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Discovery of the Soliton

John Scott Russell

Here is how John Scott Russell described the day when he first saw a singular wave:

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”.

Singular waves or solitons, were discovered beside a canal near Edinburgh by John Scott Russell in 1834.   You can see a modern photograph of a soliton on the canal, recreated for an international conference in 1995.  Here’s how Russell described his discovery on the day.  A commemorative plaque marks the spot, just as at Broombridge.