Obituary for the late Professor Eric Laithwaite - 12/31/97 From the 'Electronic Daily Telegraph' Obituaries - Saturday 6 December 1997 - Professor Eric Laithwaite
Scientist who used linear motors to drive hovering trains but was then branded a crank for defying Newton.
PROFESSOR ERIC LAITHWAITE, the electrical engineer who has died aged 76, spent his career investigating unusual forms of mechanical propulsion and championing the linear induction motor.
Linear motors, which Laithwaite described as "no more than an ordinary electrical motor spread out", generate magnetic fields on which an object can rest and travel without being slowed by friction. Their principle had long been known, but it was Laithwaite who pioneered their commercial development, using them to drive both transport and industrial machinery.
His first patent, taken out in 1948, used a linear motor to propel the shuttle across a loom in a mill, a process that had fascinated him since his boyhood in Lancashire.
Following the invention of the hovercraft in 1959, there was throughout the 1960s and early 1970s considerable government interest in developing new forms of high-speed mass transport. Laithwaite first tried to power transport with linear motors in 1962, when he was teaching at Manchester University and was a consultant to British Railways.
At the Gorton works, he managed to accelerate a plate-layer's trolley to 30 mph before it had travelled 30 yards. However, he soon became disillusioned with BR's lack of funding for the project - a complaint that became a refrain in his career - and in 1967 resigned to join their rivals, Tracked Hovercraft.
He persuaded the Government, which was worried about similar technological advances being made by the French, to invest 35.25 million in a project that combined the principles of linear motors and hovercraft. The "Hovertrain" was to be a high-speed train without wheels, resting on a cushion of air and driven by U-shaped magnets which fitted like a saddle over a metal plate in the centre of the track. This generated a magnetic field which pushed the train forward. A prototype reached over 100 mph on a length of track in the Fens.
The press predicted the imminent building of a monorail that would whisk passengers from the Cromwell Road Air Terminal to London Airport in eight minutes.
Yet in 1973 the Hovertrain project was abruptly cancelled, with the Aerospace Minister Michael Heseltine telling a Select Committee that its practical applications had not been proven.
Laithwaite's ideas, of no use to the British Government, were rapidly picked up by the Japanese and Germans as the oil crisis began to bite. Undaunted, Laithwaite continued to develop his theories and soon replaced the hovercraft principle with magnetic levitation. This relied on the repelling power of like poles of magnets to lift and move a craft along a track at speed. Although "Maglev" trains were relatively cheap, only one was built in Britain, at Birmingham airport. Japan and Germany were again quicker to see the benefits.
For the next 20 years, the costs of Maglev and controversy surrounding Laithwaite's thinking on other scientific matters (notably the propelling qualities of gyroscopes) meant his work on linear motors was ignored.
Magnetic levitation was relegated from the frontier of technology to a place as one of Q's toys in the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) - Major Boothroyd uses it to propel a tray at decapitating speed.
Last month, however, after several years of trying, Laithwaite and his colleagues at Sussex University persuaded Nasa that linear motors represented a more efficient alternative to the rockets used to launch spacecraft into orbit, and his team was awarded a contract to design a launch system.
Eric Roberts Laithwaite was born at Atherton, Lancashire, on June 14 1921. His father was a farmer. He was educated at Kirkham Grammar School, the Regent Street Polytechnic and Manchester University. From 1941 to 1946 he served with the RAF, working for three years on automatic pilot systems at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough.
He then returned to Manchester University and in 1950 was appointed an assistant lecturer there, remaining until he became Professor of Heavy Electrical Engineering at Imperial College, London, in 1964. The initial public interest in linear motors, combined with Laithwaite's wry fluency in explaining his ideas without being abstruse or patronising, made him a familiar figure on radio and television in the 1970s.
He wrote several books for a lay readership, including Exciting Electrical Machines (1974) and, with Professor M W Thring, How to Invent (1977). This set out his rules for inventors, including the ability to bully oneself to work, and a gift for serendipity.
But it was this high profile that contributed to his academic downfall and the controversy that dominated the last decade of his tenure at Imperial College. In 1974 Laithwaite was invited to give a Royal Institution lecture and chose to demonstrate his observations on gyroscopic force, including the seeming ability of gyrosopes to pull themselves along without being pushed.
With the heretical cry "Look, it's lost weight", Laithwaite showed how he could, without effort, raise a 50 lb spinning gyroscope above his head on the end of a long handle. It was a scientific oddity that Laithwaite thought would intrigue his colleagues.
Instead he began to be discredited, charged with challenging Newton's Laws on action and reaction and with cranky, unrigorous thinking. His lecture was the first not to be published by the Royal Institution and his nomination to the Royal Society was withdrawn.
His cause was not helped by the press, which wrote of his discovery of an "anti-gravity device" and "space drives", or the revelation that his interest in gyroscopes stemmed from a dream recounted to him by an amateur inventor.
Laithwaite retired from Imperial College in 1986, but was offered no other research post until 1990, when he became Visiting Professor at Sussex University. There he explored his ideas on space propulsion and raged at what he called the tragedy of "the Age of the Accountant, where there was no room for Isambard Kingdom Brunel".
He was also a keen entomologist and the co-author of The Dictionary of Butterflies and Moths (1975); he had one of the finest British collections of specimens. He married, in 1951, Sheila Gooddie; they had two sons and two daughters.