AROnline Contributor Martyn Kelham has produced this series on the great motoring men. Here, in the first part, he discusses the great pioneer, Frederick Lanchester.
If you are reading this, you will be a car enthusiast. I am too, but equally I’m a ‘people’ enthusiast. I am fascinated by the brains, the drive, the ambition and the sheer ‘bloody-mindedness’ of so many of our great designers and industrial leaders. I’m also interested in, and often surprised by, who developed what and when. The case of Frederick Lanchester illustrates this point probably more than any other of the names in this series.
If we just listed all the things this man developed, patented and used – it turns out to be a very long list of essential theories, components and tools that have lead us to the car in our drive!
Lanchester was from a large family, one of whom, his sister, was a suffragette. Although he was born in London – in October 1868 – his family moved to Brighton when he was very young. He went to a ‘prep’ school and later a boarding school, but he was not considered the brightest of students. He eventually did win a scholarship – and later won another scholarship to a small college – now part of Imperial. (The very same college that has just won the 2020 University Challenge accolade!).
In 1888, following an engineering course at Finsbury Technical College, he left without any formal qualification. His first job was as a Patent Office Draughtsman – reportedly for £3 per week. I think that’s remarkable – the author’s first job was an apprentice in an ‘old established’ furniture retailer – for £5 per week, 65 years later!
Frederick was clearly more switched on than the author because it was at this time he registered his first patent – for an ‘isometrograph’ – an instrument for shading and hatching in design work. Marriage came in 1919 – to Dorothea Cooper – and he later had a house built in Birmingham to his own design – which he and his lady wife never moved from.
One of his first ‘inventions’ (in 1888) was a much improved radio and gramophone speaker unit – but, unfortunately, for his newly-incorporated ‘Lanchester Laboratories Limited’ the Great Depression happened – and profits were not forthcoming. Before this, and whilst working for the Forward Gas Engine Company of Saltley as Assistant Works Manager, he invented and patented a pendulum governor – for which he received a royalty of ten shillings for each one fitted. Normally, this would have been the intellectual property of his employer, but having spotted that clause in his contract, he had prudently crossed it out before signing.
Two years later he patented a pendulum accelerometer for recording the acceleration and braking performance of road and rail vehicles.
Following on from promotion to Works Manager, he designed a new gas engine – more efficient than those produced by the company previously. This engine used ‘poppet’ valves and was very economical to run. In the same year, he developed a self-starting mechanism for gas engines – and promptly sold these rights to the Crossley Gas Engine Co.
In a small workshop next to his employer, he developed a small-single cylinder gas engine and this was coupled to a dynamo, which Lanchester used to light part of his employer’s factory.
Dedication to Smoothness of His Engines
Inevitably, there was some controversy about his dual role and in 1893 he resigned – handing over to his younger brother, George. He continued to work on gas engines and his next invention was a carburettor. This was the ‘wick’ carburettor – of the type we see still in use in Veteran and Vintage vehicles today. He patented this in 1905.
His new engine was installed in a boat and was, in fact, the first motorboat built in Britain.
Motor cars were next in Frederick’s sights and he designed a 5hp petrol engine which had two contra-rotating crankshafts – and this was renowned for its smoothness. He developed the epicyclic gearbox many years before other manufacturers used it. His first complete car had its test drive in 1896 – and proved to be most unsatisfactory. This prompted Lanchester to develop a new 8hp air-cooled twin cylinder engine – still with two crankshafts. The gearbox was also re-designed and a shaft drove the rear wheels.
He later upgraded this car to have his own cantilever suspension – and this car received a major award at the Automobile Exhibition of the same year.
Two years later, he developed a water-cooled version of the engine – again fitted to a boat. Meanwhile, his Gold Medal Phaeton (as the car had been called), completed the 1000 miles trial with only one mechanical failure. In 1899, Lanchester, with his brothers, formed the Lanchester Engine Co. and, at this point, started to make cars seriously. Based in Sparkbrook, Birmingham – the company produced a 10hp twin-cylinder motor car with a worm-drive transmission. He designed the machine to cut the worm gears and patented the machine that for 25 years cut all the gears for the company’s cars.
