Biography of Leonardo Torres y Quevedo (1852-1936)
Leonardo Torres y Quevedo was born on December 28th, 1852, on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, in a house (see the nearby photo) in Santa Cruz de Iguña, of a small village at north of Spain, near Molledo (Cantabria), Santander. From his mother, Valentina Quevedo de la Maza, who was also born in Santa Cruz de Iguña, he inherited the Castilian austerity and her love to the highlands. From his father, Luis Torres Vildosolo y Urquijo from Bilbao, he inherited his scientific rigor and his love for mathematics, a passion very useful in his long career as an inventor.
The family resided for the most part in Bilbao, where Torres's father worked as a railway engineer, although they also spent long periods in his mother's family home on Santander's mountains. In Bilbao he studied to enter an advanced high school program and later spent two years in Paris to complete his studies. In 1870, his father was transferred, bringing his family to Madrid. In 1871 Torres began his higher education at the Civil Engineering Faculty of Madrid. He temporarily suspended his studies in 1873 to volunteer for the defense of Bilbao, which had been surrounded by Carlist troops during the third Carlist war. Returning to Madrid, he completed his studies in 1876, fourth in his graduating class.
He began his career with the same train company for which his father had worked, but soon, after receiving a substantial inheritance from a few aunts, he decided to resign from the railways and to dedicate himself to being a full-time inventor concentrating on mechanical and electrical inventions. He immediately set out on a long trip through Europe to get to know the state of the art in technology. He traveled to France, Switzerland and Italy, where he was mainly interested in everything related to electrical applications, e.g. in Paris he met some great scientists: Henry Poincare, Paul Appel and Maurice d'Ocagne.
Upon returning to Spain, on 16th of April 1885 he married to Luz Polanco y Navarro, with who he had eight children. The couple moved to Moledo-Portolin, a small village close to Santa Cruz de Iguña, where they spent first married years. At this time, in 1887, he received his first patent—for a small funicular (so called transbordador). Later on he (and according his patent) will be designed several other funiculars, the most famous of which is the Whirlpool Aero Car over the Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada, started in 1913 and finished in 1916, and still working at present without having any problem in its almost hundred years of working (see the lower photo).
Quevedo's Whirlpool Aero Car over the Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada
In the 1893 Torres presented his first paper to the Spanish Royal Academy of Sciences for an algebraic machine, able to calculate the roots of an any-grade equation and to print the solutions. That was the first automatic calculator built by Torres in a long list of them. This machine however has not been manufactured. The calculating machines of Torres are examined in the other article in this site.
In 1899 he moved to Madrid and became involved in that city's cultural life. From the work he carried out in these years, the Athenaeum created the Laboratory of Applied Mechanics of which he was named director. The Laboratory dedicated itself to the manufacture of scientific instruments. That same year, he entered the Royal Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences in Madrid, of which entity he was president in 1910.
Another field of interest for Torres was Aerostatics. He presented his first project for the airship to the Spanish and French Academies of Sciences in 1902, receiving immediately the recognition (later on he will receive patents for his airship). In 1906 he built his first dirigible balloon and two years later built the second one with the partnership of the French constructor Astra, whose company bought the patent. During WWI both French and English armies used Torres dirigibles in order to counteract the German Zeppelins (in the nearby photo you can see the second airship of Torres—Torres Quevedo №2, demonstrated in Guadalajara in 1908).
Torres is also the inventor of an electronic device, widely used everyday—remote control. The work on Aerostatics drove Torres to the invention of so called Telekine, as he wanted to control the flight of dirigible balloons from ground, without risking human loves. He started work on this system in 1901 and in 1903 the Telekine was presented for the Academy of Sciences in Paris, in the same year, he obtained a patent in France, Spain, Great Britain, and the United States. In the patent he describes the Telekine so: It consists on a telegraph system, with or without wires, whose receiver sets the position of a switch, that switches on a servomotor, operating any mechanism. In 1906, in the presence of the Spanish king and before a great crowd, Torres successfully demonstrated the invention in the port of Bilbao, guiding a boat from the shore (see the nearby photo for the prototype of Telekine, from the Museum of Torres Quevedo in Madrid, source Antonio Yuste).
In 1911 Torres made and successfully demonstrated a chess-playing automaton for the end game of king and rook against king. This chess automaton was fully automatic, with electrical sensing of the pieces on the board and what was in effect a mechanical arm to move its own pieces. In 1920 Torres demonstrated a second chess automaton, which used magnets underneath the board to move the pieces (see the lower photo). Like a number of his other inventions, this one still exists and is still operational.
The second chess-automaton of Torres
In 1916 King Alfonso XIII bestowed the Echegaray Medal upon him. In 1918, Torres declined the offer of the position of Minister of Development. In 1920, he entered the Royal Spanish Academy, in the seat that had been occupied by Benito Pérez Galdós, and became a member of the department of Mechanics of the Paris Academy of Science. In 1922 the Sorbonne named him an Honorary Doctor and, in 1927, he was named one of the twelve associated members of the Academy.
Torres died in Madrid, in the heat of the Spanish Civil War on 18th of December 1936.