The Frederick Lanchester archive at Coventry University

Archives Hub feature for December 2018

The work of car manufacturer, engineer, scientist and inventor Frederick Lanchester (1868-1946) is being celebrated by the Lanchester Interactive Archive project at Coventry University. He was one of the UK’s leading automobile engineers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and creator in 1895 of the first all-British four-wheel petrol driven motor car.

Frederick Lanchester at the wheel of the 8 h.p. two cylinder Lanchester known as the ‘Gold Medal Phaeton’ with his brother George as passenger. c1899.
Frederick Lanchester at the wheel of the 8 h.p. two cylinder Lanchester known as the ‘Gold Medal Phaeton’ with his brother George as passenger. c1899. Coventry University [reference no. LAN/1/16/4].
He also made significant contributions in aerodynamics, helping to establish key principles of powered flight and publishing work about it in the 1890s before the Wright brothers’ first successful take off in 1903. His mathematical theories on military combat and strategy have formed the basis for operations models commonly used in business, and he advised the government on military matters in the First and Second World Wars. His interest in these areas, along with work on optics and field of vision, colour photography, musical notation, pneumatic-framed buildings, radios, loudspeakers, gramophones and many other subjects has led to him being described as the ‘British da Vinci’.

Frederick Lanchester with one of his model gliders used to make aerodynamic measurements, 1894.
Frederick Lanchester with one of his model gliders used to make aerodynamic measurements, 1894. Coventry University [reference no. LAN/7/4].
His work on cars led to him building the first all-British motor boat in the 1890s and then the first outboard motor engine – because restrictive speed limits on roads meant that he could not carry out meaningful engine tests in cars.

Image from a glass plate negative showing the rear view of the first all British motor boat, 1894.
Image from a glass plate negative showing the rear view of the first all British motor boat, 1894. Coventry University [reference no. LAN/7/125].
The Lanchester Engine Company (later Lanchester Motor Company) was formed in 1899. Acquiring factories in Birmingham and then Coventry, Frederick Lanchester spent much of his life and career in the West Midlands. His experiments revolutionised the development of gas and petrol engines. His early car models contained a radical new gearbox design later adopted by Henry Ford, and in 1902 the Lanchester Motor Company became the first to market disc brakes to the public. Another car innovation ahead of its time was a hybrid petrol-electric car built in 1927, which is now at thinktank, Birmingham Science Museum.

In 1930 the Birmingham Small Arms Company bought the Lanchester Motor Company and made it a subsidiary of Daimler, where Frederick Lanchester continued to set benchmarks in car design. His models were favoured by the then Duke of York and future King George VI. The last Lanchester cars were produced by Daimler in Coventry in the mid-1950s.

George Lanchester’s daughter Nancy in the driver’s seat of a 4-door Straight 8 Lanchester, 1930.
George Lanchester’s daughter Nancy in the driver’s seat of a 4-door Straight 8 Lanchester, 1930. Coventry University ([reference no. LAN/7/57].
Despite this, Frederick Lanchester has not become a household name even though his skills were widely recognized by his peers in the scientific community, so the Lanchester Interactive Archive project aims to rectify this and increase awareness of this talented man.

The project started in earnest in early 2016 to digitise much of the material in the collection, which is the largest Frederick Lanchester archive in the world. Although the project’s first phase (supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and others) ends in April 2019, Coventry University will continue to support the project and the Lanchester Interactive Archive space (LIAS) that was created in its library to showcase Lanchester’s life and his work. The university will also explore more external funding to digitise further items.

The outreach work that has taken place during the project will carry on, such as the Lanchester Days held during Coventry Motofest, which include a variety of Lanchester cars parked outside the university library. Individuals and groups will still be able to visit the LIAS, which specialises in showcasing science, engineering, history and creative thinking. The project also celebrated in October 2018 the 150th anniversary of Lanchester’s birth.

Workshops tailored for any age group, and visits to schools, organisations, and communities will continue; and augmented reality (AR) and pop-up displays mean that the message can be taken outside the university.

An augmented reality tablet in a car steering wheel shaped frame being used in the Lanchester Interactive Archive space at Coventry University library, 2017.
An augmented reality tablet in a car steering wheel shaped frame being used in the Lanchester Interactive Archive space at Coventry University
library, 2017. Coventry University.

The LIAS has touch screens that include interactive games and puzzles to explain the engineering and technical aspects of Lanchester’s work and his inventions, and visitors can point AR tablets at the exhibition images to produce additional information on the tablets. Visitors can also sit in a car built by one of the project consultants (Lanchester historian and enthusiast Chris Clark).

The project had its official launch in April 2017 and a special guest was Danella Bagnall, a former student at the university’s predecessor Coventry Polytechnic, who is now Executive Vice-President Product Engineering, Jaguar Land Rover (China/Asia Pacific Region).

Over 21,000 images from the collection will be available by April 2019 via the university’s online catalogue including personal and business correspondence, sketch books, pocket note books, copies of his patent applications, blueprints, copies and manuscript originals of his published works and a large collection of contemporary photographs of Lanchester cars and other vehicles.

Other items that have not been catalogued yet include Lanchester family papers, objects, and donations from individuals and organizations such as the Lanchester Trust, a charity that supports the university’s Lanchester collection work.

Page from a sketch book showing drawings and notes on radio set design and signal strength, 1929-1936.
Page from a sketch book showing drawings and notes on radio set design and signal strength, 1929-1936. Coventry University [reference no. LAN/4/8/97].
The project aims to open up Lanchester’s archives for use and show their potential for research in a variety of subjects, and to inspire a new generation of engineers and designers. One student at Coventry has already used an 1897 Lanchester patent for an aircraft design in his work. As part of his MSc in aerospace engineering, Osita Ugwueze created a flight simulation model of the manned flying machine, which was never built at the time. Osita used advanced computer software to prove that Lanchester’s machine would have flown. His work also suggested it would have been more aerodynamically stable than the Wright brothers’ machine that was used in the world’s first powered flight. The simulation was among several designs showcased by Coventry University students at the 2018 Farnborough International Airshow.

Illustration from the Frederick Lanchester patent for improvements in and relating to aerial machines, 1897.
Illustration from the Frederick Lanchester patent for improvements in and relating to aerial machines, 1897. Coventry University [reference no.
LAN/6/34/10].
More information can be found on the Lanchester project website which includes a link to Coventry University’s online catalogue.

The project has updated its catalogue on the Archives Hub website for the university’s Frederick Lanchester collection and more records will be added soon.

Gary Collins
Archivist, Coventry University

Bibliography

The Lanchester Legacy volume 1 1895-1931 Chris Clark (Coventry University 1995)

The Lanchester Legacy volume 2 1931-1956 Chris Clark (Lanchester Legacy Ltd 2016)

The Lanchester Legacy volume 3: a celebration of genius ed. John Fletcher (Coventry University 1996)

Browse all Coventry University archives collections on the Archives Hub.

All images copyright Coventry University (available via Creative Commons 4.0 license) and reproduced with the kind permission of the copyright holders.

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