- he Royal Institution is Not Amused
- Few people visit the Royal Institution, in London's
Albemarle Street, for amusement. There are not many laughs at Britain's
second oldest scientific institution, founded in 1799, where Sir Humphry
Davy demonstrated his discovery of the elements sodium and potassium and
where Michael Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction. It's true
there have been some lighter moments in the famous circular lecture
theatre, especially since Sir William Bragg introduced Christmas
Lectures for Children in the 1920s. But, on the whole, this is stuffed
- One night in 1973 the stuffed shirts got a shock from
which they have still not recovered. It was an experience at which, like
Queen Victoria, they were not amused. Indeed it was so unamusing for
them that it is the only occasion in the Royal Institution's two hundred
year history that it has failed to publish a proceedings of a major
lecture, or 'evening discourse'. The cause of this unique case of
scientific censorship was the maverick professor of electrical
engineering of Imperial College, London, Eric Laithwaite.
- Laithwaite was no stranger to controversy even before
his shadow fell across so distinguished an institutional threshold. In
the 1960s, Laithwaite invented the linear electric motor, a device that
can power a passenger train. In the 1970s, he and his colleagues
combined the linear motor with the latest hovercraft technology to
create a British experimental high speed train. This was a highly novel,
but perfectly orthodox technology.
- The advantages of such a tracked hovercraft are
obvious to anyone who sees a hover-rail train running along,suspended in
the air above the track -- it is quiet, has no moving parts to wear out
and is practically maintenance-free. The significance of this last point
quickly becomes clear when you learn that more than 80 per cent of the
annual running costs of any railway system is spent on maintenance of
track and rolling stock because of daily wear. The British government at
first invested in the development of his device but later, after a
series of budget cuts, pulled out pleading the need for economy.
Laithwaite, a blunt-speaking Lancashire man who did not shrink from
speaking unpopular truths, told the Government and its scientific
bureaucrats the mistake they were making in no uncertain terms, but its
decision to cancel was unchanged.
- Laithwaite refused to be beaten and took his invention
one step further. He designed an even better kind of hover train -- one
in which his linear motor was levitated by electromagnetism giving a
rapid transit system that not only provides quiet, efficient magnetic
suspension over a maintenance-free track, but which generates the
electricity to power the magnetic lift of the track from the movement of
- Speaking in the early 1970s, Laithwaite said of his
new 'Maglev' system, 'We've designed a motor to propel [the train] that
gives you the lift and guidance for nothing -- literally for nothing:
for no additional equipment and no additional power input. This is
beyond my wildest dreams -- that I should ever see that sort of
- Laithwaite's Maglev design was not quite perpetual
motion, but certainly sounded enough like something-for-nothing to make
the scientific establishment turn its nose up in suspicion. But this
project, too, was cancelled by the government and further development
was halted. Today, Maglev trains are being built in Germany and Japan
but Britain continues to spend 80 per cent of its railway budget on
maintenance of conventional transport systems -- several hundred
millions every year.
- With the Maglev project cancelled, the technology
Laithwaite had devoted the previous twenty years to developing was put
in mothballs. The object of his entire career for decades disappeared
overnight. By an extraordinary chance atjust the same time that the
Maglev project was cancelled, Laithwaite received an intriguing
telephone call out of the blue from an amateur inventor, Alex
- Jones claimed to have a remarkable new invention to
demonstrate which he had tried to interest scientists and engineers in,
so far without success. Would Laitwaite like to take a look at it? While
others had dismissed Jones as a crank, Laithwaite, now with time on his
hands, invited him to come to Imperial College.
- When Jones arrived in the laboratory he had a
strange-looking contraption to show. It was a simple wooden frame on
wheels that could be pushed backwards and forwards on the bench top,
like a child's trolley. But suspended from the front of the frame was a
heavy metal object that could swing from side to side like a pendulum.
The metal object, Jones explained, was a gyroscope.
- As Laithwaite looked on in puzzled amazement, Jones
started the gyroscope spinning and then allowed it to swing from side to
side. The wooden box moved along the bench top on its wheels although
there was no drive to the wheels and no external thrust of any kind --
something that shouldn't happen according to the laws of physics.
