The gyroscope, an engineer and the CHRISTMAS LECTURES

Frank James

Eric Laithwaite was a British electrical engineer and presenter of the 1974 CHRISTMAS LECTURES who sparked a controversial debate with his unconventional views on the behaviour of gyroscopes.

Read time: 4 minutes
A black and white photograph showing Eric Laithwaite giving lecture at the Royal Institution
Credit: Royal Institution

Eric Laithwaite (1921–1997) was Professor of Electrical Engineering at Imperial College between 1964 and 1986 and Professor of Applied Electricity at the Royal Institution from 1967 to 1975.

He researched and became a strong advocate for the linear induction motor especially for rail transportation and was bitterly disappointed by the decision made by the government aerospace minister, Michael Heseltine, in 1973 not to proceed with a full scale project. As a result he became a highly controversial figure in engineering circles, but at the same time he was one of the very few engineers who could communicate effectively with the public.

He thus became only one of three people since 1945 who have delivered more than one series of the Royal Institution’s CHRISTMAS LECTURES. Indeed his first series 'The Engineer in Wonderland' of 1966–7 was the first to be televised on the new BBC2 channel.

Just before his second series 'The Engineer Through the Looking Glass', he delivered on 8 November 1974 a Friday Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution, entitled 'All Things are Possible', in which he argued that the behaviour of gyroscopes violated the law of conservation of energy which had been established in the 1840s.

His lecture was immensely controversial and the written text failed the peer review procedures of the 'Proceedings of the Royal Institution', which published the texts of many, but by no means all, the Discourses.

Nevertheless, he insisted on expressing his views in his CHRISTMAS LECTURES and the Royal Institution could not, apparently, do anything about it.

Laithwaite appears to have used various engineering approximations in his calculations on the behaviour or gyroscopes and when told by professional mathematicians that once the calculations were done rigorously there was no discrepancy, refused to believe them.

This whole affair harmed his career considerably – he left his position at the Royal Institution, he was never elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society, nor was he granted an entry in the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which considering his significance, irrespective of his unorthodox views, seems somewhat unfair and efforts are being made to rectify this omission.