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John Scott Russell

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1901. Engines of the paddle steamers Lyons and Orleans.
1901. Engines of the paddle steamers Paris and Orleans.

John Scott Russell (1808-1882) was a Scottish naval engineer who built the SS Great Eastern in collaboration with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and made the discovery that gave birth to the modern study of solitons.

He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (FRSE). He was also elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) of London in 1849, as seen in Emmerson's book and also in his obituary published in the Proceedings of Royal Society (London), vol. 34 (1882-1883), pp. xv-xvii.

1808 May 9th. Born in a village close to Glasgow of Scotland in 1808. His middle name was the maiden family name of his mother. He graduated from the University of Glasgow in 1825, and moved on to Edinburgh University where he taught mathematics and natural philosophy.

In 1834, while conducting experiments to determine the most efficient design for canal boats, he discovered a phenomenon that he described as the wave of translation. In fluid dynamics the wave is now called a Russell solitary wave or soliton. The discovery is described here in his own words:

"I was observing the motion of a boat which was rapidly drawn along a narrow channel by a pair of horses, when the boat suddenly stopped - not so the mass of water in the channel which it had put in motion; it accumulated round the prow of the vessel in a state of violent agitation, then suddenly leaving it behind, rolled forward with great velocity, assuming the form of a large solitary elevation, a rounded, smooth and well-defined heap of water, which continued its course along the channel apparently without change of form or diminution of speed. I followed it on horseback, and overtook it still rolling on at a rate of some eight or nine miles an hour, preserving its original figure some thirty feet long and a foot to a foot and a half in height. Its height gradually diminished, and after a chase of one or two miles I lost it in the windings of the channel. Such, in the month of August 1834, was my first chance interview with that singular and beautiful phenomenon which I have called the Wave of Translation".

In 1834 he designed a 26-seater steam coach. These vehicles were built by the Grove House Engine Works in Edinburgh. They were powered by a two-cylinder vertical engine with a square bore to stroke of 12 in. There were connecting rods to the crankshafts, one for each cylinder. the back axle was on semi-elliptical springs. Six of these vehicles entered service with the Steam Carriage Company of Scotland.

In 1838 he became a manager at Caird and Co's engine works in Greenock.

Russell moved to London in 1844 and, as secretary to the Royal Society of Arts, stimulated the idea of a national exhibition which was realised as the Royal Commission for the Great Exhibition of 1851. He worked on the design of yachts, boats, barges and ships.

1847 October. Listed as Russell and Robinson, Marine Engineers, Millwall, Poplar

In 1847 Russell and partners had taken over the old Fairbairn shipyard at Millwall, which took up an increasing amount of his 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.

He was held in high regard by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. By the spring of 1852 Brunel was discussing plans with Russell for a truly enormous ship, the SS Great Eastern, at its time, this was to be the largest moveable object man had ever created. Before building work could begin, Russell's shipyard was devastated by a serious fire.

David Napier's adjacent works had stood idle for fully a year before, in 1853, a further use was found for them. As the Napier Yard adjoined that where Mr. J. Scott Russell was then starting construction of the Great Eastern, and the space and resources of both yards were found necessary, so an arrangement was made to combine them temporarily. Part of the Napier property was accordingly leased, in 1853 or 1854, and a small portion, that had been otherwise occupied, was arranged for at a later date.

The project was plagued with a number of problems - Russell was in financial difficulties; his shipyard, like several other Thames builders, failed in February 1856; the two men disagreed on a number of aspects of the design and construction of the ship. The SS Great Eastern was eventually launched in 1858.

1882 June 8th. Died

Extract from Steam Locomotion on Common Roads by William Fletcher. Published 1891.

Mr. John Scott Russell (the well-known designer and builder of the Great Eastern) in early life took great interest in steam locomotion. He made a small steam carriage which ran about the neighbourhood of Greenock successfully.

In later years when residing in Edinburgh, he patented a steam locomotive intended for the conveyance of passengers on common roads. Six of these coaches were built under his patents and to his designs, by the Grove House Engine Works, Edinburgh, for the Steam Carriage Company of Scotland.

In April, 1834, this company established a line of steam coaches for the conveyance of passengers between Glasgow and Paisley, which plied hourly for many months with the greatest regularity and success. The distance between the two places was a little more than seven miles, and the trip was run in 40 to 45 minutes. Mr. Russell's coaches were very popular with the travelling part of the community, and were repeatedly overcrowded, 30 to 40 persons finding places on a vehicle and its tender, constructed to carry six inside and twenty outside passengers. These carriages have been briefly referred to by two or three writers on this subject, but they have not been illustrated and described in any recent work on steam locomotion; in fact, these coaches have been practically omitted by previous writers, and in order to supply the missing link in the history of steam on roads, we devote a considerable amount of space to their description.

Mr. Scott Russell, as an experienced engineer, designed his coach with great care. Fig. 48 shows a side view of the carriage, while Fig. 49 gives an end view of the engine to an enlarged scale. The- general appearance was far superior to many of its competitors, and we are told that "it was fitted up in the style and with all the comfort and elegance of the most costly gentleman's travelling carriage."

