Eric Laithwaite

Eric Laithwaite

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Eric Roberts Laithwaite was a British electrical engineer, known as the "Father of Maglev" for his development of the linear induction motor
Linear motor
A linear motor is an electric motor that has had its stator and rotor "unrolled" so that instead of producing a torque it produces a linear force along its length...

 and maglev rail system.


Eric Roberts Laithwaite was born in Atherton
Atherton, Greater Manchester
Atherton is a town within the Metropolitan Borough of Wigan, in Greater Manchester, England, historically a part of Lancashire. It is east of Wigan, north-northeast of Leigh, and northwest of Manchester...

, Lancashire
Lancashire is a non-metropolitan county of historic origin in the North West of England. It takes its name from the city of Lancaster, and is sometimes known as the County of Lancaster. Although Lancaster is still considered to be the county town, Lancashire County Council is based in Preston...

, on 14 June 1921, raised in the Fylde
The Fylde
The Fylde ; Scandinavian: "field") is a coastal plain in western Lancashire, England. It is roughly a 13-mile square-shaped peninsula, bounded by Morecambe Bay to the north, the Ribble estuary to the south, the Irish Sea to the west, and the Bowland hills to the east...

, Lancashire and educated at Kirkham Grammar School
Kirkham Grammar School
Kirkham Grammar School is a co-educational independent school in Kirkham, Lancashire, England . It was founded in 1549. Its roots can be traced back to the chantry school attached to St Michael's Church in the 13th century. The school remained in the church grounds until it moved to occupy...

. He joined the Royal Air Force
Royal Air Force
The Royal Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Formed on 1 April 1918, it is the oldest independent air force in the world...

 in 1941. Through his service in World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, he rose to the rank of Flying Officer
Comparative military ranks
This article is a list of various states' armed forces ranking designations. Comparisons are made between the different systems used by nations to categorize the hierarchy of an armed force compared to another. Several of these lists mention NATO reference codes. These are the NATO rank reference...

, becoming a test engineer for autopilot
An autopilot is a mechanical, electrical, or hydraulic system used to guide a vehicle without assistance from a human being. An autopilot can refer specifically to aircraft, self-steering gear for boats, or auto guidance of space craft and missiles...

 technology at the Royal Aircraft Establishment
Royal Aircraft Establishment
The Royal Aircraft Establishment , was a British research establishment, known by several different names during its history, that eventually came under the aegis of the UK Ministry of Defence , before finally losing its identity in mergers with other institutions.The first site was at Farnborough...

 in Farnborough
Farnborough Airfield
Farnborough Airport or TAG London Farnborough Airport is an airport situated in Farnborough, Rushmoor, Hampshire, England...


On demobilization
Demobilization is the process of standing down a nation's armed forces from combat-ready status. This may be as a result of victory in war, or because a crisis has been peacefully resolved and military force will not be necessary...

 in 1946, he attended the University of Manchester
University of Manchester
The University of Manchester is a public research university located in Manchester, United Kingdom. It is a "red brick" university and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive British universities and the N8 Group...

 to study electrical engineering
Electrical engineering
Electrical engineering is a field of engineering that generally deals with the study and application of electricity, electronics and electromagnetism. The field first became an identifiable occupation in the late nineteenth century after commercialization of the electric telegraph and electrical...

. His work on the Manchester Mark I computer earned him his master's degree. His subsequent doctoral work started his interest in linear induction motor
Linear motor
A linear motor is an electric motor that has had its stator and rotor "unrolled" so that instead of producing a torque it produces a linear force along its length...

s. He derived an equation for 'goodness
Goodness factor
Goodness factor is a metric developed by Eric Laithwaite to determine the 'goodness' of an electric motor. Using it he was able to develop efficient magnetic levitation induction motors....

' which parametrically describes the efficiency of a motor in general terms, and showed that it tended to imply that large motors are more efficient. He became professor of heavy electrical engineering at Imperial College London
Imperial College London
Imperial College London is a public research university located in London, United Kingdom, specialising in science, engineering, business and medicine...

 in 1964 where he continued his successful development of the linear motor
Linear motor
A linear motor is an electric motor that has had its stator and rotor "unrolled" so that instead of producing a torque it produces a linear force along its length...

