Eric Laithwaite

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Laithwaite's Linear induction motor with transverse flux
1973 Patent# 3824414

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. He and Fredrick Eastham designed a self-stable magnetic levitation system called Magnetic river (which incidentally appeared in the film The Spy Who Loved Me). Laithwaite derived an equation for "goodness", which parametrically described motor efficiency in general terms, and which he interpreted as implying that motor efficiency increases with size. He made many television appearances, including the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures to young people in 1966 and 1974. Laithwaite was also a keen amateur entomologist and the co-authored The Dictionary of Butterflies and Moths (1975).


  • I'm like a child who's been brought up inside an institution and has never seen the outside world, the sea, or trees in a wood... Coming here was like being taken out of that box and put into the marvelous real world that there is, and I've simply been standing and gazing in wonder at all of the things that there are in the universe. And I'd just like to live to be 200, because one lifetime isn't enough. ...Of course I shall never retire, I mean when, I'm 65 I hope they'll make me Professor Emeritus, but I also hope that they'll let me go on working. ...I'm writing a book on engineering and biology and the last chapter is called "Gazing Wonder", and that's how I can sum it up.

The Forces of Induction - 1969

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  • A plain steel rod does remarkably well because steel... is a conductor of electricity, as well as of magnetism. This tubular motor is not the most efficient of linear induction machines. ...This amazing force of induction ...appears as almost artificial gravity under our control. Now, as an engineer I must try and put this force to good use, and when I do I must be sure that I'm getting the very best out of my machine. Now one of the advantageous of arrangements appears to be to use two flat machines face to face, forming the outside of a sandwich, with the aluminum sheet as the filling. Now this motor is really a most potent device, but still pretty useless... So if we want continuous motion, we must turn this machine over. Let [it] now be the moving part, and let it sit on a fixed rail and run along that... I'm going to raise the voltage slowly and the motor will climb this very steep incline. ...[I]t doesn't need wheels to grip the rail. There are virtually no moving parts, and the motor is capable of developing a very large force. Taking off. I can control the motor for very low speeds, or stop it when it's moving very fast. When used on the horizontal and made in a much larger size, such a machine is capable of developing a very high acceleration. At the Motor Industry Research Association laboratories at Nuneaton, the linear motor is being used to crash test all kinds of vehicles. ...The linear motor to do this job is very small, It's only about three times as big as our model which climbed the rail. ...Red lights flash, and once the final button is pressed, the forces of induction take over.

The engineer through the looking glass (1974)

The Royal Institution 1974 Christmas Lectures
  • There are all kinds of people thinking about all kinds of things all of the time. That sentence sums up what I would describe as the ultimate deterrent to oppose the urge to invent. It is the feeling that it's all been done. Someone must have done this. I was born too late. All the good pickings are in the last century, and other such rubbish.
    • Lecture 6 - It's my own invention, 00:46.
  • Isaac Newton was right when he declared "If I can see further than others it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants." And you start counting up Newton's giants... Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Archimedes. You soon run out of ideas. But Newton knew nothing of Faraday even, and Maxwell, Rutherford, Max Planck, Neils Bohr, Geiger, Einstein, Mach. Our list of giants runs in the hundreds. So the opportunities for new inventions and discoveries... were never greater than they are today. And of one thing we can be sure, they will be... even greater next year.
    • Lecture 6 - It's my own invention, 01:12.
  • I make most of my inventions when I'm talking to other people. ...I drag them from their interest into mine, and then they thank me when they leave, and I feel as if I should pay them a fee, because I feel as if I've used their brain to sort of reflect from.
    • Lecture 6 - It's my own invention, 02:15.
  • When you discover something or observe something for the first time, you... wonder how that works, and then you make one, and you look at it, and you decide you'd better find out how it works. ...[Y]ou set about a detailed series of experiments, and eventually, have to do the sums, it wouldn't be respectable without doing the sums... [Y]ou do the sums and then you publish it as a paper in the learned society journal. ...[Y]ou write it as if it was done from the front, as if on morning one you said "I will now invent the magnetic river..." ...[T]his very unfortunate phrase keeps coming in, "Now it is cleat that..." and "Clearly, obviously..." None of it is obvious. It wasn't the day before you started. No, you do it from the back.
    • Lecture 6 - It's my own invention, 02:36.
  • I was telephoned by a man called Alexander Charles Jones, who asked me if he might bring me a box of apparatus which he said when put on frictionless casters and set in motion inside, would displace itself outside its own dimension. Immediately I knew this man was different. ...Any ordinary crank would have said, "How would you like to see Newton's Laws disobeyed." ...So I said... "Does you box contain anything that might loosely be described as a gyroscope?" ...He said, "In the box, there is a gyroscope." I said, "I think you'd better come and show it to me... because I know enough about gyros to know that they're like electromagnetism, and I've studied electromagnetism for thirty years and I know darn well I don't understand it, and I don't understand gyros either, but I can invent new things in electromagnetism once a year. And if you've got something new about gyroscopes I want to see it." And he brought it, and it did. And that was the start of a new line of research for me. And then, about a year later, I met a second enthusiast called Edwin Rickman who added his own brand of instinct that... improved the ideas we'd already got. Let me say of Alex Jones that since I first met him that I've been convinced both of the validity of his argument, and been impressed with his feel for what I'd call the elements of nature. A thing that the more learned acknowledgement of science and mathematics have seldom had, a natural feel for what goes on...
    • Lecture 6 - It's my own invention, 19:50.
  • So there is the first message for all of you as potential inventors. Take your own ideas a little further before giving them up. Keep your experience like a sort of treasure house that you can draw on whenever you like. But never, never let it be your master. Be on the lookout for impossible things, the sort the Red Queen dreamed up before breakfast.
    • Lecture 6 - It's my own invention, 22:29.

