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John Scott Russell FRSE FRS (9 May 1808 – 8 June 1882)

Adapted from his obituary (unknown source, possibly The Times, London)

We regret to announce the death of Mr. Scott Russell, the engineer, which took place on Thursday morning at Ventnor, in the Isle of Wight, in the 75th year of his age. John Scott Russell, according to Engineering, was the eldest son of the Rev. David Russell, a Scottish clergyman. He was born in the Vale of Clyde in the year 1808, and was originally destined for the Church. His great predelection for mechanics and other natural sciences induced his father to allow him enter a workshop, to learn the handicraft of the profession of an engineer. He subsequently studied at the Universities of Edinburgh, St Andrews, and Glasgow, and graduated at the latter at the early age of sixteen.

He had attained to such a proficiency in the knowledge of the natural sciences that on the death of Sir John Leslie, Professor of Natural Philosophy in Edinburgh, in 1832, the young Scott Russell, though then only 24 years of age, was elected to fill the vacancy temporarily, pending the election of a permanent professor. About this time he commenced his famous researches into the nature of waves, with the view to improving the forms of vessels. His first paper on this subject was read before the British Association in 1835. The interest created by this paper was so great that a committee was appointed by the association to carry on the experiments at their expense. The Committee consisted of Sir John Robinson, secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and Mr. Scott Russell himself as reporter. The report, which is of a most exhaustive character, is published in the seventh volume of the "Transactions of the British Association." Mr. Scott Russell discovered during these researches the existence of the wave of translation and developed the wave-line system of construction of ships in connexion with which his name is now so widely known. In 1837 he read a paper before the Royal Society of Edinburgh, of which institution he had some years previously been elected a member, "On the Laws by which water opposes resistance to the motion of floating bodies." For this paper he received the large gold medal of the society and was elected a member of its council. The first vessel on the wave system was called the Wave, and was built in 1835; it was followed in 1836 by the Scott Russell, and in 1839 by the Flambeau and Fire King.

Mr. Scott Russell was employed at this time as manager of the large shipbuilding establishment at Greenock, now owned by Messrs. Caird and Co. In this capacity he succeeded in having his system employed in the construction of the new fleet of the West India Royal Mail Company, and four of the largest and fastest vessels - viz, was the Teviot, the Tay, the Clyde, and the Tweed - were built and designed by himself. In 1844 Mr. Scott Russell removed to London. In 1847 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and member of the institution of Civil Engineers, of which body he was for some time a vice-president. He for a short time occupied the post of the secretary of the Society of Arts, which place he resigned to become joint secretary with Sir Stafford Northcote of the Great Exhibition of 1851. He was, in fact, one of the three original promoters of the Exhibition, and under the direction of the late Prince Consort took a leading part in organizing it. Mr. Scott Russell was for many years known as a shipbuilder on the Thames. The most important work he ever constructed was the Great Eastern steamship, which he contracted to build for a company of which the late Mr. Brunel was the engineer. The Great Eastern, whatever may have been her commercial failings, was undoubtedly a triumph of technical skill. She was built on the wave-line system of shape, and was constructed on the longitudinal double skin principle, which also was invented by Mr. Scott Russell. It is not necessary now to refer to this ship in any detail. In spite of the recent advances made in the size of vessels, the Great Eastern, which was built more than a quarter century ago, remains much the largest ship in existence, as also one of the strongest and lightest built in proportion to tonnage. The paddle engines and boilers of this vessel were also made and designed by Mr. Scott Russell.

Mr. Scott Russell was one of the earliest and most active advocates of ironclad men-of-war, and he has the merit of having been the joint designer of our first sea-going armoured frigate, the Warrior. His last work in naval construction was the steamer on the Lake of Constance, which carries railway trains between the termini of the German and Swiss railway systems on the opposite shores of the lake.

Mr. Scott Russell was one of the founders of the Institution of Naval Architects, and was one of its vice-presidents from the date of its constitution down to the day of his death. Though perhaps best known as a naval architect, Mr. Scott Russell was an active worker in other fields of engineering science. In early life he took a great interest in steam locomotion on ordinary roads, and while at Greenock he constructed a steam coach which ran for some time successfully between Greenock and Paisley. The springs of this steam carriage and the manner in which the machinery adapted itself to the inequalities of the road were triumphs of ingenuity. His greatest engineering work was without doubt the vast dome of the Vienna Exhibition of 1873. This dome is, among roofs, what the Great Eastern is to ships, its clear span of 360 ft. being by far the largest in the world. It will be probably the most enduring monument of its designer's fame and ability. The last engineering work which Mr. Scott Russell ever designed was a high-level bridge to cross the Thames below London-bridge. It was intended to cross the river with a span of 1,000 ft. and to allow of a passage beneath it for the largest ships.

Mr.Scott Russell contributed largely to the literature of his profession. In addition to the numerous papers which he read before scientific societies, he wrote the section on the steam-engine and steam navigation in a former edition of the "Encyclopedia Britannica." He was also the author of the large work on naval architecture entitled the "Modern System of Naval Architecture for Commerce and War," and of a work on "Systematic Technical Education for the English People." Mr. Scott Russell was one of the last links connecting our time with the great era of engineering at the early part of the century, and his loss cannot but be keenly felt by all who knew him.


Revised: 31 March 2012