- 'When Alex switched his machine on,' recalled
Laithwaite, 'it was quite disturbing to one's upbringing. The gyroscope
appeared to be producing a force without a reaction. I thought I'd seen
something that was impossible.'
- 'Like everyone else I was brought up on Newton's laws
of motion, and the third law says that for every action there's an equal
and opposite reaction, therefore you cannot propel a body outside its
own dimensions. This thing apparently did.'
- Laithwaite started some gyroscope experiments of his
own, making large spinning tops with most of the mass in the rim of the
wheel, and he found that, 'these very definitely did something that
- It was at this critical point in his career that he
was invited by Sir George Porter, president of the august Royal
Institution, to deliver a Friday Evening Discourse.
- In retrospect it might seem to be rather risky for Sir
George to have invited a blunt-speaking and controversial figure to
address the Institution. But, until then, Laithwaite's clashes with the
government and scientific bureaucrats over the development of his Maglev
train had been a conflict over money and over innovation: not over
scientific principles. He had fought the same kind of battle as most
senior scientists in Britain for scarce resources. He may have been the
sort of outspoken individualist who finds himself in the headlines, but
he was still a distinguished professional scientist, still a member of
- It was against this background that the Royal
Institution invited him to deliver the lecture. But the Friday Evening
Discourse is no ordinary lecture. It is a black tie affair, preceded by
dinner amidst the polished silver and mahogany of the Institution's
elegant Georgian dining room, under the intimidating gaze of portraits
of the giants of science from the eighteenth and nineteenth century,
staring down from the panelled walls.
- When you are invited to be thus feted by your fellow
members of the Royal Institution and to deliver a Discourse from the
spot where Faraday and Davy stood, it is usually the prelude to
collecting the rewards of a lifetime of distinguished public service:
Fellowship of the Royal Society; Gold Medals; perhaps even a Knighthood.
In keeping with such a conservative occasion, those invited to speak
generally choose some worthy topic on which to discourse -- the future
of science, perhaps, or the glorious achievements of the past.
- But Laithwaite chose not to discourse on some worthy,
painless topic but instead to demonstrate to the assembled bigwigs that
Newton's laws of motion -- the very cornerstone of physics and the
primary article of faith of all the distinguished names gathered in that
room -- were in doubt.
- Standing in the circular well of the Institution's
lecture theatre, Laithwaite showed his audience a large gyroscope he had
constructed -- an apparatus resembling a motorcycle wheel on the end of
a three foot pole (which, is precisely what it was). The wheel could be
spun up to high speed on a low-friction bearing driven by a small but
powerful electrical motor.
- Laithwaite first demonstrated that the apparatus was
very heavy -- in fact it weighed more than 50 pounds. It took all his
strength and both hands to raise the pole with its wheel much above
waist level. When he started to rotate the wheel at high speed, however,
the apparatus suddenly became so light that he could raise it easily
over his head with just one hand and with no obvious sign of
- What on earth was going on? Heavy objects cannot
suddenly become lighter just because they are rotating, can they? Such a
mass can only be propelled aloft if it is subjected to an external force
or if it expels mass, in a rocket engine for example. Had Laithwaite
taken to conjuring tricks? Were there concealed strings? Confederates in
- If Laithwaite expected gasps of admiration or
surprise, he was disappointed. The audience was stunned into silence by
his demonstration. When he went on to explain that Newton's laws of
motion were apparently being violated by this demonstration, the
involuntary hush turned to frosty silence.
- 'I was very excited about it,' he recalled, 'because I
knew I had something to show them that was startling. And I did it
rather in the spirit of "come and see what I've discovered -- come and
share this with me." It was only afterwards that I realised no-one
wanted to share it with me. The reaction was "the man's obviously a
lunatic". "There must be some trick" was what people said.'
- 'I was simply trying to tell them, "look, here's
something very unusual that's worth investigating. I hope I've got
sufficient reputation in electrical engineering not to be written off as
a crank. So when I tell you this, I hope you'll listen." But they didn't
- 'After the Royal Institution lecture all hell broke
loose, primarily as a result of an article in the New Scientist,
followed up by articles in the daily press with headlines such as
"Laithwaite defies Newton". The press is always excited by the
possibility of an anti-gravity machine, because of space ships and
science fiction, and the minute you say you can make something rise
against gravity, then you've "made an antigravity machine". And then the
flood gates are unleashed on you especially from the establishment.
