A competition in 1829, judged by Thomas Telford rejected all the entries except his own, a decision which proved very unpopular. Again in 1830 another competition was arranged and the winner was Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Aged just 24 his job was to bridge the Avon Gorge his first commission. After many issues with finances the bridge remained unfinished for years even up to his death in 1859. Brunel's colleagues though at the Institute of Civil Engineers, decided to raise the necessary funds themselves and complete the bridge. It was felt that it would be a fitting memorial to the great man himself.
The design by Brunel was revised by William Henry Barlow and Sir John Hawkshaw, so that it was wider, higher and more sturdy and to use triple chains instead of double.
In London, Brunel's Hungerford Suspension Bridge was being demolished and so the chains were put aside and taken to Bristol for the Clifton Bridge. These chains are still in place to this day and a plaque was commissioned commemorating his design.
Modern analysis of the chain links shows that the 4,200 links have been designed almost perfectly to be lightweight and yet offer maximum strength. It is not just the chains that were designed for lightness but also the 26m tall (85ft) abutment on the Leigh Woods side of the gorge. In 2002 it was discovered that the solid looking abutment is in fact 12 vaulted chambers up to 11m (35ft) tall which were linked by a system of tunnels and shafts.
This method of building has been used since as early as 2000 BC by the Mesopotamians and is known for its strength.
Initially, the bridge was designed to allow pedestrians and carts to cross and the deck was originally wooden planks. Today, the deck is asphalt and this is the only change to the bridge and transports around 4 million cars per year.
During the 1930's when flying was a fast evolving sport, dare-devil pilots would fly their biplanes beneath but as planes got faster this proved too dangerous. In 1957 Flying Officer John Greenwood was killed while performing a victory roll beneath the bridge in his Vampire jet, but crashed into Leigh Woods killing him instantly.
As with all high structures they become a focus for suicide. It is said that in 1822 a 22 year old lady named Sarah Ann Henley jumped from the bridge but her many layers of skirts acted as a parachute preventing her death. Today, the 'Suicide Bridge' as it has become to be known has a plaque with a phone number for the Samaritans. In 1998 barriers were installed to try and prevent this type of thing from happening as well as to try and stop BASE jumping.