John Scott Russell

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John Scott Russell (9 May 1808, – 8 June 1882) was a Scottish naval engineer who built the Great Eastern steam ship in collaboration with Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He is known to mathematicians for the discovery that gave birth to the modern study of solitons.

John Russell was born in Parkhead, Glasgow the only child of David Russell and Agnes Clark Scott. After a year at St. Andrews University he transferred to Glasgow University. He graduated from there in 1825 and moved to the University of Edinburgh where he taught mathematics.

When Sir John Leslie, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University died in 1832, Russell was chosen to fill the vacancy pending the election of a permanent professor (a post that eventually went to James D Forbes). In 1838, Russell unsuccessfully applied for the chair of Mathematics.

His first engineering success was on the roads, where his vehicles were used to set up the Scottish Steam Carriage Company in 1834, carrying 26 passengers between Glasgow and Paisley. But soon after, the hostile road trustees sabotaged his carriage, causing an accident that killed four passengers. Russell then turned to boat design, and while testing boats on the Union Canal near Edinburgh, he concluded that the bow wave the boats made was slowing them down. As he rode along the canal in August 1834, he saw a rapidly drawn boat suddenly came to a halt, yet the great hump of water in front of the boat kept on moving as a single wave, apparently without losing speed. Russell followed this wave on horseback for over a mile before it started to weaken. Daniel Bernoulli and Isaac Newton had described how waves travel, but this one didn't follow any of the rules, it just kept going.

At his house in the Edinburgh's New Town, he began experiments on waves. He called normal waves oscillatory waves, and his new wave the Great Wave of Translation. Whereas normal waves either disperse and flatten out, or steepen and topple over, depending on the depth of the water, the wave of translation remained oddly stable because these opposing tendencies are exactly balanced.

Russell realised that the tides behaved like his new wave, and reckoned that he could improve coastal defences and tidal rivers. He also realised that by pulling a boat at just the right speed it could rise onto this wave of translation and "surf" along. Accordingly, he introduced a night sleeper canal service from Edinburgh to Glasgow, and found that indeed the horses could keep going easily if the speed was just right.

In 1844 Russell moved to London with his wife and two young children. There, he organised the Royal Commission for the Great Exhibition of 1851, and made his name as a ship builder. With Isambard Kingdom Brunel he built the largest ship in the world - the Great Eastern steam ship. He built the paddle engines for the ship, each pair weighing 90 tons, to drive paddle wheels 56 feet in diameter. He wrote two books, The Modern System of Naval Architecture (London, 1865).and The Wave of Translation in the Oceans of Water, Air and Ether (London, 1885).

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