1910-11: Frederick William Lanchester

1910-11: Frederick William Lanchester

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Biography Portrait by Elliott and Fry.

1946 Obituary:
Lanchetser, who died on 8th March 1946, in his seventy-eighth year, was a man of a remarkable personality, of wide interests, and varied accomplishments in the fields of science and the arts, though it is probable that he is, and will in the future be, best known for his work in connection with the motor car and with flight. With the true instinct of the pioneer his acute mentality enabled him to see far ahead of his contemporaries, and so far in advance of his time were some of his views that they gained little acceptance for many years after their enunciation. It might aptly be said of him that he did bestride the narrow world like a Colossus, and petty men walked under his huge legs and peeped about to find themselves dishonourable graves.

In aeronautics his was the voice of one crying in the wilderness, in days when - little to our credit - scientific achievements native to this country were at a discount; and it was not until some twenty years had lapsed and work abroad on the same subject began to attract notice, that it was at all generally realized that Lanchester had long previously developed the modern conception of lift and drag upon which aeroplane design is now based. Like Joule, his first contributions were received with the "silence of disapproval". The Physical Society rejected a paper on the subject of Lanchester's theory in 1897, but undeterred he set to work on and published in 1907 and 1908, respectively, his two classic volumes on "Aerial Flight:, one dealing with "Aerodynamics" and the other entitled Aerodonetics". Even this great effort failed to convince the experts of the day, save for a few exceptions, and it required a further ten years before Lanchester was at all widely admitted to the honourable place which was his due in this particular field. While aeroplanes were in fact still contrivances of sticks and strings, mostly the product of enthusiasm rather than "design" in any proper sense of the word, Lanchester was thinking, and trying to induce others to think, in terms of aerofoils, and of streamline forms such as those which have only recently become familiar.

In motor car development Lanchester's work more rapidly brought him the credit to which he was entitled. Here was something tangible which could be more readily appreciated than the concepts which he developed in the field of aeronautics. Even in his first attempts in this sphere Lanchester broke new ground and his sound engineering mind produced developments which have persisted to this day, while his contemporaries were chiefly concerned with adaptations. For the first ten years in this field Lanchester introduced in rapid succession numbers of features still regarded as the best practice, and probably no other single person in this country has been responsible for so many pioneer inventions of value in this particular branch of engineering.

It would be impossible in the space available to enumerate Lanchester's inventions or to enlarge at all adequately on the wide range of his engineering and scientific work; nor in fact is this necessary as much of the story is already on record in the PROCEEDINGS of the Institution, more especially in the report of the special meeting at which he was awarded the James Watt International Medal in 1945;* where, among other matter, will be found an appreciation by Professor Sir Melvin Jones, C.B.E., F.R.S., setting forth the modern view of Lanchester's aeronautical work. The James Watt Medal, the highest award in the field of mechanical engineering, was only one of many honours which came to Lanchester in his later years. He was, for instance, the third recipient of the Ewing Medal; of the highest aeronautical award in the form of the Daniel Guggenheim Medal; of the Royal Aeronautical Society's Gold Medal, etc.

He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, Hon. LL.D. of Birmingham University, an Honorary Member of the Royal Aeronautical Society and of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and had been President of both the Institution of Automobile Engineers and of the Junior Institution of Engineers. Further, he had delivered at one time and another the James Forrest, the Wilbur Wright, and the Hawksley lectures. He was awarded the Dugald Clerk Prize and Willans Premium of the Institution, thus being linked appropriately with Clerk, with whom his work on the gas engine brought him into a long and friendly association.

From this necessarily brief summary it will be realized that Lanchester was a giant among men and of a mentality and genius of quite an exceptional order. As not infrequently happens in such cases, at times he was impatient of slower thinkers and caustic in criticism, but he was frank and warm in his friendships and much enjoyed a bit of humour. He was no mean musician, bringing his scientific mind to bear upon the art, and it may surprise many to learn that he was a gifted writer of verse, some of his work, published under the nom de plume of Paul Netherton Herries, revealing real inspiration.

By P. J. Cowan M.I.Mech.E. See Proc. Mech. E., 1945, vol. 152, p. 100.