Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Engineer in Wonderland, by ER Laithwaite

This was research for something I'm working on at the moment. It's the book version of the Royal Institution Christmas lectures delivered in December 1966 and January 1967 by Eric Laithwaite, professor of heavy electrical engineering at Imperial College. 

These were the 137th Christmas lectures in the series for a "juvenile auditory", or children aged between 10 and 17, begun by Michael Faraday in 1825. Until recently, it was thought Laithwaite's were the first to be televised, in a tradition that continues today, but Rupert Cole reveals that Royal Institution Christmas lectures were broadcast, in some form, in 1936 and 1949

Laithwaite gave each lecture between 3 and 4 pm, and the broadcasts were between 5 and 6 pm the same day. I like to imagine some poor runner racing with the fresh, unique 2-inch videotapes from the Royal Institution in Albermarle Street to TV Centre in under an hour, but suspect it wasn't quite like that...

My version of the book, sourced from Abebooks where I spend too much money, does not look as splendid as the stock image of the dust jacket above. It's a battered, jacketless copy once owned by the University of Bradford library, loaned out 35 times between October 1969 and March 1998.

There's the foxy smell of school textbook, as the compounds in the paper have broken down over the last 50 years. Passages are underlined or marked by the various students who've been here before me. I especially like the old-school but trying-to-be-chic-and-futuristic university logo in the inside front cover, and the pouch still containing the punched paper card for old-skool computers:

The book itself is broadly a transcript of the lectures - complete with brackets telling us what was happening in the room as Laithwaite spoke. His lectures were repeated in the summer of 1967 - "on BBC Channel-1", as the Royal Institution informed its members - and then the tapes were wiped, so this, with its photographs of the lectures being given and close-ups of the various models and machines, is the nearest we can get to reliving them.

Laithwaite is quite the showman, his lectures full of demonstrations of things apparently breaking physical laws - objects levitating, darts shooting through tubes, that sort of thing. The sixth and final lecture starts with one hell of a promise: demonstrations of experiments never previously performed, with Laithwaite not knowing the results in advance. If I struggled with some of the technical explanations (yes, aimed at kids aged 10 to 17, shut up), I wholly got the excitement of this live theatre.

(The above image was also used on the cover of the programme of the lectures. Note the threepenny bit in the lower right, to give scale.)

Laithwaite was best known for his work on linear motors and levitation systems - think the fast-moving tray that cuts the head off a dummy in Q's workshop in The Spy Who Loved Me (using a system Laithwaite helped to develop). His lectures basically explore the science of these things, but are more about imbuing the audience with less a sense of wonder, more a sense that they can play with this weird, cool stuff, too.

The book goes further - most chapters are followed by notes explaining how schools might build the models demonstrated. I'm only slightly completely bloody horrified by the instructions in the first lecture for a wire that gets so hot it can be used to cut plastic - "but be careful not to burn your fingers" - and models that plug directly into the mains.

In fact, there's something thrillingly reckless here. Lecture two begins with Laithwaite trying out ideas suggested by children in the audience of lecture one, two days earlier. Besides the hasty rewriting, restructuring and basic accomodation of this, there's then the result:
"The experiment was tried ... but ... the volunteer suddenly let go the thick ring as it was burning his fingers."
ER Laithwaite, The Engineer in Wonderland, p. 31.
That's burning a child, almost live on air. On page 125, he describes timing the moment to switch off a linear track at just the right moment so that a rotor riding along it didn't fly off into the audience. There's a fascinating preface to chapter six in which Laithwaite details the preparations and testing for the never-before-tried experiment, with safety as a paramount issue.
"Alan Sleath [BBC producer] offered to put the whole experiment in a cage, with lecturer and assistants inside. This would certainly have added to the spectacle if not to the comfort of those performing the experiment."
Ibid., p. 143.
As a sometime producer for the BBC on a freelance basis making documentaries for radio, I find all of this extraordinary and thrilling, a risk assessment form expanding in my head as I read eagerly on. No wonder these lectures made such an impact and established the series on TV. Laithwaite was invited to give Christmas lectures again in 1974 - but that's another story.

More than anything, these lectures are about practical experimentation, using your own evidence to challenge the things we take for granted. It's an intoxicating challenge, and I'd like to know how influential it was on getting children into STEM subjects and engineering in particular.

But there are moments where Laithwaite is more philosophical. He claims that a hundred years ago (that is, 50 years before his lectures) the all-important factors in machine design were efficiency in power. At the time of his lectures, he argued the key factors were cost and the amount of power gained from a given weight. But what of the future? Laithwaite's prediction is fascinating, forged in the shadow of the "white heat" of technological revolution, famously spoken of by Harold Wilson  in 1963. Here's what Laithwaite predicted:
"Your homes are becoming more and more littered with gadgets, both electrical and mechanical. A family possessing a car, bicycles, a washing machine, a refridgerator, a vacuum cleaner, an electric razor, a hair dryer, a television set and transistor radios is not regarded as anything out of the ordinary. Washing-up machines, waste disposal units, automatic food mixers, electric carving knives and the like are regarded as somewhat more luxurious, but the average number of gadgets per home is increasing each year. When they all work, they are fine things to have, but we soon learn to rely on them to such an extent that when they fail we are terribly upset, and as the number of gadgets increases, so does our annoyance with them and the liklihood of a repair man of one sort or another coming in almost ever day! - unless the reliability is increased - and we will be prepared to pay a bigger and bigger price for reliability. If your car or the train in which you are travelling breaks down only once a year, it is once too often, and if you were asked, as a regular traveller, to pay £50 a year more for your fares or petrol with a guarantee that your transport would never break down, I think most people would be prepared to pay it even now."
Ibid., p. 74.
Yes, a 21st century built by engineers on the basis of reliability. I finished the book on a train to London Bridge, late after the one I'd meant to catch had been cancelled. That £50 fee - as much as a week's Oystercard - is a tantalising utopia.


Anonymous said...

"The experiment was tried ... but ... the volunteer suddenly let go the thick ring as it was burning his fingers."

We did a very similar experiment in Year 8 physics, in 1982.


0tralala said...

Ha - I wonder if it was based on Laithwaite.