You've brought science into disrepute or you're apparently trying to
because you've done something that is against the run of the
- The resounding silence of his audience continued long
after that fateful evening. There was to be no Fellowship of the Royal
Society, no gold medal, no 'Arise, Sir Eric'. And, for the first time in
two hundred years, there was to be no published 'proceedings' recording
Laithwaite's astonishing lecture. In an unprecedented act of academic
Stalinism, the Royal Institution simply banished the memory of Professor
Laithwaite, his gyroscopes that became lighter, his lecture, even his
- Newton's Laws were restored to their sacrosanct
position on the altar of science. Laithwaite was a non-person, and all
was right with the world once more.
- For the next twenty years, Laithwaite carried on
investigating the anomalous behaviour of gyroscopes in the laboratory;
at first in Imperial College and later, after his retirement, wherever
he could find a sympathetic institution to provide bench space and
- By the mid-1980 -- what he called 'the most depressing
time' -- Laithwaite had conducted enough empirical research to
demonstrate that the skeptics were right when they said that there were
no forces to be had from gyroscopes.
- 'The mathematics said there were no forces and that
was correct', Laithwaite recalled. 'The thing that wouldn't go away was:
can I lift a 50 pound weight with one hand or can't I? Of all the
critics that I showed lifting the big wheel, none of them ever tried to
explain it to me. So I decided I had to follow Faraday's example and do
- After retiring from Imperial College, laithwaite began
a long series of detailed experiments. Sussex University offered him a
laboratory and he formed a partnership with fellow engineer and
inventor, Bill Dawson, who also funded the research. Laithwaite and
Dawson spent three years from 1991 to 1994, investigating in detail the
strange phenomena that had unnerved the Royal Institution.
- 'The first thing I wanted to find out was how I could
lift a 50 pound wheel in one hand. So we set out to try to reproduce
this as a hands-off experiment. Then we tackled the problem of lack of
centrifugal force and the experiments were telling us that there was
less centrifugal force than there should be. Meanwhile I started to do
the theory. We devised more and more sophisticated experiments until,
not long ago, we cracked it.'
- The real breakthrough came, said Laithwaite, when they
realised that a precessing gyroscope could move mass through space. 'The
spinning top showed us that all the time, but we couldn't see it. If the
gyroscope does not produce the full amount of centrifugal force on its
pivot in the centre then indeed you have produced mass transfer.'
- 'It became more exciting than ever now because I could
explain the unexplainable. Gyroscopes became absolutely in accordance
with Newton's laws. We were now not challenging any sacred laws at all.
We were sticking strictly to the rules that everyone would approve of,
but getting the same result -- a force through space without a
- The research of Laithwaite and Dawson has now borne
practical fruit. Their commercial company, Gyron, filed a world patent
for a reactionless drive -- a device that most orthodox scientists say
- Sadly Eric Laithwaite died in 1997. His device remains
in prototype form, comparable perhaps to the Wright Brother's first
aircraft or Gottlieb Daimler's first automobile.
- Shortly before his death, Laithwaite spoke
philosophically about the long experimental road he had trudged
- Why should people reject the idea of something new?'
he asked. 'Well, of course, they always have. If you go back to Galileo,
they were going to put him to death for not saying the earth was the
centre of the universe. I'm reminded of something that Mark Twain once
said; 'a crank is a crank only until he's been proved correct.'
- 'So now I myself have demonstrated that I've been
correct all along. Anyone seeing the experiments would know at once, if
they knew their physics, that I've done what I said I could do, and that
I'm no longer a heretic.'
- Laithwaite's reactionless drive is an extraordinary
machine; a machine that orthodox science said could never be built and
would never work. But though it may well eventually prove of great value
-- perhaps even providing an anti-gravity lifting device -- it is a net
consumer of energy, just like Griggs's Hydrosonic pump. There is no
evidence at present that it is an over-unity device -- merely a novel
means of propulsion that proves there are more things in heaven and
earth than are currently dreamed of by scientific rationalism.
- But there are other Laithwaites, and there are other
engines: some even more extraordinary than the reactionless