 2008

Isambard Kingdom Brunel is often credited as being the first man to master many of the engineering innovations that fuelled Britain’s industrial revolution. Now, it seems, Portland cement can be added to the list.

Archaeologists working on the site of Brunel’s Great Western Dockyard development next to Brunel’s ss Great Britain, have discovered what is thought to be the first ever substantial use of Portland cement in the construction of a major building.

As part of their work archaeologists uncovered the floor plan of the massive 20 by 50 metre Steam Ship Engine ‘Factory’, a building that survived until it was bombed during the Second World War.

A newly-unearthed Portland cement floor slab comprising of a continuous slab of concrete, up to 400mm thick, has been identified as an aggregate of Portland cement and broken-up stones. The building it supported was constructed in 1839, under the aegis of the great Victorian engineer, to house the machinery which fabricated the world’s first screw-propelled iron ship, the ss Great Britain.

Archaeologists believe that Brunel and colleagues realised the potential of the new material, and were keen to try it out on the new building in Bristol, some four years before it was being officially marketed as ‘Patented Portland Cement’.

The discovery came to light when the BBC Coast presenter and Bristol University academic Dr Mark Horton investigated archaeologists’ findings whilst on a visit to the ship to discuss Bristol University's role within the ‘Brunel Institute’ being built on the site.

“I was amazed to see an enormous expanse of cement floor – part of a floor built significantly earlier than when cement was first meant to have been used,” said Dr Horton.

“We already associate Brunel with a long list of world firsts, but now we can add cement to this. His genius lay in identifying the revolutionary materials that built the modern world.”

While concrete has been known from Roman times, all modern concrete structures owe their origins to the invention of Portland cement in 1824 by Joseph Aspdin. This substance, initially produced on a very small scale, was called Portland cement because of its similarity to stone.

Wessex Archaeology have been working on behalf of the ss Great Britain Trust and Linden Homes, who are building the new Brunel archive and library together with apartments at the dockyard, which was largely destroyed by bombing during World War Two.

The Brunel Institute recently received a £640,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to develop the Brunel Institute Conservation Learning Trust. It will include many items that date back to the 19th century and will house several large collections of rare and historic photographs, books and papers relating to maritime history and archaeology.

The first phase of new apartments will be launched in spring 2008.

Brunel's ss Great Britain, Bristol
Great Western Dock, Gas Ferry Road, Bristol, BS1 6TY, England
T: 0117 926 0680

Open: The ship is open every day except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. 10am to 6.00pm, April - October (Last entry 5.00pm) 10am to 4.30pm, November - March (Last entry 3.30pm)


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