Engineer Through the Looking Glass

Engineer through the looking glass

Eric Laithwaite was a “talented engineering maverick” and professor of heavy electrical engineering at Imperial College [1964-1986] who developed the linear induction motor and maglev rail system.

Eric Roberts Laithwaite (14 June 1921 – 27 November 1997) was a British electrical engineer, known as the “Father of Maglev” for his development of the linear induction motor and maglev rail system.

Emsland test facility - Germany

Professor Eric Laithwaite, who died on 27 November 1997, was a talented engineering maverick who spent much of his academic life investigating unusual forms of mechanical propulsion and the linear induction motor.

Between 1964 and his retirement in 1986, Eric was professor of heavy electrical engineering at Imperial College.

In 1990 he accepted a visiting professorship at Sussex University and it was there that he died, just a month after securing a NASA contract for the design of a space launcher based on his linear motor system.

Obituary – Professor Eric Laithwaite
IC Reporter – 16 December 1997 – 19 January 1998
Staff Newspaper of Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine

Eric Laithwaite was also a very practical scientist who left an “emphatic mark”.

During his years at the College, Eric made an emphatic mark on the Department of Electrical Engineering; academically as an influential teacher, and physically, in the form of a hole through the door between his laboratory and office caused by a metal dart fired mistakenly backwards from an electromagnetic gun.

It was one of a number of close shaves.

He only narrowly escaped injury after an accelerating flywheel he was testing in the basement of Electrical Engineering exploded with fairly devastating effects.

Obituary – Professor Eric Laithwaite
IC Reporter – 16 December 1997 – 19 January 1998
Staff Newspaper of Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine

Eric Laithwaite “communicated an enthusiasm for knowledge and for life” and believed that “when a job is no longer fun, it’s not worth continuing”.

It was always ‘fun’ working with Eric Laithwaite and I recall him sliding off a chair in the studio as he laughed so much when we tried speaking backwards into a taperecorder.

He once said to me that when a job is no longer fun, it’s not worth continuing with it.

Imperial College London - video archives

Imperial College London – Blog: Video Archive
Research and Innovation: Eric Laithwaite
Colin Grimshaw – December 2009

Whether experimenting with linear induction motors or eagerly adding to his vast collection of butterflies, Eric communicated an enthusiasm for knowledge and for life.

He is remembered fondly by colleagues at the College, one of whom suggested that his life might best be summarised by the title of one of his many books: The Engineer in Wonderland.

Obituary – Professor Eric Laithwaite
IC Reporter – 16 December 1997 – 19 January 1998
Staff Newspaper of Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine

Because of Eric Laithwaite’s ability to communicate enthusiasm he was invited to present the first televised series of Christmas Lectures for young people given by The Royal Institution in 1966-67.

The Christmas Lectures have been televised annually in Britain since the 1966–1967 series delivered by the engineer Eric Laithwaite (1921–1997).

Eric Laithwaite 1966

Christmas at the Royal Institution – Introduction – Frank A. J. L. James

Click to access Frank%20Christmas%20at%20the%20Royal%20Institution.pdf

Eric Laithwaite levitating a large copper sphere

The Engineer in Wonderland – E R Laithwaite – English Universities Press – 1967

This success ultimately led to Eric Laithwaite being invited to present a second series of Christmas Lectures for young people at The Royal Institution in 1974-75.

Lecture IV

The Ri Channel – The Smart place for Science
Part of the Royal Institution’s mission to “connect people to the world of science”
1974 Christmas Lectures programme

Click to access 1974ChristmasLecture_1363170490.pdf

In the run-up to this second series Eric Laithwaite was also invited to deliver a Friday Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution.

Eric Laithwaite’s Friday Evening Discourse was “immensely controversial” because he argued “the behaviour of gyroscopes violated the law of conservation of energy” and the controversy resulted in the text of his Friday Evening Discourse not being published because it failed peer review.

Just before his second series ‘The Engineer Through the Looking Glass’, he delivered on 8 November 1974 a Friday Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution, entitled ‘All Things are Possible’, in which he argued that the behaviour of gyroscopes violated the law of conservation of energy which had been established in the 1840s.

His lecture was immensely controversial and the written text failed the peer review procedures of the Proceedings of the Royal Institution, which published the texts of many, but by no means all, the Discourses.

The gyroscope, an engineer and the Christmas Lectures
The Royal Institution – Blog – Frank James – 10 Dec 2013

In his lecture before the Royal Institution he claimed that gyroscopes weigh less when spinning and, to demonstrate this, he showed that he could lift a spinning gyroscope mounted on the end of a rod easily with one hand but could not do so when the gyroscope was not spinning.

At this time, Laithwaite suggested that Newton’s laws of motion could not account for the behaviour of gyroscopes and that they could be used as a means of reactionless propulsion.

The members of the Royal Institution rejected his ideas and his lecture was not published.

(This was the first and only time an invited lecture to the Royal Institution has not been published.)

But Laithwaite chose not to discourse on some worthy, painless topic but instead to demonstrate to the assembled bigwigs that Newton’s laws of motion — the very cornerstone of physics and the primary article of faith of all the distinguished names gathered in that room — were in doubt.

Standing in the circular well of the Institution’s lecture theatre, Laithwaite showed his audience a large gyroscope he had constructed — an apparatus resembling a motorcycle wheel on the end of a three foot pole (which, is precisely what it was). The wheel could be spun up to high speed on a low-friction bearing driven by a small but powerful electrical motor.

