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John Scott Russell (1808-1882)

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A groundbreaking naval architect
Known for

John Scott Russell.
View full size imageJohn Scott Russell. © NMM
In 1834, John Scott Russell made what he described as the most original observation of his life.  On seeing a boat being drawn along a narrow canal by a pair of horses he noticed that when it suddenly stopped, the bow wave continued forward at great velocity, rolling on for several miles at a speed of eight to nine miles per hour.  He was convinced that this was an important phenomenon and began to experiment in his garden with a wave tank, studying what he described as the ‘Wave of Translation’. 

His ideas were little understood by his contemporaries and it was not until the 1960s, when scientists began to use modern digital computers, that the significance of his discovery was fully appreciated. It was discovered that many phenomena in physics, electronics and biology can be described by a mathematical and physical theory of ‘Soliton’ as Scott Russell’s wave is now known.

Scott Russell conducted the first experimental study of the ‘Doppler Shift’ of sound frequency as a train passes.

Scott Russell helped to revolutionise 19th-century naval architecture, founding the Institute of Naval Architects and developing the ‘wave line’ system of hull construction

Port connection

The first launch, 3 November 1857.
View full size imageThe first launch, 3 November 1857. © NMM
Working with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Scott Russell designed the shape of the Great Eastern.  She was six times larger than any other previous ship, powered by a pair of paddle wheels, a screw propeller and six sails. 

Scott Russell designed the first iron-hulled, armour-plated frigate, HMS Warrior.  Her construction was seen as a revolution in the design of warships.

Interesting facts

It has recently become known that John Scott Russell attempted to negotiate peace during the American Civil War.

Not only did John Scott Russell, found the Institute of Naval Architects but also he developed a curriculum for technical education in Britain.

Life story
1808 Born in Parkhead, near Glasgow.
1825 Graduated from Glasgow University.
1832-1833 Following the death of John Leslie, he substituted for the Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University.
1837 Awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
1844 His ‘Report on Waves’ was published, and he moved to London with his wife and two children.
1849 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London.
1851 Helped plan the Great Exhibition.
1853 The 'Great Eastern' was laid down at his yard at Millwall.
1860s Faced a number of major setbacks, including disputes over armament contracts and the 'Great Eastern'; he suffered a serious breakdown and was expelled from the Institute of Civil Engineers.
1860 The 'Warrior' was launched from Thames Ironworks.
1865 Published his major work 'The Modern System of Naval Architecture'.
1873 Designed the Vienna Rotunda.
1882 Died in Ventnor on the Isle of Wight.

Find out more
Fact fileThe 'Great Eastern'
A giant steam ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
StoriesThe 'Great Eastern' as a passenger liner
The ship of the future?
StoriesThe 'Great Eastern' as a cable laying ship
Connecting the world
Fact fileIsambard Kingdom Brunel
One of the greatest engineers in history
GamesThe Great Eastern Quiz
Get 100% to see an animated London skyline (flash 6 player needed)
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory Greenwich New Opportunities Fund  
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