Frederick Lanchester

This biography was written by Chris Clark for the Oxford University’s Dictionary of National Biographies and is reproduced here with his permission.

Lanchester, Frederick William (1868-1946)

 scientist, inventor, mathematician, engineer.

written by Chris Clark, Hon Dr Arts.

Frederick Lanchester

Early Days

Lanchester, Frederick William [pseud. Paul Netherton-Herries] (1868-1946), car and aircraft designer and engineer, was born on 23 October 1868 at 4 Sandfield Terrace, Lewisham Road, Lewisham, London, the fourth of the eight children of Henry Jones Lanchester (1834-1914), architect, surveyor, and part-time inventor, and his wife, Octavia, nee Ward (1834-1916), a tutor of mathematics and Latin.

He enjoyed an informative youth, living at 1 St John’s Terrace, Hove, and attending, in nearby Brighton, a preparatory and boarding-school, where he excelled in maths and science.  In 1882 he was accepted at the Hartley Institution (later incorporated in the University of Southampton) and after three years of study won a national scholarship to the combined Normal School of Science (now the Royal College of Science) and the Royal College of Mines.

He set up a laboratory in the family’s London home at 7 Balham Grove, Balham, and, in 1887, he attended Finsbury Technical College to accelerate his rate of learning.

Early Inventions and Patents

Lanchester’s first patented invention was in 1888, for his ‘Isometrograph‘ to assist draughtsmen.  This, the first of his 426 varied patent applications, was bought soon after by a manufacturing company.

At the age of twenty and with no formal qualifications, Lanchester so impressed the owner of the Forward Gas Engine Company of Birmingham that he was offered the position of assistant works manager.  Within six months Lanchester had invented his ‘pendulum governor‘ to control engine speeds, and the following year, after his promotion to works manager and designer, his ‘gas engine starter‘: both devices were highly successful.  His ideas multiplied and in 1892 he designed and built the world’s first direct-coupled engine-dynamo installation.  After more successes he resigned as works manager in 1893, after first securing the position for his younger brother.

Since 1891 Lanchester had been developing his theories on heavier-than-air flying machines and considered raising money to fund the development of an aero-engine.  He was warned, however, that his reputation would be ruined if his far-reaching proposals were publicized and he was therefore forced temporarily to abandon them.  He turned instead to motorized-carriage design and began by designing and building a 2 hp single-cylinder, high-revving, vertical engine.  In 1893 and 1894, in the garden of his home at Fairview, St Bernard’s Road, Olton, near Birmingham, Lanchester built a flat bottomed river launch as a test bed for this engine, which he installed to drive a stern-mounted paddle-wheel.  Launched in 1894, this was the first all-British motor boat.

Formation of Lanchester Engine Company

Frederick Lanchester
in his 1895 Stanhope Phaeton 8hp
(Chris Clark)

The engine’s success led to the design and construction of a single-cylinder motor car.  Occasionally assisted by his brothers George and Frank he built it to his own original design and incorporated a ‘live’ rear axle instead of one continuous shaft, epicyclic gears from which the modern automatic gearbox has evolved, and a direct-drive top-gear ratio; it was also the first car ever designed to run on pneumatic tyres.  It was completed late in 1895 in his workshop in Saltley, Birmingham: the first all-British four-wheel petrol car.  It was later redeveloped, and this, together with the success of two experimental cars, one of which received a gold medal in 1899 for its ‘excellence of design and performance’, led the three brothers to form the Lanchester Engine Company in November 1899.  The directors appointed Frederick general manager, works manager, and chief designer.

1901 Lanchester 10/12 hp
being driven in the 2018 London to Brighton Veteran Car Run

Lanchester moved to 53 Hagley Road in Birmingham, his home tor the next twenty years, which was within easy reach of a newly acquired factory for the company’s production cars. Like their predecessors, these employed vibrationless and quiet engines, silent gears, powerful brakes, and other qualities far in advance of contemporary vehicles.

His inventions for general use included splined shafts, roller bearings, turbocharging, four-wheel brakes, four-wheel drive, and interchangeability of parts to assist mass production methods.

The directors declined, however, to provide sufficient capital to service the products and the level of sales that were being achieved and the company went into receivership in 1904.  Following reconstruction it emerged as the Lanchester Motor Company with a greatly enlarged capital of £250,000.  Lanchester became, however, increasingly disillusioned with his directors’ antics, and in 1910 resigned most of his responsibilities to become their part-time consultant and technical adviser.

In 1914 he resigned from this position also, although his design concepts continued with the cars and armoured cars of the First World War.

In 1909 Lanchester had taken employment with the Daimler Motor Company as its consultant and technical adviser.  His work for it, and soon after for its parent company, Birmingham Small Arms, over the next twenty years, included the design of his world-famous ‘crankshaft vibration damper’ and his ‘harmonic balancer’, both of which are still in use in various forms.


1894 Frederick Lanchester with his rubber powered glider
(Chris Clark)

His aeronautical interests, although never far from his thoughts, had necessarily taken second place to motor car design.  His 1894 paper to the Birmingham Natural History and Philosophical Society was entitled ‘The soaring of birds and the possibilities of mechanical flight’ and it far-sightedly dealt with his theory of ‘vortex of lift’ acting on an aircraft’s wing. It was revised and presented three years later to the Physical Society.  It was rejected.

