Scientists created 'Transkribus' robot to decipher the notoriously bad handwriting of Isambard Kingdom Brunel as they attempt to discover his secrets

Naomi Larsson

He may have been one of Britain’s most prolific engineers, but Isambard Kingdom Brunel had notoriously terrible handwriting. 

Now researchers are hoping a transcription software will help decode his “almost impossible to read” handwriting, and uncover hidden secrets about the man behind the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge. 

The SS Great Britain Trust has tens of thousands of pages from Brunel’s diaries and letters, but his script is barely legible and reading them is an incredibly laborious process, researchers say. 

The team has now designed a computer programme that scans Brunel’s documents and learns to decipher his handwriting, in the hope they’ll reveal more about the Victorian engineer’s personality. 

The AI software ‘Transkribus’ was developed by the University of Innsbruck in partnership with University College London, and it can now read Brunel’s handwriting with 65% accuracy.

Dominic Rowe, PR and marketing manager for the SS Great Britain Trust, said the handwritten artefacts could “deepen our understanding of the way he thought, who he was, and the way he worked”.

He said: “There are things we would like to know more about him as a person… in the tone in which he responds to things around him, or how he felt when he was working on projects.

A page from Isambard Kingdom Brunel's notes showing his famously scrawly handwriting

“As a British icon, he is known as being quite ruthless and really hardworking, but we know there was anxiety that he felt about projects he worked on. We are always trying to find out who the guy was behind the top hat.”

Transkribus learns to recognise an individual’s handwriting by sourcing examples that have already been correctly transcribed. The software needs at least 15,000 words of Brunel’s handwriting to make sense of it. 

The SS Great Britain Trust has a large collection of Brunel’s artefacts, totalling 65,000 objects, including many letters. Handwritten artefacts go through a time-consuming process of transcription by at least two volunteers; if there are any disagreements over accuracy, a third individual will decide which interpretation is more likely. 

Nick Booth, head of collections at the Trust, told the BBC the Transkribus program has “hugely sped up the process and we're learning new bits about his life; there's so much potential to unlock.”

Booth said the team is currently testing the software on one of Brunel’s diaries. 

“We're only just starting to experiment as to what this software can achieve and what secrets this could unlock,” he said.