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LEONARDO TORRES QUEVEDO

Part 1

Leonardo Torres Quevedo was born on December 28, 1852, in Santa Cruz de Iguña in Molledo,
Cantabria, Spain.

His father, Luis Torres Vildóso y Urquijo, was a railway engineer working in Bilbao where Torres
was raised and attended high school.

During his high school years, he spent two years in Paris to complete his studies. Torres had
inherited his interest in science and engineering from his father. In 1870 he enrolled at the Faculty of
Civil Engineering at the Technical University of Madrid where he graduated in 1876 as a civil
engineer.

He started work at the same railroad his father worked for but that same year he went on an
extensive trip through Europe to see for himself what the more scientifically and technologically
advanced countries were doing. 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 inventions. He set up a private laboratory in Santander and started a
live of scientific study and research.

In 1899 he moved with his family – he had married in 1885 and eventually had eight children – to
Madrid. The Athenaeum in Madrid appointed him to director of its newly created Laboratory of
Applied Mechanics which was dedicated to the making of scientific instruments. Torres was a
talented engineer and has constructed many remarkable machines, including some forerunners of
our modern computer.

Cableways

His first significant invention was a 1funicular – an electrical railway system where the cars are
pulled by cables – in 1887. This cableway was built in his hometown Molledo and spanned a width
of about 200 meters. It was pulled by a pair of cows. Later funiculars were driven by electric
engines and did not only transport cargo but also people. This was made possible by an ingenious
and safe system of multiple support cables. His first public transport cableway was built in 1907 in
San Sebastián.

His most renowned cableway is his Spanish Aero Car or the Whirlpool Aero Car located at the
Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada, which is still in operation today. It spans a massive 550 m across
the Whirlpool Rapids and allows visitors to view the Whirlpool from a height of 42 m. Construction
by a Spanish company and workforce started in 1913 and its opening was on August 9, 1916. A
bronze plaque testifies to this all-Spanish feat and reads “Spanish aerial ferry of the Niagara.

1
Funicular, funicular railway, cable car, cable railway, aerial tramway son las distintas maneras de nombrar al
“teleférico”. No confundir con el concepto de funicular en castellano que es un sistema de transporte que discurre por
una pendiente muy empinada cuyos vagones circulan sobre raíles y van enganchados a un cable tractor que los arrastra
y sujeta.
Leonardo Quevedo Torres (1852–1936).” Other Torres cableways have been installed successfully
in Chamonix in the French Alps and in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Dirigibles

The early dirigibles or airships had a rigid internal frame, like the Zeppelins, which made it difficult to
collapse them for transport. Other dirigible balloons circumvented this problem by using the
internal pressure of the gas to uphold the balloon. This however made it difficult to suspend a
basket beneath the less rigid structure creating instability. Torres developed a system of internal
flexible cables which created the required rigidity when combined with the internal gas pressure.

He built the first Spanish airship using this design – the España – in 1896. The French company
Astra acquired the patents for all countries except Spain for the construction of these dirigibles.
They became known as the Astra-Torres airships and were used by the French and the British
during World War I.

The Telekine remote control

In 1901 Torres developed a remote-control device using wireless telegraphy. This machine was
developed to test his new dirigibles without risking human lives. He patented his prototype – called
the Telekine – in 1903 and defined the modern remote-control operation principles.

The word telekine came from the two Greek words tele (far away, distant) and kine (movement,
force) to indicate the ability to create movement at a distance. In the first tests he used a tricycle
which he could move forward and backward, turning left and right, using a remote telegraph
transmitter.

This trial was later extended to a small dinghy with eight people on board which he managed to
control remotely over a 2 km distance in the Bilbao estuary.

When he approached the Spanish government for financial support to use the Telekine in submarine
torpedoes, his proposal was declined and he stopped further development of his remote-control
device.

Part 2

Analog calculating machines

Torres designed and built a machine which could compute the roots of algebraic equations with a
precision of 1/1000. For this device he used an analog mechanical device that computed log (a+b)2
from log (a) 3and log (b).

2
Log (a+b): Logaritmo de la operación (a+b)
3
Log (a): Logaritmo de “a”.
He also built a machine that could solve a second-grade equation 4with complex coefficients5, and
an integrator6. Today this machine can be found in the Torres Quevedo Museum of the Technical
University of Madrid.

In 1920 Torres demonstrated an electro-mechanical calculating machine that was program


controlled and had conditional branching. 7The machine performed the four arithmetic operations
8
and was wired to a typewriter which was used as its input/output device. His calculating machines
clearly are the ancestors to our modern analog and digital computers.

El Ajedrecista – the first chess computer

Many attempts have been made in the 18th and 19th century to create a chess-playing machine. The
first automaton – the word robot was only coined in 1921 – was The Turk which was built by Baron
Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1769.

The machine was a fraud however since the cabinet of 4x2x3 feet hid a small person who
mechanically controlled the hand movements of the turban wearing mannequin. The Turk had a
remarkable success record in its travels around the world. The hoax of the hidden operator took
years to be discovered. Later chess automatons were the Ajeeb (1868) of Charles A. Hopper and
the Mephisto (1878) of Charles Gumpel, both based on the same fraudulent concept as the Turk.