He was involved in creating a self-stable magnetic levitation
Magnetic levitation
Magnetic levitation, maglev, or magnetic suspension is a method by which an object is suspended with no support other than magnetic fields...

 system called Magnetic river
Magnetic river
Magnetic river is an electrodynamic suspension magnetic levitation system designed by Eastham and Eric Laithwaite in 1974.It consists of a thin conductive plate on an AC linear induction motor...

 which appeared in the film The Spy Who Loved Me
The Spy Who Loved Me (film)
The Spy Who Loved Me is a spy film, the tenth film in the James Bond series, and the third to star Roger Moore as the fictional secret agent James Bond. It was directed by Lewis Gilbert and the screenplay was written by Christopher Wood and Richard Maibaum...

where it levitated and propelled a tray along a table to decapitate a seated dummy.

In the 1980s, he was involved in creating a device to extract energy from sea waves
Wave power
Wave power is the transport of energy by ocean surface waves, and the capture of that energy to do useful work — for example, electricity generation, water desalination, or the pumping of water...

 (see patent GB2062114); although the technology was successful in trials, it could not be made storm proof, hence it never became a commercial success.

Laithwaite was an able communicator who made many television
Television is a telecommunication medium for transmitting and receiving moving images that can be monochrome or colored, with accompanying sound...

 appearances. Memorable among these were his Royal Institution Christmas Lectures
Royal Institution Christmas Lectures
The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures are a series of lectures on a single topic, which have been held at the Royal Institution in London each year since 1825. The lectures present scientific subjects to a general audience, including young people, in an informative and entertaining manner....

 to young people in 1966 and 1974. The latter of these made much of the surprising phenomena of gyroscope
A gyroscope is a device for measuring or maintaining orientation, based on the principles of angular momentum. In essence, a mechanical gyroscope is a spinning wheel or disk whose axle is free to take any orientation...


In 1974, Laithwaite was invited by the Royal Institution
Royal Institution
The Royal Institution of Great Britain is an organization devoted to scientific education and research, based in London.-Overview:...

 to give a talk on a subject of his own choosing. He decided to lecture about gyroscopes, a subject in which he had only recently become interested. His interest had been aroused by an amateur inventor named Alex Jones, who contacted Laithwaite about a reactionless propulsion drive he (Jones) had invented. After seeing a demonstration of Jones's small prototype (a small wagon with a swinging pendulum which advanced intermittently along a table top), Laithwaite became convinced that "he had seen something impossible". 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
Newton's laws of motion
Newton's laws of motion are three physical laws that form the basis for classical mechanics. They describe the relationship between the forces acting on a body and its motion due to those forces...

 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.) They were subsequently published independently as 'Engineer Through The Looking-Glass'

Despite this rejection and despite the fact that Laithwaite later acknowledged that gyroscopes behave fully in accord with Newtonian mechanics, he continued to explore gyroscopic behaviour, maintaining the belief that some form of reactionless propulsion could be derived from them. Laithwaite set up Gyron Ltd with William Dawson and, in 1993, applied for a patent entitled "Propulsion System". See US5860317, GB2289757 and WO9530832 for the US, UK and pct application for patents respectively. A United States Patent, Number 5860317, was granted in 1999.

Although Laithwaite is best known for his ideas concerning gyroscopes, he also held an idea concerning moths
Moths may refer to:* Gustav Moths , German rower* The Moths!, an English indie rock band* MOTHS, members of the Memorable Order of Tin Hats...

. It was that they communicate via ultra short wave electromagnetic phenomena (Inventor in the Garden of Eden, E R Laithwaite 1994 page 199). He persisted in this belief even after the pheromone, which they actually use, had been isolated [Details?] and could even be bought 'over-the-counter' — which seems to go against his account. However, he himself had argued (1960, see below and that there must be two different mechanisms for detecting pheromones: (i) The orthodox account of chemical-gradients (effective only at short-range), and (ii) Some method for long-distance detection (>"100 yards") even when the wind was in an unfavourable direction — and the only credible solution then had to be electromagnetic, (probably infrared
Infrared light is electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength longer than that of visible light, measured from the nominal edge of visible red light at 0.74 micrometres , and extending conventionally to 300 µm...