A History of Linear Electric Motors (1987)

  • Linear motors can be regarded... as the physical result of splitting and unrolling of rotary machines, and there are therefore at least as many types of linear motor as rotary...
    • Introduction — the first age of topology, p. 2.
  • [T]here can be no electromagnetic machines before Faraday's discovery of the laws of induction in 1831. To this extent it is surprising that the earliest linear electric motor emerged as early as 1838, for it then took over a century for any linear machine to make a substantial commercial profit.
    • The early inventors and their patents, p. 31.
  • [T]he textile men who dabbled in linear motors made a real contribution... and while they were probably unaware of each other's inventions, it seems probable that some of their work was known to later workers in other fields. If only some of the textile men had been aware of the potential for linear motors in those other fields, the 'Second Age of Topology'... might well have started earlier, just as the invention of the induction machine might have occurred in the 1830s had not the inventors of that time been blinded by the demand to generate 'battery-like' current.
    • The contributions of the textile men, p. 52.
  • I have been told by different people on separate occasions that the first patent on linear motors was filed by the Mayor of Pittsburgh in 1890, and that it was an induction machine applied to loom shuttle propulsion. ...[T]here is certainly a patent with the same objective in 1895. ...[T]he name [flying] given to James Kay's shuttle of 1733 suggests movement without contact and, as with modern transport in which it is proposed to have ground vehicles 'hovering' clear of the ground, Tesla's invention promised immediate success if it could be applied in linear form. ...The... 70-80 years during which progress in linear motors was extremely slow clearly needs an explanation. ...[T]here are many contributing factors, not least that of the 'amateur' status of the textile inventors in the world of electrical engineers.
    • The contributions of the textile men, p. 53.
  • An engineer is first and foremost a scientist. applied scientist ...whose ultimate objective is the profitable manufacture of articles... Academic engineers may argue that they are as concerned with profitable concepts... To this extent they run alongside the pure scientist... with at least half an eye on the profits and with problems many orders of magnitude greater in complexity... In such a no-man's land he is hand-in-hand with his medical colleague, who faced with a malignant disease must let the patient die or try something.
    • 'Fashions' in engineering, p. 84.
  • It is not strange that the engineer fails to produce a unique solution, that his product is seen to be the result of 'art' more than science. ...The product becomes a matter of opinion... and joins the ranks of many other products such as literature, painting and sculpture, and... clothing. It has, in fact, its own history of Fashion.
    • 'Fashions' in engineering, p. 84.
  • A great deal of literature and much pontification have emerged... on the subject of specialization—or rather on its opposite, the 'broadening' of education. Since 1960 I have watched... the inroads which the educationalists, many of which never did any research in science per se, have made into educational institutions and their traditions... Perhaps it had its origins in the 'Science makes War' movement which followed... Hiroshima and Nagasaki... But I think not. [Some] broadeners... felt a need to compete with their University colleagues who were more gifted in the art of research. Others were genuine crusaders with a deep sense of responsibility for the Destiny of Man. ...[T]he broadening process overgrew itself like a neglected greenhouse plant... [A]ny attempt to mingle Sociology and Atomic Physics will spell disaster for those who participate and for the organisations whose members have been so taught. ...I am merely exercising ...the right of a historian... to write his own 'slant' into his train of facts.
    • Electromagnetic levitation, p. 95.
  • There are so many facets to almost any subject... that to tell the whole in its proper time sequence would be to lose the reader in a sea of facts and details, some related, others not at all.
    • Academics and industrialists, p. 107.
  • Electric motors and generators 'came of age' over almost the same period that engineering was becoming clean and respectable as a profession. Although technology... preceded science, indeed paved the way... scientists were regarded for centuries as belonging to the upper class, the intelligentsia, so closely related to philosophers as to allow overlap. In such a world, technology was not recognised as a subject and engineers... did not appear until there were 'engines' for them to look after. ...Even in the early part of the twentieth century, science as a whole was almost a 'middle class' occupation compared with studies of the classics.
    • Academics and industrialists, p. 107.
