Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame

Great Eastern

The SS Great Eastern hand coloured lithograph from a painting by Charles Parsons, 1858

John Scott Russell (1808-1882), naval architect, shipbuilder

John Scott Russell

John Scott Russell’s great legacy is his contribution to Naval Architecture and fluid dynamics. On commencing his career, ship design was largely an art form supported by empirical data, but from his contributions - amongst others - it became an exact engineering science ensuring that the performance and safety characteristics of ships could be designed with a high degree of certainty. His work on solitons has helped to advance fluid dynamics and subsequently fibre optic data transmission. The Institution that he founded is still flourishing after 168 years of advancing the science of Naval Architecture i.e. Royal Institute of Naval Architects.

Steam Carriages: While in Edinburgh John Scott Russell experimented with steam engines, using a square boiler and developing a method of staying the boiler which became universal. The Scottish Steam Carriage Company was formed producing steam carriages of 12 horsepower each. Six were constructed in 1834, fitted out to a high standard and they ran between Glasgow and Paisley at hourly intervals at 15 mph. Two of the coaches were sent to London where they ran between London and Greenwich.

Naval Architecture: John Scott Russell will be best remembered for bringing science to naval architecture through the investigation and development of theories. He was a major contributor to the design of several ground breaking ships, including the Great Eastern. He argued with the Navy in favour of the construction of iron ships, leading ultimately to the construction of HMS Warrior. He researched the hydrodynamics of waveforms impacting ship resistance and developed the Wave Line system which revolutionised ship design from the bluff bow forms to the concave bow lines of clipper ships and later steam ships.

He conducted experiments to determine the most efficient design for canal boats and discovered a phenomenon that he described as the ‘wave of translation’. He researched this in wave tanks built in his own home. In fluid dynamics this is now called ‘Russell’s solitary wave’ - or a ‘soliton’. In the 1960’s with the advent of modern computers the significance of his discovery became better understood and used in the fields of physics, electronics, biology and especially fibre optics, leading to the modern general theory of solitons.

In 1864 he published a 3-volume treatise on The Modern System of Naval Architecture which included the profiles of many modern ships being built at that time. Shipbuilding: He was employed at the small Greenock shipyard of Thomson and Spiers from around 1838. Here he introduced his Wave Line system and other innovations to the ships, including a series of Royal Mail ships. In 1848 he moved to London and purchased the Millwall Iron Works Shipbuilding Company. Here he built ships for several owners. This included Brunel with ships built for the Australia route. Brunel then made him a partner in his project to build the Great Eastern, which incorporated many of Russell’s design features and construction techniques.

Civil Engineering He designed the Rotunde for the 1873 Vienna Exposition. At 108 metres in diameter it was for nearly a century the largest cupola in the world, having no ties to obstruct the view. Professional Associations: Much of Russell’s work had been conducted under the auspices of the British Association and throughout his life he contributed to the scientific and professional associations that were becoming more important in that era. In 1844, the railway boom was at its height. Russell had contributed an article on the steam engine and steam navigation for the 7th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1841 which also appeared in book form. He became the secretary of a committee set up by the Royal Society of Arts to organise a national exhibition in 1847. This and two subsequent exhibitions were such a success that an international version was held, with Russell as the appointed secretary for the Great Exhibition of 1851. He was awarded a Gold Medal for this work.

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