Torres Quevedo, Leonardo

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b. Santa Cruz de Igūa, Santander, Spain, 28 December 1852: d. Madrid, Spain, 18 December 1936),


Born into a family of technicians, Torres Quevedo studied civil engineering (1870–1876), and for a time drew plans for railway lines in southern Spain. Provided with independent means, he traveled throughout Europe. At the request of the mathematician José Echegaray (1832–1916) Torres Quevedo made public his inventions, which won him wide recognition and official support. The Centro de Ensayos de Aeronáutica was created for him by royal decree in 1904, as was the Laboratorio de Mecánica Aplicada (1907, 1911), forerunner of the Centro de Investigaciones Físicas “Leonardo Torres Quevedo” of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas.

Torres Quevedo disliked writing–“for me a form of martyrdom,” he called it–and thus his scientific contributions must be traced from the few reports he did write and, especially, from the patents he obtained and the machines he built. He was frequently concerned with describing machines, as in his article “Sobre un sistema de notaciones y símbolos destinados a facilitar la descripción de las máquinas” (Revista de la Real Academia de ciencias . . . de Madrid,4 [1906], 429–442).

In algebraic machines, the subject of his inaugural lecture to the Royal Academy of Sciences (1901), Torres Quevedo combined mechanical and electromechanical means to construct a machine that would solve algebraic equations of any degree. The fundamental element is an endless spindle designed to add the construction of one monomial with that of another, automatically carrying out the calculation of Gauss’s additive logarithms and working out the formula.

y=log (10x + 1).

Telekino, a remote-control system employing Hertzian waves (patented 10 December 1902), with which Torres Quevedo carried out numerous experiments, was completely developed in 1906. Although the military significance of this device did not elude its inventor, he never succeeded in resolving the problem of interference that enemy forces would be able to generate.

Aeronautics was developed in 1902–1909, during which period Torres Quevedo conceived a dirigible system in which three cables, instead of rigid metallic struts, divide the vessel longitudinally into three triangular sections and give the outer covering, after it has been filled with gas under pressure, the physical characteristics required for it to be properly navigable. The Gaceta of 31 December 1909 authorized the granting of the patent to the French company ASTRA, and such lighter-than air craft were satisfactorily employed in the same field as the German zeppelin. (See Espitallier, “Le dirigeable trilobé de l’ingénieur espagnol Torres Quevedo,” in La technique aéronautique, I, [Paris, 1910], 20–28.)

In 1912 Torres built a robot capable of playing the chess endgame of king and rook against king and defeating a human adversary. This device, perfected in 1920, and the Telekino must be recognized as conceptually related to the calculating machine of Charles Babbage, as Torres Quevedo acknowledged in “Ensayos sobre automática. Su definición. Extensión teórica de sus definiciones” (Revista de la Real Academia de ciencias... de Madrid, 12 [1913], 391–419). His work in this field culminated in an electromechanical calculating machine introduced 26 June 1920, the prototype of which demonstrated that calculations of any kind can be effected by purely mechanical processes. In 1913 Torres Quevedo had established that a machine could proceed by trial and error, in contrast with current belief–“at least when the rules that have to be followed in trial and error are precisely known...”

In 1909 Torres built the funicular railway on Mount Ulía in San Sebastián (280 meters long) and, beginning in 1914, the cable-car line at Niagara Falls, Ontario, inaugurated 10 February 1916 (580 meters long). The method employed was to suspend the car by several cables the tensions of which were made independent of the weight of the car by counterweights borne at the ends of each cable. As a result, the breaking of one cable involved no danger, since there would be no increase in the load carried by the others.


An interesting biography (a condensed version of a carefully annotated one to be published by the same author) is Leopoldo Rodríguez Alcalde. Leonardo Torres Quevedo (Madrid, 1966). The lack of Torres’ writings can be overcome, up to 1914, with José A. Sánchez Pérez, “Los inventos de Torres Quevedo,” in Sociedad matemática española (1914), 24.

J. Vernet

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Torres Quevedo, Leonardo

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