  • The universities and the factories were as far apart as the gymnasium and the monastery. ...[T]his watershed inhibited linear motor development for the industrialist would make a linear machine, basing his designs on conventional rotary machine practice, find it to have an efficiency of 20 per cent and a power factor of 0.1, and abandon it for the rest of his career. The reason for the low values of these, in part still fashionable quantities, was not only the lack of theoretical ability but the low speed and small size of applications...
    • Academics and industrialists, p. 108.
  • [T]he academic tended to dislike the industrialist and the industrialist both distrusted and feared the academic—distrusted because 'theory never works in practice' and feared because the managing director might reveal some chink in his 'armour of experience' when confronted by the academic in the presence of some of his own staff. Had not the 'long-haired Professor' long been a music-hall joke and his caricature the subject of comedy films?
    • Academics and industrialists, p. 108.
  • Perhaps it was World War II which came to the rescue again when the ridiculous Professor became almost indistinguishable from the 'Back Room Boy'...It reminded me of a young lady who was quite accurately described as 'long and lanky' until she inherited half a million pounds and overnight became 'tall and stately'. The image of a Professor 'stumbling across ideas' was transformed into the Scientist making 'inspired guesses'. 'Men ahead of their time' became a common compliment to those whose ideas were so abstract that they could not be understood.
    • Academics and industrialists, p. 108.
  • [In] the first efforts [1960] of Fred Barwell and myself to try out the feasibility of linear motor drives for railways... we built an 80-foot track in the laboratories of Manchester University... Having put a seat on this vehicle and given rides to daily newspaper reporters (acceleration 0.5 g), we had all the publicity we needed...
    • The high-speed transport game, p. 125.
  • I built my first linear motor in 1948 and wrote my first paper on the subject in 1954. The Gorton experiment took place in 1962. The first model of a tracked hovercraft was publicly demonstrated at Browndown in the summer of 1966. We... conquered the long pole pitch problem in 1969. We were on the track of very far-reaching experiments with the emergence of a 'magnetic river' following Transpo 72 in May of that year. We were aware of the feedback amplifier type of magnetic suspension and of the cryogenic method (superconductor).
    • The world-wide game, p. 169.
  • [A] world financial recession brought governments into conflict with technological innovation in linear motors in the mid 1970s. Looking back... it will seem amazing that at a time when millions of pounds worth of commercially manufactured linear motors had been sold and had proved their worth, everyone was so slow to appreciate their value in the transport scene, knowing that bigger, faster motors would have enormously superior characteristics to those used for sliding doors, traveling cranes, conveyor belt drives and the like.
    • The second age of topology, p. 197.
  • [T]here is still no outright 'winner' in the High-speed Transport Game. Yet Japan Air Lines, Japanese National Railways, Transrapid (in West Germany) and British Rail all made advances in... versions of Maglev and linear motor propulsion in the mid 1970s. ...[E]xciting activities in university departments continued into the 1980s and a great deal of this was an extension of the topological developments of the 1960s. Surely the point of no return was passed..? There could not have been a continuing stream of wrong answers from... research departments... as was forecast by the prophets of doom of the late 1960s.
    • The second age of topology, p. 197.
  • The legacy of rotary machine design can be seen, in part, as an inhibition of linear motor experimentation, even as far as the 1970s. In rotary machines, the tangential direction was the thrust direction and the axial direction was simply a means of increasing power output. Three-dimensional thinking was, in some ways, more advanced in the Victorian era... the Second Age of Topology can be seen as having had its beginnings in the demand for high-speed propulsion, the problem of the long pole pitch and the resulting development of the TFM concept.
    • The second age of topology, p. 197.
  • The research director of Linear Motors Ltd told me in the late 1970s that he had then listed over one thousand different applications for linear motors. By this he meant that motors had been manufactured and sold for that number of different jobs. The most common applications included sliding doors, traveling cranes and conveyors. The items that were moved varied from 0.1 mg... to over 5 tonnes.
    • A continuing story, p. 224.
  • I shall always believe the force of induction to be sheer magic in its own right!
    • A continuing story, p. 225.
  • West Germany branched... into... another new topology with a large-scale demonstration of the 'M-Bahn' system... Permanent rare-earth magnets were used to provide the lift from the underside of a ground rail. Guide wheels were used to control the gap. The philosophy... better to provide a lifting force of 120 per cent of the vehicle weight and run the wheels on a 'ceiling'...
    • A continuing story, p. 225.

