Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s handwriting is being decoded by computer

Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s ‘impossible to read’ handwriting is being decoded by computer in bid to to decipher his diaries

  • Computer is becoming proficient and can read 65 per cent of Brunel’s words
  • The software program has been designed by University of Innsbruck and UCL
  • Deciphering engineer’s diaries had become too time consuming for researchers

A computer is helping to decipher Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s ‘almost impossible to read’ handwriting. The engineer is pictured

A computer is helping to decode the ‘almost impossible to read’ handwriting of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

A software program has been designed to decipher the great engineer’s diaries and documents because the work has become too time consuming for researchers at the SS Great Britain Trust.

The computer is becoming proficient and can read 65 per cent of Brunel’s words, providing insight into the work and theories of the 19th century engineer best known for designing the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol.

A Trust spokesman said: ‘Brunel’s handwriting style is particularly tricky; although elegant and beautiful, it is almost impossible to read. 

‘By teaching the software to read handwritten artefacts, collections can be deciphered.’

SS Great Britain has around 65,000 pieces of Brunel memorabilia. 

Instead of checking each in triplicate – as happened under the old system – Transkribus Artificial Intelligence software has built a profile of Brunel’s handwriting. 

The program, designed by the University of Innsbruck with University College London, needs a minimum of 15,000 words of transcribed handwriting to work.

‘We now excitedly await the outcome of our first upload,’ said the spokesman.

The Transkribus Artificial Intelligence software, designed by the University of Innsbruck with University College London, needs a minimum of 15,000 words of transcribed handwriting (a page of Brunel’s notes pictured) to work

SS Great Britain has a vast collection of Brunel memorabilia, totalling 65,000 objects, including many letters.

Originally to decipher the documents, each one is read by a volunteer then a second checks it to see if they agree. If there are any disagreements, a third will check to clarify.

The spokesperson said: ‘A range data compiled from within our collection, has been sent off to the Transkribus team and we now excitedly await the outcome of our first upload.

‘Once our initial profile of Brunel is built, we will then continue to refine the process by feeding it more and more Brunel data.

‘Even if Transkribus can successfully decipher just a small portion of a document, it has the potential to save numerous hours of work at the Brunel Institute, ensuring that our knowledge of Brunel can quickly grow richer and deeper.

‘We hope that in time, Transkribus will be a daily aid for the Brunel Institute, and that it can help us to continue sharing our incredible research with the world.’

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