Laithwaite first demonstrated that the apparatus was very heavy — in fact it weighed more than 50 pounds. It took all his strength and both hands to raise the pole with its wheel much above waist level. When he started to rotate the wheel at high speed, however, the apparatus suddenly became so light that he could raise it easily over his head with just one hand and with no obvious sign of effort.

What on earth was going on? Heavy objects cannot suddenly become lighter just because they are rotating, can they? Such a mass can only be propelled aloft if it is subjected to an external force or if it expels mass, in a rocket engine for example. Had Laithwaite taken to conjuring tricks? Were there concealed strings? Confederates in trapdoors?

If Laithwaite expected gasps of admiration or surprise, he was disappointed. The audience was stunned into silence by his demonstration. When he went on to explain that Newton’s laws of motion were apparently being violated by this demonstration, the involuntary hush turned to frosty silence.

‘I was very excited about it,’ he recalled, ‘because I knew I had something to show them that was startling. And I did it rather in the spirit of “come and see what I’ve discovered — come and share this with me.” It was only afterwards that I realised no-one wanted to share it with me. The reaction was “the man’s obviously a lunatic”. “There must be some trick” was what people said.’

‘I was simply trying to tell them, “look, here’s something very unusual that’s worth investigating. I hope I’ve got sufficient reputation in electrical engineering not to be written off as a crank. So when I tell you this, I hope you’ll listen.” But they didn’t want to.’

‘After the Royal Institution lecture all hell broke loose, primarily as a result of an article in the New Scientist, followed up by articles in the daily press with headlines such as “Laithwaite defies Newton”. The press is always excited by the possibility of an anti-gravity machine, because of space ships and science fiction, and the minute you say you can make something rise against gravity, then you’ve “made an antigravity machine”. And then the flood gates are unleashed on you especially from the establishment. You’ve brought science into disrepute or you’re apparently trying to because you’ve done something that is against the run of the tide.’

The Incredible Genius of Eric Laithwaite – Richard Milton – 2003

The fourth lecture in the Christmas series at The Royal Institution that year was especially powerful because Eric Laithwaite stood his scientific ground and [again] demonstrated to his audience [this time composed of young people] the mysterious properties of gyroscopes.

Nevertheless, he insisted on expressing his views in his CHRISTMAS LECTURES and the Royal Institution could not, apparently, do anything about it.

The gyroscope, an engineer and the Christmas Lectures
The Royal Institution – Blog – Frank James – 10 Dec 2013

Unsurprisingly, this lecture contained a strong message for the gentlemen of Settled Science.

Transcript starting at 46:50

Are these discoveries new? Well not entirely.

And I’ve had letters from all kinds of people who have done similar experiments before and for one reason or another have given up for:
1) lack of know how and scientific background
2) lack of money and workshop facilities
3) lack of courage
4) lack of any one to listen

Especially 4!

Now today I’ve got all of you here ready to listen.

What a pleasure it is to talk to young people, who are ready to listen, after you have talked to adults.

Quite the most amazing letter I had was from a man who wrote, quite unemotionally, that he performed some of the experiments that I had done some ten years ago.

And he knew that they worked.

But, he added, I have not told any of my colleagues and friends because even though I occupy quite a senior post in the Scientific Civil Service I still have a few years to go before retirement and I still cherish hopes of further promotion.

That is a hell of a thing to say in a scientific world! Isn’t it?

This man dare not tell his colleagues.

We talk about blackbirds pecking out the white feathers of their colleagues, or killing them if they can’t, because they didn’t conform.

This man is afraid of being put away because he wouldn’t conform.

Sadly, this message to the gentlemen of Settled Science was omitted from the very well illustrated and fascinating [rough] transcript of Eric Laithwaite’s fourth lecture.

The Jabberwock was a monster with many heads.

As such it resembles, in some way, the manner in which we divide our science into Physics, Chemistry, Biology, etc., and then Physics into Heat, Light, Sound, Magnetism and Electricity.

Often one can spot the various heads as being Laws of Physics, and some of them look into mirrors, see their reflections and think that the total number of their kind is bigger than it really is.

Thus they attempt to co-exist with their own shadows and reflections

Engineer Through the Looking-Glass – Lecture IV – The Jabberwock

Needless to say, the controversy surrounding Eric Laithwaite’s Friday Evening Discourse “harmed his career considerably”.

This whole affair harmed his career considerably – he left his position at the Royal Institution, he was never elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society, nor was he granted an entry in the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which considering his significance, irrespective of his unorthodox views, seems somewhat unfair and efforts are being made to rectify this omission.

The gyroscope, an engineer and the Christmas Lectures
The Royal Institution – Blog – Frank James – 10 Dec 2013

The controversy also demonstrated to all practitioners of the Scientific Method that mainstream academic disciplines are conformist, unforgiving and strictly authoritarian.

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3 Responses to Engineer Through the Looking Glass

  1. craigm350 says:

    Reblogged this on CraigM350 and commented:
    All too familiar.

    The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present

    and is gravely to be regarded.

  2. A C Osborn says:

    The question has to be, has anything been done with his findings since then?
    A secondary question is obviously, does it have a practical application?
    It would also suggest that it may have some effect on Inertia as well.

  3. Miles Mathis suggests that charge makes planes fly.

    The spinning wheel would perhaps be pushing charge down?

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