Obituary: Professor Eric Laithwaite
Saturday 13 December 1997
Eric Laithwaite shared his enthusiasm for engineering at every opportunity. He is remembered with affection by students he inspired at Manchester University, where he was Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer, from 1953 to 1964, and at Imperial College, London, where he was Professor of Heavy Electrical Engineering until his retirement in 1986. He enthused other audiences too, both professional colleagues and the general public, but he liked most an audience of young people whom he might inspire to pursue engineering careers.
The Royal Institution's Christmas Lectures for Young People were begun in 1826 by Michael Faraday - one of Laithwaite's heroes - and Laithwaite gave the lectures in 1966. That year the BBC televised the series in full, and they have been televised each Christmas since. The 1966 lectures also appeared as a book, The Engineer in Wonderland. The title reflected the author's deep-seated belief that engineering was central to modern life: scientists can explain things, but almost every man-made object is the work of an engineer (and he would sometimes add that accountants and lawyers contribute nothing).
The chapter headings were all taken from Alice. Laithwaite was no philistine, but widely read: he delighted in linking engineering and literature. Alice saw the White Rabbit take a watch out of its waistcoat pocket: "It flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat pocket or a watch to take out of it." If Alice had not noticed she would never have had any adventures: the engineer who notices things enters a Wonderland.
With that introduction, and a host of demonstrations where things could be noticed, Laithwaite began to explain the working of electric motors and generators to his young audience. He held the honorary title of Professor of Applied Electricity at the Royal Institution, and gave several Friday Evening Discourses. One was on butterflies - a hobby, but a subject on which he was a considerable expert.
Eric Laithwaite was born in 1921 in Atherton, Lancashire, the son of a farmer. He happily retained his Lancastrian accent. He was educated at Kirkham Grammar School and the Regent Street Polytechnic, London. In 1941 he joined the Royal Air Force, and from 1943 was at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, where he worked on automatic pilots. It was probably at that time that he first developed the fascination with gyroscopes which remained for the rest of his life. He made several lifelong friends at the RAE, including the electrical engineer turned clergyman who conducted his funeral service, speaking warmly of his old friend.
In 1946 he went to read Electrical Engineering at Manchester University, graduating BSc in 1949 and MSc in 1950, when he joined the staff as an Assistant Lecturer. He worked at first under Professor F.C. Williams on the Ferranti Mk I computer, but his real interest was in power engineering.
His major achievements were with linear induction machines - linear motors. (Linear motors are machines with a moving part which travels in a line, rather than revolving on an axis.) He did not invent linear motors, but he made them practical and he believed they would provide the ideal propulsion unit for trains. In his most advanced designs the linear motor would propel the train, carry its weight and steer it without needing wheels. In fact the train would move along a "magnetic river".
In the 1960s a test track was built at Earith, in Cambridgeshire, largely government- funded, to test a vehicle which combined hovercraft principles with a linear motor drive. It was a bad time for railways in Britain, just after the Beeching cuts and with the political climate favouring roads. The project was cancelled and Laithwaite was bitterly disappointed.
In 1967, however, there was a new opening. The Motor Industry Research Association required a new crash testing facility in which a vehicle could be accelerated quickly to a precise speed. After 25 years' service the linear motor Laithwaite designed has recently been "retired" and, much to Laithwaite's delight, given to the Science Museum. By a strange coincidence it arrived at the museum store on the day of its designer's funeral.
Engineering history was another interest. When first at Imperial College he would show his students the variety of early electrical machines in the Science Museum "so my students never get the idea there is only one way to make a machine". As well as publishing numerous scholarly papers on linear motors he wrote a book on their history (A History of Linear Electric Motors, 1987). When the linear motor made by Charles Wheatstone in 1840 was discovered, Laithwaite enjoyed helping the present writer try it out in the college laboratory, and shared in the conclusion that Wheatstone had had the right ideas, but could never have obtained sufficient electric current to run his machine.
Another historical interest was the engineer Nikola Tesla, another independent- minded engineer who made great technical advances in conventional, rotating, electric motors, and who fell foul of the "establishment" for some of his unorthodox ideas.
In 1986 Laithwaite was delighted to receive the Tesla Award of the (American) Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers "for contributions to the development and understanding of electric machines and especially of the linear induction motor".
In his later years at Imperial College Laithwaite pursued his interest in gyroscopes; he felt their behaviour had never been adequately explained and they had properties which might be exploited in space travel. He sought to demonstrate his ideas and raise some of his questions in a Friday Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution. The attempt brought him much criticism and some personal hurt when colleagues dissociated themselves from him. But he persisted and, as a colleague observed recently, some of his questions remain unanswered.
On Laithwaite's retiring from Imperial College Professor B.V. Jayawant offered him laboratory facilities at the School of Engineering at Sussex University, an easy train ride from his home in Bognor Regis. There Laithwaite enjoyed his last 10 years, continuing his research with gyroscopes and with linear motors. Only a few weeks ago they obtained a contract from Nasa for research into the feasibility of using linear motors to launch shuttles and satellites into low orbit. As Laithwaite remarked, "It came 10 years too late", but Nasa's interest gave him great pleasure, and his colleagues at Sussex will continue the work.
Laithwaite worked to the end, and died without re- gaining consciousness after collapsing in the laboratory.
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