The boiler was of the multi-tubular type, with the furnace and the return tubes on the same level, and similar to a marine boiler. The improvements introduced by Russell consisted in constructing the boiler in such a manner that it should everywhere consist of opposite and parallel surfaces, or as nearly so as circumstances allowed, and connecting these surfaces together by means of stays of small diameter, placed at distances proportioned to their direct cohesive strength, and to the degree of pressure to be resisted; the plates were much thinner than usual, so that the heat was transmitted quicker; the copper plates were one-tenth of an inch thick. The stays were only one-quarter of an inch in diameter, there being thirteen hundred of them used. Mr. Russell said that the boiler was safe, because he thought the moment the pressure exceeds the maximum, the weakest of the stays will give way; and one rod giving way will instantly let out the whole of the water in the boiler, take off the pressure, extinguish the fire, and prevent all chances of ex- plosion. But we regret to find that Russell's ideas respecting the safety of his boiler were not realised in practice, as we shall see presently. The whole weight of the carriage was supported on springs.

The engine had two vertical cylinders, twelve inches diameter and twelve inches stroke. The piston rods worked through the top cylinder covers, and were connected by crossheads to two side connecting rods; the rods from each cylinder worked on to a separate crank shaft, as shown by Fig. 49. Each cylinder had four ports, which were alternately opened and closed by slide valves, actuated by eccentrics keyed on the crank shafts; one pair of these ports were for the admission of steam, and the other for the exhaust. On each crank axle was fixed a spur pinion gearing into a wheel on the main driving shaft—ratio, two to one ; the crank shaft and the driving axle being coupled together by sun and planet straps, which kept the toothed wheels properly in gear.

The engine was mounted upon laminated springs, so beautifully arranged that each spring in its flexure described, at a particular point, such a circle as was also described by the main axle in its motion round the crank shaft; thus any irregularities in the road in no way interfered with the proper working of the spur gearing. The exhaust steam was turned into the chimney to create a blast.

The water and coke were carried on a separate tender on two wheels, coupled to the rear of the engine ; at different stations on the road spare tenders were kept in readiness, filled, and were quickly connected to the coach. This tender was mounted upon springs, and provided with seats back and front for passengers. India-rubber tubes conducted the water from the tank to the two brass feed pumps on the engine. Three persons were required to be in attendance — a steers- man on the front seat, an engineer on the back seat outside above the engines, the stop valve and cocks being within his reach ; he could also tell the height of the water in the boiler, and the amount of steam pressure. The stoker stood on the foot-plate in front of the boiler.

These coaches were admirably worked out, and were said to be a "triumphant success" after they had run regularly for four months. Russells coaches shared the same fate in Scotland that Sir Charles Dance's did in England. They had not been running many months before the road trustees at the Glasgow end, in order to cause an obstruction, put a thick coating of loose stones on the road, but the steam carriages ploughed through it. More men were then employed by the determined obstructionists to put another thick layer of stones on the top, so that the road was all but impassable. Ordinary road carriages were injured thereby, and heavy carts were obliged to desert the road, and go round by a different and much longer route. After the steam coaches had travelled over this accumulation of road material for some time one of the wheels broke, and the carriage was nearly overturned. The whole weight of the vehicle rested on the boiler, and caused it to burst, and five of the passengers were killed.

The Court of Session, in consequence of this accident, interdicted the whole set of carriages from running, for the time at least. The editor of the Mechanics' Magazine said this was a fine specimen of Caledonian wisdom! Why not clear the Clyde of steamers, because accidents happen with steamers as well as with carriages? The Steam Carriage Company brought an action for damages against the trustees of the turnpike road for having compelled them to give up the running of the carriages on the Glasgow and Paisley road by "wantonly, wrongfully, and maliciously accumulating masses of metal, stones, and rubbish on the said road, in order to create such annoyance and obstruction as might impede, overturn, or destroy the steam coaches belonging to the plaintiffs."

Russell's steam coaches were no longer used in Scotland, but two of them were sent by steamer to London, and were often engaged in running with passengers between London and Greenwich, or Kew Bridge. Several trips were made to Windsor. They were eventually offered for sale, and to show their powers they started every day at one o'clock from Hyde Park Corner to make a journey to Hammersmith. But they remained unsold, and we hear nothing further respecting them.

Mr. J. Scott Russell, however, was actively employed in shipbuilding, his name being a "household word" in everything pertaining to steam navigation. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, vice-president of the Institute of Naval Architects, and a Member of Council of the Institute of Civil Engineers.

A contemporary, in speaking of Mr. Russell's death, which occurred as recently as 1882, said, respecting the coaches we have illustrated: "The springs of his steam carriages, and the manner in which the machinery adapted itself to the irregularities of the road, were triumphs of engineering."

See Also


Sources of Information

[1] Wikipedia

  • Biography of John Scott Russel, ODNB [2]