Torres y Quevedo built the first real chess-playing automaton in 1910 and dubbed it El Ajedrecista –
the Chess Player. The machine played the white king with rook versus black king endgame.

The machine used mechanical arms to move the pieces – a 1920 version used electromagnets for
this purpose – and the opponents moves were detected by electrical sensors. El
Ajedrecista debuted in 1914 on the Paris World Fair.

Although by today’s standards a fairly simple machine it was a most remarkable achievement in the
early 1900s and Torres can justifiably claim to have developed the first chess computer.

In 1920 a second machine was built by Torres’ son Gonzalo under his father’s guidance which used
magnets to execute the moves. Both machines are still in working order and can be found in the
Torres Quevedo Museum of the Technical University of Madrid.

Torres y Quevedo died on December 18, 1936, in Madrid.

Torres y Quevedo honored

In 1916, King Alfonso XIII of Spain awarded Torres the Royal Academy of Sciences’ prestigious
Echegaray Gold Medal. In 1920 he was elected to become a member of the Spanish Royal
Academy of Sciences. In 1922 the Sorbonne University in Paris awarded him an honorary
4
Ecuación de segundo grado de la forma ax2 + bx + c = 0
5
Coeficientes complejos: Se refiere a los coeficientes a, b y c de las ecuaciones de segundo grado pertenecientes al
cuerpo de los números complejos (C).
6
Máquina que resolvía cálculos integrales
7
Instrucciones de salto condicional: Son un tipo de instrucciones que se dan en programación informática.
8
Operaciones aritméticas (adición, sustracción, multiplicación y división).
doctorate. In 1928 he was appointed president of the Spanish Royal Academy of Sciences. He also
was an honorary member of the Geneva Society of Physics and Natural History.

On March 17, 2007, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the world's largest
technical professional organization for the advancement of technology, recognized Torres’ Telekine
with an IEEE Milestone in Electrical Engineering and Computing. He was the first Spanish citizen to
be honored in this way. The dedication was held at the Technical University of Madrid in, its aptly,
named Torres Quevedo Museum.

Spain has issued two stamps to commemorate Torres y Quevedo: in 1955 a stamp was issued
featuring his portrait and a 1983 stamp shows his famous Niagara Falls cableway.

ACTIVITIES

Part 1

1. When was Leonardo Torres Quevedo born?


2. What was his father’s job?
3. Who was the person who introduced young Leonardo into science?
4. Where did he study engineering? When did he enroll at university?
5. What was his first job after graduating in engineering?
6. In 1876 he went on an extensive trip through Europe. Why do you think he went on that trip?
What do you think he expected to discover in that trip?
7. Why did he renounce to his job at the railway company? What did he do after resigning? Do you
think that it was a wise decision?
8. What was his first really important invention?
9. The first funicular built by Torres Quevedo was pulled by ______________________ but later
funiculars were driven by _______________________. The funiculars were able to transport
___________________ and _____________________.
10. Where did he install his first cableway for public service?
11. Which was his most renamed funicular? Where was it installed? How many years did it work?
12. Torres Quevedo developed a very special dirigible or airship. What kind of internal structure did
he invent?
13. During World War I Torres Quevedo’s dirigibles were used by French and British armies, what
company bought the patent? What was the name of these dirigibles after Torres sold the patent?
14. What was the technology Torres used to develop his remote-control device?
15. In 1903 he patented this device; how did he call it?
16. This remote-control device was related to his dirigibles in a certain way, what was it designed
for?
17. Leonardo Torres Quevedo is also known as father of the modern remote-control technology as
he ___________________the modern remote control _________________________________.
18. What object did he use for the first tests of the Telekine? What operations could he do with the
object by means of the remote-control device? What did he use as a transmitter in this
occasion?
19. After the successful first’s tests, he tried his remote-control device with another object. What did
he use this time? What distance he was able to cover with this experiment?
20. Why did Torres stop further development of his remote-control device?
Part 2

21. Torres Quevedo basically designed and built two types of calculating machines: analog
______________________ and ___________-______________ calculating machines.
22. What did these machines used as input/output device?
23. Where can be found Torres’ calculating machine today?
24. Torres’ calculating machines are clearly the _______________________ to our modern
computers.
25. Who built the first automaton? When was it built? What was the problem with this machine?
26. When did Torres Quevedo built the first real chess-playing automaton?
27. How did the Ajedrecista manage to move the pieces?
28. A later version built by Torres’ son, Gonzalo, used another technology for this purpose, what was
it? How did both machines detect the opponent’s movements?
29. Write a list of the awards Leonardo Torres Quevedo was awarded with.
30. What did the two stamps that Correos Spain issued show on them?
31. When did Leonardo Torres Quevedo die?
32. Write a short paragraph (approx. 150 words) about your personal opinion on Leonardo Torres
Quevedo’s life.