Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Coin

Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Coin

Since I'm currently travelling on a train on the First Great Western network it seems a fitting place to write an article about the founder of its predecessor, the Great Western Railway. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was an engineer who improved rail networks with groundbreaking designs for tunnels and bridges. His work on ships was also extensive including designing perhaps the most famous steamship in the world, the SS Great Britain which led the way to making sails themselves obsolete. He was perhaps the archetype of an industrial revolutionist.

 Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

While he had many close shaves with death there is one which I find particularly interesting. On the 3rd April 1843 he was preforming a magic trick to his children where he tried to make a sovereign coin disappear from his mouth and reappear in his ear. However it accidentally fell into his windpipe and got lodged there. He could still breath, but there was a pain in his chest; slight enough that he was not sure if he had actually swallowed it instead. He waited 15 days for it to pass through his body before he gave up on the theory that it was in his digestive tract.

Brunel looked at it as an engineering problem. At first he tried strapping himself upside down to some chairs and he designed a machine that would repeatedly hit him on the back. I love the Dr Seuss-ness of this image. The coin was resting at the bottom of his bronchi and upon the work of gravity they made their way to the top of the windpipe promptly blocking the air flow. After much coughing and spluttering the those in attendance stepped in and stopped the machine. The plan was deemed a failure and they had to turn to biological means.

By the 25th April a doctor, Sir Benjamin Brodie was brought in for a tracheotomy. His windpipe was sliced and the doctor and his assistant tried to remove the coin using foreceps. However after two attempts at the procedure they were unsuccessful and they had left enough damage on the neck that it was life threatening to attempt it again. However they left a piece of pipe to keep the tracheotomy hole open while Brunel recovered.

Finally on the 13th May Brunel decided to try his upside down hitting method again. Once gain he was strapped up and the whacking dislodged the coin from the lungs. It made its way towards the top of the windpipe again, but this time as the coin sealed the throat he was still able to breath through the hole in his neck. The body still reacted with convulsions and coughing, but he was able to stay alive. Finally the coin came free producing a clinking on his teeth which Brunel described as perhaps the most exquisite moment of his life.

This six week ordeal was well known throughout Britain and there are reports of people running down the streets shouting "it's out!" 

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Ring and Chain Trick

Ring and Chain Trick