Frederick Lanchester – Britain’s Leonardo

So why did Coventry have a Polytechnic named after Frederick Lanchester? And why is Coventry University’s library named the Lanchester Library? Who was Frederick Lanchester? What did he do? Why do we have his archives here in the city?

Well Frederick Lanchester is a rather fascinating man, who has been described as Britain’s own Leonardo da Vinci! He is truly the engineer’s engineer!

Frederick was born in 1868 in Lewisham, near London, the fourth child of nine. In 1888 he started his first job, as a draughtsman in a Patent Office. His first patent was for an Isometrograph (an instrument to draw parallel lines). Hundreds more patents were to follow.

In 1889 Fred moved to Birmingham to start as Assistant Works Manager at the Forward Gas Engine Company in Saltley. Cannily he negotiated a contract which gave him the rights to any patents that he was granted – which was a lot!

Among his many engineering achievements Fred designed and built the first all-British motor boat, which he piloted on the River Thames at Oxford.  He patented aspects connected to the invention of colour photography. By the end of the 1890s he had applied for patents on 111 inventions. Some of his patents included one for ‘rack & pinion’ steering, 4-wheel drive, the turbo-charging of car engines, the disc brake, power steering, and also the world’s 1st outboard boat engine. He was also responsible for inventing the accelerator pedal.

In December 1895 he drove the first all-British 4-wheel motor car on a public road, in nearby Birmingham and by 1899 he and his brothers set up the Lanchester Engine Company, developing motor cars incorporating Fred’s designs and the first production Lanchester car was built in 1910 – the 10hp. In 1912 Lanchester cars become the 1st in Europe with electric starter motors and Lanchester cars were the first to be exported from Britain.

Fred also invented monocoque construction, where the chassis is integral with the body, which is now the standard method of construction of all modern cars. Other inventions included 4-wheel brakes on commercial vehicles. He developed the first omnibus with forward-facing seats and improved car engine balancing by means of crankshaft vibration damper. He also invented the term “stream-line” and patented Hydro-pneumatic suspension, detachable wire wheels, stamped steel pistons, piston rings, hollow connecting rods, the torsional vibration damper, the harmonic balancer and the accelerator pedal.

It is perhaps with aeronautics that Lanchester’s brilliance was demonstrated without coming to true fruition. In his early years he became fascinated by gliders. He would launch models he built from the first floor window of his home to record and analyse their line of flight.  On a transatlantic voyage he observed birds flying and gliding, which fed and developed his theories on flight.

In 1894 he gave his first paper – ‘The Soaring of Birds and possibilities of Mechanical Flight’, which recorded his early observations, experiments and theories on flight. In 1897 he patented the inventions of two different types of aeroplane, to include many profound features- elliptical wings, contra props, wing plates.

In 1907 Fred published his profound book ‘Aerodynamics’, which detailed his analyses and theories on flight and the following year he published ‘Aerodonetics’, his second book on flight, which together with ‘Aerodynamics’ became volumes 1 and 2 of ‘Aerial Flight’. Fred receives the Bronze Medal award for his paper at the Aeronautical Society.

In 1910 Fred designed an aluminium-clad aircraft but unfortunately it crashes on bumpy beach.

In 1916 he published Aviation in Warfare: The Dawn of the Fourth Arm, which included a description of a series of differential equations that are today known as Lanchester’s Power Laws. The Laws described how two forces would attrit each other in combat, and demonstrated that the ability of modern weapons to operate at long ranges dramatically changed the nature of combat — a force that was twice as large had been twice as powerful in the past, but now it was four times, the square of the difference.

Lanchester’s Laws were originally applied practically in the United States to study logistics, where they developed into operations research and Lanchester is regarded as the founder of Operations Research.

During the First World War the Lanchester Motor Company designed and manufactured armoured cars for the Ministry of Defence. They were sent to Belgium, used to rescue pilots after the battle of Ypres and later used on airfields in Britain. The company also produced staff cars, trucks and over 450 aero-engines for use in the war effort.

Lanchester’s post-war cars featured welded aluminium joints for the first time in assembled body panels and Duralium body frames were adopted. The 40hp Lanchester car was bought and used by the Maharajas of Nawanagar, Newa, Rajkot and Kolapur, as well as being used to drive the Prince of Wales in 1923 and the Duke of York in 1925. It was acclaimed at the time as being ‘the most completely equipped and luxurious of carriages in the world’.

During his life Fred was also involved in producing sound equipment including speakers and radios and in 1941 Fred published his own ‘Musical Scale’.

Frederick Lanchester died in 1946 and his ashes were buried with his parents’ in West Sussex. Although a prolific engineer with hundreds of inventions to his name, he was not a natural businessman and did not become wealthy from all his engineering excellence.

Frederick’s connection with Coventry was through his long time association with the Daimler Company, which in later years built the Lanchester cars.  

If this story has whetted your appetite to find out more about Frederick Lanchester, then come along to the next online meeting of the Coventry Society on 12th October at 7.30 p.m.  where our guest speakers are Paul Henderson and CovSoc member Paul Nolan from the Lanchester Interactive Archive project based at the Frederick Lanchester library at Coventry University.

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