). This explanation did not account for where the necessary energy might come from — a matter later taken up by P.S.Callahan, though he too suffered considerable controversy (largely due to all contestants overlooking Laithwaite's "(i)/(ii)" distinction). Anyway, present indications are that the energy comes from fluorescence
Fluorescence is the emission of light by a substance that has absorbed light or other electromagnetic radiation of a different wavelength. It is a form of luminescence. In most cases, emitted light has a longer wavelength, and therefore lower energy, than the absorbed radiation...

 effects whereby the pheromone
A pheromone is a secreted or excreted chemical factor that triggers a social response in members of the same species. Pheromones are chemicals capable of acting outside the body of the secreting individual to impact the behavior of the receiving individual...

 molecules near the female act as a cloud of infrared beacons (invisible to us humans) while these same molecules also act as the conventional concentration-gradient for any nearby male-moths; (Traill, 2005, 2008

Laithwaite also had a habit of championing the ideas of amateurs over those of experts. Such ideas included the ones that there are three types of magnetism and that the '196 problem' is not a problem: terminating after relatively few iterations (in fact, the current count runs to millions of iterations – with no sign of termination).

Laithwaite retired from Imperial College in 1986, but was offered no other research post until 1990, when he became Visiting Professor at Sussex University. He was persuaded by George Scelzo of PRT Maglev Systems in Chicago, to submit a proposal to NASA for an electromagnetic launch assist track originally inspired by John Mankins of NASA
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation's civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research...

. He died within weeks of the contract being awarded. The initial stage has been successfully continued by William Dawson and the contract with PRT for this development is still active. The track uses both levitation coils and linear induction motors and it can be seen in the "Magnets" episode of Modern Marvels on the History channel.

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.



  • Propulsion without wheels (1965)
  • Induction machines for special purposes (1966)
  • The engineer in wonderland (1967) — The Royal Institution of Great Britain Christmas lectures, 1966/67. With illustrations, including a portrait.
  • The linear motor and its application to tracked hovercraft (1971)
  • Linear electric motors (1971)
  • Experiments with a linear induction motor (1971)
  • Exciting electrical machines (1974)
  • All things are possible: an engineer looks at research and development (1976)
  • Transport without wheels ed. (1977)
  • How to invent (1977) co-written by M.W. Thring
  • Why does a glow-worm glow? (1977) illustrated by Mike Jackson
  • Electric energy: its generation, transmission and use (1980) co-written by L.L. Freris
  • Engineer through the looking glass (1980)— a revised and expanded version of his Royal Institution of Great Britain Christmas lectures, 1974/75. With illustrations, including a portrait.

  • Invitation to engineering (1984)
  • Shape is important (1986)
  • Force: a basic ingredient (1986)
  • A history of linear electric motors (1986)
  • Using materials (1987)
  • Size is vital (1987)
  • An inventor in the Garden of Eden (1994)


  • S. G. Brown Medal of the Royal Society
    Royal Society
    The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, known simply as the Royal Society, is a learned society for science, and is possibly the oldest such society in existence. Founded in November 1660, it was granted a Royal Charter by King Charles II as the "Royal Society of London"...

  • Nikola Tesla Award of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
    Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
    The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is a non-profit professional association headquartered in New York City that is dedicated to advancing technological innovation and excellence...

  • Fellow of Imperial College London
    Imperial College London
    Imperial College London is a public research university located in London, United Kingdom, specialising in science, engineering, business and medicine...

  • Honorary Fellow of the Institution of Electrical Engineers
    Institution of Electrical Engineers
    The Institution of Electrical Engineers was a British professional organisation of electronics, electrical, manufacturing, and Information Technology professionals, especially electrical engineers. The I.E.E...


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