Russell, John Scott

(1808-1882), engineer and naval architect

by David K. Brown

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Russell, John Scott (1808-1882), engineer and naval architect, eldest son of David Russell, a Scottish clergyman, and his wife, Agnes Clark (née Scott), was born at Parkhead, near Glasgow, on 8 May 1808. He was baptized John and added his mother's maiden name when he left home. 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 a number of teaching posts, culminating with 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and Paisley and were said to be very comfortable but, following continual opposition and an accident, they were soon withdrawn.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. The first of these, Wave, of about 60 feet length, had very hollow waterlines at the bow but was very lightly built and showed signs of weakness. This was remedied in the second vessel, Storm, of 120 feet length. In this ship the stiffeners were arranged longitudinally, supported by fairly closely spaced bulkheads instead of the traditional transverse framing. For a given weight, this is a stronger method of construction, and its introduction may be seen as Russell's greatest contribution to shipbuilding. The final two had further variations in form.

Russell believed that this work could be extended to the wave-making resistance of ships in the open sea and this led him to propose his 'wave-line' theory, which he was to develop over much of his career. It was a semi-empirical approach based on the idea of pushing the water aside with minimum loss of energy which led him to recommend very hollow waterlines forward, based on a sine curve. In his later writings he modified this slightly, suggesting that the distribution of sectional area should follow a sine curve, a variation which he sometimes described as the wave-form theory. At this time and later he carried out a large number of model tests but was unable to derive a consistent interpretation. Ships designed on this approach were generally fast and economical since, though his theory was fallacious, it none the less led to fine ends which were appropriate to the speed-length ratios of ships of the day. There was at that time no way of estimating the power required to drive a new ship at its design speed, and between 1838 and 1866 five major British Association committees attempted to solve the problem. Russell's reputation ensured that he was a member of each of them.

In 1836 Russell married Harriette, the second daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel and Lady Osborne; they had three daughters and one son. 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. The following year he was persuaded to become secretary of the then almost defunct Royal Society of Arts. The society took the initiative in proposing a national exhibition and it was in no small degree due to Russell's efforts as joint secretary (1850) that this became a success as the Great Exhibition of 1851. The final stages were run by an executive committee and Russell was not greatly involved, so that his efforts in the earlier stages were overlooked. He was also much involved in the move of the Crystal Palace to Sydenham after the exhibition closed.

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 had very hollow bowlines but was constrained by British yacht-racing rules. In 1851 Titania was the only yacht to accept the challenge of the US yacht America; her defeat inaugurated the America's cup races.

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 of 3000 tons and carrying 200 passengers. The two great engineers got on well together and the two ships, Adelaide and Victoria, were successful, the latter winning a prize for the fastest passage to Australia: sixty days. 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 overall concept of the Great Eastern was due to Brunel, Russell's contribution being the hull form, the design of the paddle engines, and, last but not least, the actual building of the monster. She was to be 600 feet long and of 20,000 tons, figures which were not exceeded until nearly half a century later. Though the form was claimed to be in accordance with the wave-line theory, it was much modified and, by Russell's equations, optimized for about 24 knots, far greater than the 14 knots expected. There were problems from the start, owing to Brunel's frequent changes and insistence on approving every detail, difficult to reconcile with the delegation of detail design authority which every shipyard then practised. Russell's financial backer died and, during the Crimean War, wage rates on the Thames trebled. Russell had several fixed-price contracts for warships and these together with another fire, added to his financial problems and his shipyard, like several other Thames builders, failed in February 1856. He remained in charge of building the Great Eastern under a new contract. The ship was a technical success but a commercial failure, like so many of Brunel's projects.

Before the Crimean War Russell had designed some paddle gunboats for Prussia, and two of these were taken over for the Royal Navy; later, two more somewhat similar vessels were ordered. During the war Russell was involved with an Austrian engineer, Wilhelm Bauer, who was trying to develop a submarine. Bauer was afraid that Russell was stealing his ideas and went to Russia, where his submarine was built. Russell was, indeed, working on a submarine vehicle, but his was more of a diving bell inside which the crew of two walked along the bottom.

Russell had long advocated armoured warships and was encouraged by his experience in building Admiralty-designed, armoured batteries for attacking Russian coastal forts. There were many problems to be overcome before seagoing, armoured ships became practical, particularly in the behaviour of iron under the impact of gunshot. His claims to have assisted in the design of Warrior seem incorrect though the Admiralty designer, Watts, was probably influenced both by Russell's structural style and by the wave-line approach.

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. In all three institutions he was active in debate until he was driven to resign from the 'Civils' in 1867 following unproven allegations of professional misconduct. He opposed William Froude's theory of rolling in 1863 and was worsted in a long and generally good-natured debate. His own problems with model tests led him to oppose William Froude's proposals for a ship tank but eventually he accepted the results gracefully. His chief publication, The Modern System of Naval Architecture for Commerce and War, appeared in three volumes between 1864 and 1865 and remains the most complete record of naval architecture and of shipbuilding of the time.

In a paper to the Institution of Naval Architects in 1863 Russell had pressed for an Admiralty school of naval architecture to replace two earlier schools which, though successful in producing outstanding graduates, had been closed by cost-saving politicians. This new school was set up at South Kensington in 1864 and is the direct ancestor of the current school at University College, London. From 1867 onwards he pressed for a much improved system of technical education in the United Kingdom.

Russell continued to practise, and designed a train ferry for Lake Constance in 1868. The draught of this vessel was limited to 6 feet, which forced him into a novel structural design using the superstructure to carry stress. He also designed the great rotunda for the Vienna exhibition in 1873. The failure of his shipyard was only the first of his major financial problems; an unwise business deal to supply guns during the American Civil War left him with heavy debts and much of his property was sold. The collapse of his son's shipyard on the Taff in 1869 caused further losses.

A happy family life did much to compensate for declining income in later years. The last two of Russell's twenty-one papers to the Institution of Naval Architects were read in 1882 but he was too ill to take part in the discussion and died at Ventnor, Isle of Wight, on 8 June 1882. He was survived by his wife.

Russell was a brilliant, intuitive engineer but, though better-educated than many of his contemporaries, appears to have lacked the mathematical ability either to develop his ideas or to expose fallacies. He was very clear both in writing and in speech and seems to have been well liked. His business ventures were unlucky rather than unskilled. Perhaps his greatest achievement lay in his contribution to debate both in engineering institutions and in the British Association committees which stimulated so many of his contemporaries.


G. S. Emerson, John Scott Russell (1977)
K. C. Barnaby, The Institution of Naval Architects (1960)
T. Wright, 'Ship hydrodynamics, 1710-1880', PhD diss., CNAA, Sci. Mus., London, 1983

Sci. Mus., engineering notebooks and registers relating to steam and the Great Eastern |  U. Edin. L., letters to David Ramsey Hay

Lock & Whitfield, woodburytype photograph, NPG; repro. in T. Cooper, Men of mark: a gallery of contemporary portraits (1878)
W. H. Mote, stipple (after photograph by Mayall), NPG
H. W. Phillips, group portrait, oils (The royal commissioners for the Great Exhibition, 1851), V&A
H. W. Phillips, oils, Scot. NPG

Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


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