What’s behind our name?

Map of Brunel's original Great Western Railway
Map of Brunel's original Great Western Railway

The short answer?

The Great Western Railway was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and it used a railway gauge – the width between tracks – that was seven feet apart – or 7 ft 1⁄4 in to be precise. Carriages had a lower centre of gravity, which meant they could be run faster, were more comfortable and were more reliable. Arguably, his system was designed to be more efficient. We applaud and mirror his quest; creating efficiency by challenging conventional thinking.

But that’s not the half of it.

I grew up in the belief that I was related to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, through marriage, not blood ancestry. The difference hardly mattered to me.

IKB is a leading figure in the Industrial Revolution in Britain – a great transitional period between 1760 and the 1840s. The Industrial Revolution marked the rapid growth of mechanisation, of steam power and the emergence of factories.

This is not a thesis about the man. Better have already been written.

All I know was that my father was a respected engineer. My grandfather was a protagonist in the trade union movement. And a distant relative was, “one of the most ingenious and prolific figures in engineering history.”

A quiet shadow loomed over me, cast by time and this great ancestry.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. We’re here to put a dent in the universe.”

In October 2011, Steve Jobs famously said, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

Last year, my best friend Simon died.

I had observed that, in his last years, he had found what I would describe as happiness. Contentment. He was part of a loving family, enjoyed the comfort of a home and had found a vocation he was genuinely passionate about – and very good at. The only thing we didn’t have was enough time to enjoy it.

In reflection, grief, I realised that I wasn’t going about leaving the right kind of dent doing what I was doing. Or any kind. The odd bruise here and there, more properly.To coin a phrase, I was living someone else’s life. I don’t want to dwell on it. I had a choice.

With Ian, I started Seven Feet Apart. We innovate to make a difference. We are building a company that makes a mark – and will leave a dent – by doing business better.

More than this perhaps, it’s about contributing to a future that is beautiful, engineered to be fair, caring and kind. One where the strong help the weaker, those with help those without.

How? We start with shoes. I love shoes. Ian loves shoes. Ian knows how to make shoes and distribute them. And I’m learning. Our shoes provide comfort in transportation, movement, and journeys. Journeys are exciting, be they quests, adventures or discoveries. Make enough shoes – no, sell enough shoes – and we can generate the stuff of change. Jobs, opportunities, yes, money. Sell shoes and we can do amazing things. Build, support, nurture and educate, all as part of our communities, not removed from it by success.

I have absolutely no doubt this is going to happen.

Great western Railway map
Marc Brunel patents for mechanised shoe making.

After naming our business, my wife booked for me to visit an obscure museum on the banks of the Thames. The Brunel Thames Tunnel Museum. It was to be the world’s first underwater road tunnel. Three months after the opening of ‘the Eighth Wonder’, it was the most visited tourist attraction in the world.

It was designed and built by my ancestor.

We listened to a brief presentation by a flustered, late-running museum curator. He apologised for suggesting he would sell books at the end. I thought it might be a nice keepsake. My wife, never a shrinking violet, went straight over to him after his tale to ask if he might help illuminate some gloomy parts of my family tree. When explained why – and why it matter – he shirked with delight and scurried off to his library, only to return with copies of ancient documents.

“Young man”, he said, “Marc Brunel, Isambard’s father, is a part of your story!” and with that, he handed over patent papers. One was for a machine that had been built to aid the efficient production of sailboat pulleys. One of the first machines, ever.

The other was for mechanised shoe and boot construction.

Sometimes I’ve been asked, “Why shoes?”

Now you know.