Engineer Through the Looking-Glass (1980)

  • The Jabberwock was a monster with many heads. As such it resembles... 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. One of the best examples... is... Laws of Electromagnetic Induction.
    • Ch. 4, The Jabberwock, p. 40.
  • [T]he mirror really is Lenz's law itself, for it changes hands for you as you go through the mirror and changes the motor to a generator at the same time.
    • Ch. 4, The Jabberwock, p. 41.
  • Circularity is a powerful concept, the idea of a closed loop even more so. In circular motion there is magic, just as there is in electro-magnetism. But it only manifests itself when it is, like (shall we say for the moment, rather than a 'reflection' of) its 'neighboring head', truly three-dimensional. ...We can induce current into the one [coil] from the other by means totally unintelligible to us, but to which we give the name 'electromagnetic induction'. But if I place one coil with its axis at right-angles to that of the other, there is no induced voltage. It is as if the two circuits lived in different worlds... What is the meaning of perspective in a four-dimensional space?
    • Ch. 4, The Jabberwock, pp. 41-42.
  • The whole idea of modern electrical machine theory... is based on this idea of the two independent axes, co-existing, co-related but nevertheless identifiably separate. We deal with complicated matters when we deal with rates of change of current, matters that require not only the Special Theory of Relativity, but the General Theory (the world of relative accelerations)... Might there not exist a similar complexity also in the gyroscope, if rates of change of acceleration are involved? ...Work on rates of change of acceleration (American scientists have called it 'surge') is very sparse.
    • Ch. 4, The Jabberwock, p. 45.
  • I know no property of a gyroscope that conflicts... with the conservation of energy. ...Perpetual motion is in the same state today that as it was in the fifteenth century when Leonardo da Vinci denounced it so properly. ...If you really want to see perpetual motion, look into the sky on a cloudless night and marvel at the size and movement within the Universe.
    • Ch. 4, The Jabberwock, p. 46.

Quotes about Laithwaite

  • 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. ...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...
  • 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".
  • Eric Laithwaite has been aptly called an evangelist for engineering. Like all true evangelists he combined belief and practice with an ability to inspire and enthuse others. Anyone who met him could expect to be given a lucid explanation of the engineering principles behind his current project.
    • Brian Bowers, "An Evangelist for Engineering" Engineering Science and Education Journal (Oct. 1998) Vol. 7, Issue 5.

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