Lanchester then patented his many separate inventions as ‘Aerial Machines’ in 1897 but this profound work, not then understood by the society’s eminent scientists, lay untapped until Lanchester published two books, Aerodynamics in 1907 and Aerodonetics in 1908, jointly entitled Aerial Flight.  The work was universally acclaimed and became the standard reference for aircraft designers; it was later translated into French and German.  At this time he met other pioneers of flight in various countries in order to exchange views.  However, the trial and error experiments of the Wright brothers were anathema to Lanchester whose own work was solidly based on calculation and theory.

He became a member of the UK government’s advisory committee for aeronautics in 1909.  He foresaw the major contribution that aircraft could play in wartime, much to the chagrin of the military command, who still espoused traditional means of warfare, and he publicized his views in his book ‘Aircraft in Warfare: the Dawn of the Fourth Arm’ (1916).  This included his research into operational strategy, termed ‘the N-square law’, copies of which were dispatched to both the British and the USA military commands.  His tireless work was later acknowledged in his brother’s statement that ‘The rapid evolution of British aircraft during the First World War was largely due to his energy and foresight’ (Clark, Lanchester Legacy, 1.162).

He received no national honour, however, perhaps having upset too many important people by his blunt and forthright manner.  He had often been frustrated by the apparent slowness of thought of other experts and had shown little tact or diplomacy, especially in his patriotic quest for rapid progress.  In one instance, Lanchester wrote of a high-ranking member of the exalted Air Board, ‘A terrible lot of time has been wasted by a long discourse from the Chief Engineer, and if every designer in the country were heard at that length, they would not get down to work until next Christmas’ (Clark, Lanchester Legacy, 1.161).

In 1919 Lanchester married Dorothea, daughter of Thomas Cooper, vicar of St Peter’s Church at Field Broughton near Windermere; they had no children.

Lanchester withdrew from the advisory committee after the war and moved back to Birmingham in 1924.  After rejecting a house design from his architect brother, Henry, in typical independent fashion he designed one himself.  It was duly built and named Dyott End, in Oxford Road, Moseley.  From here, consultancy work was undertaken for a number of companies, including Lanchester, Wolseley, and Beardmore, and later for Sir Malcolm Campbell on his Bluebird record ­breaking car.

Lanchester’s Laboratories Limited

Lanchester Hybrid Car in the
Birmingham Think Tank

Lanchester founded a new company in 1925, named Lanchester’s Laboratories Limited, to promote, among other inventions, a superior range of wireless and sound-reproducing equipment.

His experimental work on petrol-electric transmission systems resulted in his design and build of the UK’s first ever hybrid car, which was used for Lanchester’s personal transport for some years.

1920s Frederick Lanchester at his desk (Chris Clark)

However, Lanchester’s business acumen was not as astute as his inventive mind and this, coupled with his strong loyalty and trust in others, helped to render him a poor man in his later years.  He could afford no car, new books, or clothes and his house mortgage was taken over by a charity, an event this proud man must have hated.  Despite failing eyesight and Parkinson’s disease his brain was unimpaired, and he produced a diversity of inventions and papers in the 1930s and 1940s on such things as the musical scale, self-steering wheelbarrows, vision, vehicle suspension, relativity, politics, and, under the pseudonym of Paul Netherton-Herries, poems and limericks.

Lanchester was a stockily built man of some 15 stone and nearly 6 foot in height.  He always worked to his own ideas from first principles and was dismissive of designing to accommodate fashion, as ‘it does not bring logical progress’ (interview, Autocar, 25 March 1938).  He was respected by most as a far-sighted genius.  His wide range of interests led him to write more than sixty technical papers for various institutions and organizations.


Although he was distressed never to receive national recognition in the honours list, he was nevertheless honoured by various institutions during his lifetime.  In 1919 he was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws by Birmingham University.

After suffering two strokes Lanchester died at home on 8 March 1946; his ashes were buried in his parents’ grave at Lindfield, near Haywards Heath, in Sussex.

Author: Chris Clark

Postscript – Memorials

Frederick Lanchester’s name and contribution to the motor industry has been immortalised with a number of memorials and institutions:

Lanchester Polytechnic / Lanchester Library

In 1970, several colleges in Coventry merged to form Lanchester Polytechnic.  It was renamed Coventry Polytechnic in 1987, and became Coventry University in 1992.  Coventry University’s Lanchester Library opened in 2000.

Lanchester Car Monument (Oosoom)

Lanchester Car Monument

An open-air sculpture, the Lanchester Car Monument, depicting the first Lanchester car the 1895 Stanhope Phaeton, designed by Tim Tolkien, is on the site where the Lanchester company built their first four-wheel, petrol car in 1895 in the Bloomsbury, Heartlands, area of Birmingham.  It was unveiled by Frank Lanchester’s daughter, Mrs Marjorie Bingeman, and the Lanchester historian, Chris Clark at the Centenary Rally in 1995.

The Lanchester Trust

In 2010 Chris Clark with two colleagues founded The Lanchester Trust, a registered charity, dedicated to promoting the works of Frederick, Frank and George Lanchester.

Lanchester Interactive Archive

The Author, Chris Clark, instigated the establishment of the University’s Lanchester Interactive Archive in 2011, at the Lanchester Library

Lanchester Legacy

Chris Clark has authored three volumes of the four volume history, Lanchester Legacy.

Oxford Road, Moseley (Oosoom)

Oxford Road, Moseley

A Green Plaque has been fixed to his home in Oxford Road Moseley.


© Text – Main Article – Chris Clark.  Additional information Tony Merrygold

© Images and additional text – Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust (unless stated)


Sources and Further Reading: