Russell, John Scott 1808 - 1882

Scottish; British

(1808-1882), naval architect

John Scott Russell was born on the 8th May 1808 at Parkhead, near Glasgow. At the age of twelve he began to study for the church at St Andrews University but a year later he matriculated at Glasgow University, where his interests became increasingly scientific and he was awarded his MA in 1825. He moved to Edinburgh and took several teaching posts, including a temporary appointment to carry out the duties of the professor of natural philosophy in 1832.

In 1834 Russell designed and built six large steam carriages which cruised at 14 m.p.h., carrying twenty-six passengers and a crew of three. They ran for a short time between Glasgow and Paisley and were said to be very comfortable but, following continual opposition and an accident, they were soon withdrawn. At the same time Russell was working for a company operating a passenger service on the canal between Edinburgh and Glasgow. His first paper, to the British Association in 1835, showed how the wave of translation could be used to reduce the resistance of barges moving fast in a restricted waterway. In the course of his canal work he had built four experimental vessels of differing form to test his theory. It was not until the mid-1960's when applied scientists began to use modern digital computers to study nonlinear wave propagation that the soundness of Russell's early ideas began to be appreciated.

In 1838 he became a manager at Caird's engine works in Greenock. During this time, he designed several ships on his wave-line theory which were engined by Caird. His fame was growing and in 1841 he was invited to write the section on shipbuilding for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. There seemed little prospect of advancement in the family firm of Caird and in 1844 Russell moved to London as editor of the Railway Chronicle. In 1847 Russell and partners had taken over the old Fairbairn shipyard at Millwall on the River Thames, which took up an increasing amount of time particularly from 1851, when he took sole control of the yard. In 1850 he designed a yacht, Titania, for Robert Stevenson, which went on to be defeated by the America to inaugurate the America's Cup.

Russell was elected FRS in 1849 and he was a member of council (and sometime vice-president) of both the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. In the autumn of 1859, he held a small dinner party which led to the formation of the Institution of Naval Architects. He was driven to resign from the ‘Civils’ in 1867 following unproven allegations of professional misconduct.

In 1851 Russell was invited by the Australian Royal Mail Co., for which I. K. Brunel was chief engineer, to tender for two big mail steamers, Adelaide and Victoria, of 3000 tons and carrying 200 passengers. By the spring of 1852 Brunel was discussing plans with Russell for a truly enormous ship which was to become the Great Eastern. Before building work could begin, Russell's shipyard was devastated by a serious fire but was only partially covered by insurance. The Millwall shipyard failed in 1856.

From 1867 onwards he pressed for an improved system of technical education in the United Kingdom. He designed a train ferry for Lake Constance in 1868 and designed the great rotunda for the Vienna exhibition in 1873. In 1836 Russell married Harriette, the second daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel and Lady Osborne; they had three daughters and one son. He died at Ventnor, Isle of Wight, on 8 June 1882.