BBC Local Heroes - Scott Russell Biography

It must be really frustrating to make a great scientific discovery, only to be ignored by everyone during your lifetime. But that's just what happened to this hero, when in 1834 he discovered a bizarre wave that no-one believed should exist.

Yet today it has given birth to a whole new field of science. He was John Scott Russell. John Russell had grown up in Glasgow where he was so fascinated by the great creak and roar of the first Newcomen steam engines at the Carntyne mines, that he abandoned his career in the church to become an engineer himself. He followed his father's footsteps to St Andrews University, and then made such an impression at Edinburgh University that he was appointed Prof. of Natural Philosophy at just 24.

His first engineering success was on the roads, where his fine vehicles were used to set up the Scottish Steam Carriage Company in 1834, carrying 26 passengers between Glasgow and Paisley. But within months his success was cut short - the hostile road trustees sabotaged his carriage, causing a dreadful accident and killing four of the passengers: perhaps the first fatal car crash? Not to be out done, Russell accepted an invitation from the Union Canal Company to beat off the challenge from the new steam carriages and railways by designing better, faster boats - this was the turning point in his career. While testing his boats on the Union Canal near Edinburgh, he decided that it was the great bow wave the boats made that was slowing them down. As he rode along the canal in August 1834, he watched a rapidly drawn boat as it suddenly came to a halt in front of him. And something extraordinary happened: The great hump of water built up in front of the boat kept on moving as a single, huge wave, apparently without losing speed.

Russell set off on horseback to follow this wave, and chased it for over a mile along the canal before it started to weaken. This was no ordinary wave - Russell knew that Bernouilli and Newton had described exactly how waves travel and disperse, but this one didn't follow any of the rules, it just kept going. He was convinced he'd seen something special and set out to discover what it was.

At his house in the New Town district of Edinburgh he started 3 years of experiments on waves that would become almost totally forgotten for a century. He supposed that the hump of water in a bow wave in front of a boat should just drop into the water when the boat stopped, but it doesn't. Russell carefully watched the behaviour of many different waves: he called normal waves oscillatory waves, and his new wave the Great Wave of Translation. He noticed that the wave of translation did all sorts of strange things:

Its speed depends on the size of the wave, and its width on the depth of water. And they're incredibly stable: not only do they keep going for miles, but unlike normal waves they'll never merge - so a small wave is overtaken by a large one, rather than the two combining.

If a wave is too big for the depth of water, it splits into two, one big and one small.

He realised that normal waves tend to behave in two opposing ways: they either disperse and flatten out, or steepen and topple over, depending on the depth of the water. The wave of translation is so stable because these opposing tendencies are exactly balanced, so cancel each other out. Russell wasn't just playing either. He realised that the tides behaved just like his new wave, and reckoned he could improve coastal defences and tidal rivers. Best of all, he worked out how to make canal boats go faster. He'd been right about the bow wave slowing canal boats down, but found out that by pulling the boat at just the right speed it could rise up onto this wave of translation and surf comfortably along with very little effort. On the strength of this he introduced a new night sleeper canal service from Edinburgh to Glasgow, and found that the horses could easily keep going if he kept the speed just right. But despite his insistence that his discovery was important no-one really wanted to know. People were just not prepared to accept any contradiction to Newton and Bernoulli's theories of hydrodynamics.

So in 1844 Russell packed his bags and set off for London. He made friends in high places, organised the Royal Commission for the Great Exhibition of 1851, and made a great name as a ship builder. But he was a better scientist than business man, and made many enemies too - he was eventually ousted from the committee of the Great Exhibition, and was thrown out of the Institute of Civil Engineers for some dodgy arms deals during the American Civil War. He teamed up with Isambard Kingdom Brunel to build the colossal Great Eastern steam ship, but fell out with him dreadfully. Their continual petty arguing over finances and responsibility for the ship eventually lead to Brunel's death as a broken man.

Russell's business gradually declined, and despite his earlier successes he too eventually died a relatively poor man in 1882. It wasn't until the 1960's that scientists realised just how important Russell's discovery had been. They reasoned that if a wave in water could be made to travel so far, what about other waves, like light? Today's most advanced fibre-optic communications use stable pulses of light identical to Russell's waves, now called Solitons (from solitary waves), to carry masses of information over thousands of kilometres of fibres. So I'd like to remember John Scott Russell not as a once great ship builder who fell on hard times, but as the grandfather of modern telecommunications.