The flamboyant tunnellers

Tunnels are not a new response to traffic congestion. When Elon Musk created The Boring Company in 2016 and proposed tunnels as one way to transform city traffic, he was not the first to do so. Back in the early 1800s, the flamboyant French engineer Marc Isambard Brunel also promoted tunnels, and created a patented tunneling mechanism to build one under London’s Thames River.

Musk’s company says that “to solve the problem of soul-destroying traffic, roads must go 3D, which means either flying cars or tunnels are needed. Unlike flying cars, tunnels are weatherproof, out of sight, and won’t fall on your head. Tunnels minimize usage of valuable surface land and do not conflict with existing transportation systems. A large network of tunnels can alleviate congestion in any city; no matter how large a city grows, more levels of tunnels can be added.” 

I thought of Brunel and his Thames Tunnel when I read the latest Boring Company news. It has tunnelled 1.7 miles underneath the Las Vegas Convention Center in Nevada at a cost of about $47 million for two tunnels and three stations, and the Clark County Commissioners have just approved its plans “for 18 new stations and about 25 miles of tunnels” to further extend the Vegas Loop out from the Las #Vegas Strip corridor. 

The existing Loop system was built in about a year, with tunnelling happening during large conventions but with no road closures or conference disturbances, and reduces a 45 minute cross-campus walk time to approximately two minutes, the company says.

I first learned about Brunel’s tunnel some years ago when I went on a London Walk through the leafy suburb of Rotherhithe on the south side of the English capital. Rotherhithe is where the Mayflower set off for North America in 1620. It is also where you can find one end of the Thames Tunnel, once described as the eighth wonder of the world.

Stephen Craven, WIkimedia

It was an awkward climb then into the top part of the shaft that once wound down to the tunnel, carved out of the earth by something like a gigantic cookie cutter. A cement floor blocked it off from the subway trains, because since 1871, it has been a railway tunnel sans stairway. (In 2016, the Brunel Museum unveiled a Grand Entrance Hall so visitors will have a better idea of what the entrance once looked like.)

As I remember, our guide explained that the tunnel was originally intended to solve traffic congestion caused by the need to drive herds of cattle across bridges from the fields of Rotherhithe into the Port of London, but the approaching road entrances that were needed were never built. And each day, ferries carried 4,000 people across the Thames at Rotherhithe.

In the end, due to the immense difficulty and costs of building it, it became something else – a pedestrian crossing that at first was a tourist attraction, and then the railway tunnel that’s still in use today.

Completed in 1843 after almost two decades of work, the Thames Tunnel was the first tunnel ever constructed beneath a navigable river, using a special patented machine invented by Brunel, a French engineer who’d moved to England in 1799. 

It was quite a comeback for a man who was “as grandiose a developer as he was an engineer”. He had been sent to debtors’ prison in 1821 but three years later, the Duke of Wellington having extracted him, he formed a company to undertake the then radical project of tunnelling under a large river.

His patented ‘great shield’ was an iron structure with 36 one-man chambers which was driven into the earth as workers dug their way forward. Other workers followed, building the masonry supports for the tunnel. It was, says Wikipedia, a ‘revolutionary advance in tunnelling technology”.

But because the access ramps had not been built, it became a pedestrian walkway, costing a penny to visit. In stalls set in the brick arches of the tunnel, visitors could buy souvenirs, take refreshments, see information displays, and listen to a steam-powered organ. Queen Victoria even visited. The first day attracted 50,000 visitors and two million visited in the first nine months, and by 1865, 24 million pedestrians had walked through it. But revenues didn’t cover the construction costs, pay back the initial investors or the government’s 1834 loan.


While Brunel had developed the idea, it was his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who managed the project. And he was a gifted engineer who made “engineering larger than life,” as Engines of Our Ingenuity puts it. 

“With each project he expanded engineering technique beyond anything known or imagined. His crowning achievements were his steamships. In 1837 he built the paddle-driven Great Western, one of the first transatlantic steamboats in regular service.” His gigantic Great Eastern Ship never carried passengers but it had the “carrying capacity needed to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable.”

In 1991, the Thames Tunnel was designated as an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Institution of Civil Engineers.


The Brunel Museum website.

Engines of Our Ingenuity. University of Houston. “The Thames Tunnel”, episode 1791. Also see episodes 1405 and 1473 for more about the Brunels. 

Elon Musk and Gayle King test drive his new Boring Company tunnel. CBS Mornings, Dec, 19, 2018

Cover image by John Salmon, Brunel Museum.