Splined Shafts and Dampers
Lanchester also invented splined shafts and couplings – previously the job of ‘keys’ and ‘keyways’. He also designed the machine to make the roller bearings used in the back axel. His cars also had a ‘disc brake’ that used a clamping mechanism on to the clutch disc – rather than a separate brake disc.
The man also invented the ‘torsional crankshaft vibration damper’ using a secondary flywheel and viscous clutch. It is true that Henry Royce had done a lot of work in this area, but Lanchester’s approach was more ‘scientific’. Lanchester also developed the ‘harmonic balancer’ for four-cylinder engines.
The company suffered from flawed management thinking and then went ‘bust’ in 1904. The Lanchester Motor Co. was formed from the ashes and the work went on with even greater developments for the motor car. Fuel injection, turbochargers, safer accelerator operations were experimented with – and made to work. His was one of the first companies to use detachable wire wheels, pressure fed bearings, stamped steel pistons, piston rings, hollow connecting rods…. the list goes on.
By 1910, Frederick had once again become disgruntled with the company operations and resigned – deciding to act as a consultant not only for Lanchester, but also Daimler Cars. He had a significant input into the Daimler-Renard Road Train and tanks for World War I.
An Early Hybrid
It is interesting to note that Lanchester was involved with the KPL Bus that used a pair of four-cylinder Daimler-Knight engines coupled to a dynamo driving one of the rear wheels – presumably so no differential was required. Unfortunately, Tilling Stevens threatened a court case for patent infringement (although I don’t know the detail) and the bus ceased production after less than a dozen were made, but they were one of the first hybrids!
As we know, BSA (Birmingham Small Arms Co.) bought Daimler in 1910 – Lanchester retaining his status as a consultant. In 1913, Lanchester designed a new cylinder head for the Daimler sleeve valve engine and these powered the Mark I-IV tanks of World War I.
Then came the Wall Street Crash in 1929. Lanchester effectively ‘went bust’ again and BSA completed its purchase of the company in 1931 , moving operations to Coventry. So, the man had done some amazing things with gas engines and cars, inventing or developing and using many of the mechanical devices we take for granted today. Even if we are not actually using the invention – we are using a development of it.
Lanchester and Flight
Lanchester also had a real significance in the aircraft industry! He studied how herring gulls flew – and, after lots of experiments, published his paper on what became the modern aerofoil theory. However, at the time, his efforts were rejected and he was considered ‘mad’ by the ‘authorities’. His efforts to convince society that a modern engine could be made so light that it would enable powered flight, was equally rejected. Three years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, Lanchester published a book, this time dealing with the ‘problems of flight’ and how to overcome them. He discovered the vortices that occur behind the wings – and his paper was the first to consider ‘lift’ and ‘drag’. A later work covered oscillations and stalls (in 1908) and Lanchester discussed the layout of the aeroplane – which is still accepted as ‘the way’ to this day.
Lanchester also patented contra-rotating propellers in 1909 and in 1914 – before the war started – published various papers on his predictions of aerial battles in the War. Lanchester’s Power Laws consider the effect of how one surface affects the other in combat and this was studied in the US – and eventually became OR (Operational Research).
The Post-War Car
After World War II, Lanchester was the first company to export left-hand drive cars, the first company to offer tinted glass – but time was running out for this ‘forward-thinking’ man and the company he founded. Frederick died in 1946 and the post-War Lanchester, although a ‘little off the wall’ did not sell well and ultimately by the late 1950s Lanchesters became just a smaller-engined, cheaper version of the Daimler Conquest Century – and disappeared quietly from our streets and showrooms.
Those around Coventry will know that there was a Lanchester Polytechnic in the 197’s named in honour of the great man, but it changed its name to Coventry Polytechnic in 1987 – and thus became a ’uni’ in 1992. Thankfully, all is not lost or forgotten. Coventry University opened its Lanchester Library in 2000 and, most gratifyingly, the building is as ‘off the wall’ as many of Lanchester’s inventions. In addition, there is a Lanchester Car Monument in the Heartlands area of Birmingham and this is sited where Frederick built his first car in 1895.
What a man!
[Editor’s note: Material for this essay has been gathered from various websites and from the extensive collection of books owned by the author. However, nothing has been quoted from protected work.]