It’s easy for us to look back and assume that everything went smoothly for those who were the first with an amazing idea. It’s also easy for us to miss the fact that ideas that are commonly accepted now were once wild ideas in the view of the established schools of thought. The most obvious examples are the ideas that were considered heretical by the Catholic church, but those were not the only ideas that brought ridicule to visionaries in their time. Sometimes the ridicule even came to men of science from other men of science.
One case in particular that I find compelling is the case of William Froude. Froude was the man who championed and proved that scale model testing could achieve results that were applicable to full-sized vessels. This is something we take for granted now, but in Froude’s time there was no proof. In fact, the Law of Similitude is based upon Froude’s groundbreaking work. So how did Froude get his shot at proving his theory?
Froude requested the money for a model basin for the testing of scale models. He made this proposal to the British Admiralty in 1868. He was known and respected for his published work, but no less than Scott Russell, a founder of the Institute of Naval Architects, thought scale model testing was a waste of time. Russell’s proof of this was his own poor experience with scale models. In front of the committee hearing Froude’s proposal and defense, Russell said of his own experience in a way that certainly denigrated Froude’s proposal: “But it was very interesting to me, and the most agreeable period of my life was that romantic period of about two years in which I was mainly occupied with the amusement of making pretty little experiments on a small scale.”
Froude, to his eternal credit, was undeterred. He gave the committee his reasoning for the value of scale models. This reasoning included the importance of not just the scale of the models but the speed at which they moved while being tested. He concluded his remarks, “…I believe we have still a great deal to learn, both practically and theoretically, and though I cannot set my reputation and credit against that of the various persons who have addressed you to-day, all I can say is that I believe, myself, I shall get a great deal of useful information from the experiments which I propose to make.”
Froude got his chance. His belief was proven by a test on a scale model followed up by testing of a full-sized ship of the same design. It is now accepted practice to use scale models in the testing of the design for ocean going vessels, aircraft, space craft, automobiles… The value of Froude’s work is inestimable.
Upon Froude’s death, the Admiralty sent a message to his son that concluded, “My Lords desire to convey to you, and other members of the family, the expression of their most sincere sympathy at the irreparable loss which you have sustained — a loss which cannot be looked upon as other than a national one.”
Here’s to William Froude.
More on Froude in posts to come and in my book.
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