Obituary: Professor Eric Laithwaite

Eric Roberts Laithwaite, engineer: born Atherton, Lancashire 14 June 1921; Assistant Lecturer, Manchester University 1950-53, Lecturer 1953-58, Senior Lecturer 1958-64; Professor of Heavy Electrical Engineering, Imperial College of Science and Technology 1964-86 (Emeritus); Professor of the Royal Institution 1967-76; married 1951 Sheila Goodie (two sons, two daughters); died Falmer, East Sussex 27 November 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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee