Issue 55

16 December 1997 - 19 January 1998

IC Reporter


Obituary - Professor Eric Laithwaite

Professor Eric Laithwaite, who died on 27 November 1997, was a talented engineering maverick who spent much of his academic life investigating unusual forms of mechanical propulsion and the linear induction motor.

Between 1964 and his retirement in 1986, Eric was professor of heavy electrical engineering at Imperial College. In 1990 he accepted a visiting professorship at Sussex University and it was there that he died, just a month after securing a NASA contract for the design of a space launcher based on his linear motor system.


Born in Atherton, Lancashire in 1921, Eric was educated at Manchester University, where he completed his PhD and DSc after a five-year stint supporting the war effort as an engineer with the RAF. In 1956 he lodged his first patent for the design which was to drive his academic career - the linear motor. An ordinary motor whose horizontal structure created a magnetic field capable of propelling objects with friction-free movement, the linear motor was to be the basis of Eric's life work.

Within a few years Eric had expanded his original designs with support from a government grant of £5 million. The result was a prototype for the world's first magnetically levitating train. The 'Tracked Hovercraft', as the prototype was called, was a high-speed, wheel-less vehicle which was propelled by the force of a magnetic field. Early trials of Eric's model looked promising with the prototype reaching speeds of up to 100mph, yet in 1973 the government cancelled the project, blaming high costs for little return.

While the Tory government had sidelined his research, disappointed but undaunted, Eric continued to develop his designs. The potential of Eric's invention quickly gained international recognition. Within three years, linear-induction motors were driving a new generation of Japanese and German trains known as 'Maglev', yet only one Maglev train was ever built in Britain. Japan's 'Bullet' train was to be Maglev's antecedent.

By the 1970s, Eric's ready wit and enthusiasm for science had made him a familiar public figure. He wrote popular books on inventions along with academic texts on the linear motor. His infectious enthusiasm for his subject, in numerous lectures and television appearances, inspired hundreds of schoolchildren to study engineering. He had an endless fund of stories and anecdotes and loved to use the art of analogy to explain difficult scientific concepts, characteristics which made him one of Britain's earliest advocates for the public understanding of science.

During his years at the College, Eric made an emphatic mark on the Department of Electrical Engineering; academically as an influential teacher, and physically, in the form of a hole through the door between his laboratory and office caused by a metal dart fired mistakenly backwards from an electromagnetic gun. It was one of a number of close shaves. He only narrowly escaped injury after an accelerating flywheel he was testing in the basement of Electrical Engineering exploded with fairly devastating effects.

Whether experimenting with linear induction motors or eagerly adding to his vast collection of butterflies, Eric communicated an enthusiasm for knowledge and for life. He is remembered fondly by colleagues at the College, one of whom suggested that his life might best be summarised by the title of one of his many books: The Engineer in Wonderland. Eric is survived by his wife Sheila and their four children.

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Last Revised: 16 December