Russell, John Scott (DNB00)

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RUSSELL, JOHN SCOTT (1808–1882), civil engineer, eldest son of David Russell, a Scottish clergyman, was born at Parkhead, near Glasgow, on 8 May 1808. Originally intended for the church, he entered a workshop to learn the trade of an engineer, and studied at the universities of Edinburgh, St. Andrews, and Glasgow. He graduated at Glasgow at the age of sixteen. On the death of Sir John Leslie, professor of natural philosophy at Edinburgh, in 1832, he was elected to fill the vacancy temporarily. With the view of improving the forms of vessels, he commenced researches into the nature of waves. He read a paper on this subject before the British Association in 1835, when a committee was appointed to make experiments. During these researches Russell discovered the existence of the wave of translation, and developed the wave-line system of construction of ships. In 1837 he read a paper before the Royal Society of Edinburgh ‘On the Laws by which Water opposes Resistance to the Motion of Floating Bodies,’ for which he received the large gold medal of the society, and was elected a member of the council. He was employed at this time as manager of the large shipbuilding works at Greenock subsequently owned by Caird & Co. The Wave, the first vessel constructed on the wave system, was built under his direction in 1835, the Scott Russell in 1836, and the Flambeau and the Fire-King in 1839. His system was employed in the construction of the new fleet of the West India Royal Mail Company, four of the vessels being designed and built by him. He also constructed some common road steam carriages, which ran successfully for a time between Paisley and Glasgow. Six of these were at work in 1834.

Removing to London in 1844, Russell became F.R.S. in 1847 and a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers, of which he was for some time vice-president. In 1845 he was appointed secretary of the Society of Arts, which was then occupied with a proposal for the holding of a national exhibition. Russell took up the idea with his accustomed energy, and it was in no small degree due to his initiative and persistence that the suggested national exhibition developed into the Great International Exhibition of 1851. He took an active part in the earlier work of the undertaking, and when in 1850 a royal commission was appointed, he was made one of the joint secretaries, Stafford Northcote (afterwards Lord Iddesleigh) being the other. The organisation of the exhibition itself fell into the hands of an executive committee, and Russell had a very small share in it. Hence his part in the great work was overlooked, and never received public recognition. In the same year (1850) he resigned the secretaryship of the Society of Arts.

For many years a shipbuilder on the Thames, he constructed the Great Eastern, and became joint designer of the Warrior, the first sea-going armoured frigate. He was a strong advocate of ironclad men-of-war, and was one of the founders and vice-presidents of the Institute of Naval Architects. The failure of the Great Eastern led to the suspension of his firm, but he continued to practise as a consulting engineer. His last work in naval construction was a steamer to carry railway trains between the German and the Swiss terminus on the opposite shores of Lake Constance. His greatest work apart from shipbuilding was the dome of the Vienna Exhibition in 1873. He also designed a high-level bridge to cross the Thames below London Bridge. He died at Ventnor, in somewhat reduced circumstances, on 8 June 1882.

Russell was a man of brilliant and versatile intellectual powers, a good scholar, a clever and original speaker, and a bright conversationalist. A certain lack of stability, or of that business capacity so rarely united to inventive genius, hampered his success in life.

Russell published: 1. ‘On the Nature, Properties, and Applications of Steam in Steam Navigation,’ from the seventh edition of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ Edinburgh, 1841, 8vo. 2. ‘The Fleet of the Future: Iron or Wood? Containing a Reply to some Conclusions of General Sir H. Douglas in favour of Wooden Walls,’ London, 1861, 8vo; 2nd ed. ‘The Fleet of the Future in 1862, or England without a Fleet,’ London, 1862, 8vo. 3. ‘Very large Ships, their Advantages and Defects,’ &c., London, 1863, 8vo. 4. ‘The Modern System of Naval Architecture for Commerce and War,’ London, 3 vols. (1864–5), fol. 5. ‘Systematic Technical Training for the English People,’ London, 1869, 8vo. 6. ‘The Wave of Translation in the Ocean of Water, Air, and Ether,’ new edition, London, 1885, 8vo.

[Annual Register, 1882, p. 136; Proc. Inst. C. E., lxxxvii. 434; Engineer, liii. 430; Engineering, xxiii. 583; Times, 10 June 1882; Proc. Roy. Soc. xxxiv. 15; Iron, xix. 472; Journal of the Society of Arts, xxx. 833; Athenæum, 1882, i. 768; Transactions of the Institute of Naval Architects, 1882, p. 258; Builder, xlii. 749; Building News, xlii. 746; Nature, xxvi. 159; Guardian, xxxvii. 825a; information from Sir Henry Trueman Wood.]

W. A. S. H.