Monday, 18 June 2007

Unsung Heroes: Dr Frederick Lanchester

I was talking to someone yesterday about my university days and admitted that although I knew the place as Coventry University it enjoyed a long and enviable reputation as Lanchester Polytechnic. This prompted the question of where, what or who was Lanchester? What a terrible situation, I’m sure most people could name a British playwright, composer, and a couple of great political and military leaders. How many could name a great British engineer? Lanchester Poly was named after one of the greatest (if not the greatest) and brightest men in British engineering history.

Dr Frederick Lanchester was a man of many and diverse interests. Born in 1868 Frederick began to study engineering at 14, by the age of 20 he was working for the Forward Gas Engine Company of Saltney, Birmingham. Lanchester’s interests were broad including philosophy, poetry and photography and much more. Powered flight was another of his interests, studying aerodynamic theory and building up a wealth of theoretical knowledge on the subject. If Lanchester had found a suitable internal combustion engine for a manned flying machine maybe he would never have turned his attention to the motor car.

It is probably fair to say that it was Lanchester’s proficiency with mathematics that made him such a great engineer. The prototype Lanchester car was introduced to the world in 1895 - and it was wholly British in its design unlike the German Daimler that was far better publicised a year later. Lanchester approached the problem from first principles, his understanding of suspension (both geometry and spring rates), structures, ergonomics and engine design were decades ahead of anyone else. The car was designed for mass production using standardised components without needing skilled labour.

Over time pressure from customers and shareholders diluted the purity of the cars bearing the Lanchester name. By 1931 the motorcycle and armaments firm BSA took control and Lanchester cars became little more than badge-engineered Daimlers (Daimler also being part of BSA). By 1956 Daimler phased out Lanchester cars and the name faded into obscurity.

Even where you might expect the Lanchester name to receive some recognition it languishes in obscurity. Visit the Museum of British Road Transport in Coventry and (as far as I could see) Lanchester has been erased from the history books. There is a monument in Birmingham to Lanchester’s pioneering car but how many people know it is there, how many know why?


David Wilkins said...

Lanchester balance shafts - they still call them that, don't they?

Fourwheelsteer said...

If they don't they should.

Lanchester also developed the torsional vibration damper and you'd be hard pressed to find an engine today that does without one of those.