Dec 28, 1852 - Dec 18, 1936

Torres Quevedo: Great Inventions from the Automation Pioneer

Torres Quevedo Museum

Discover the story of Leonardo Torres Quevedo, one of the most prolific inventors in the history of science.

Leonardo Torres Quevedo was born in 1852 in the Cantabrian town of Santa Cruz de Iguña. When he finished his civil engineering studies in 1876, he decided he would work in the field of science, technology, and invention because of his passion for mathematics.

The image shows Leonardo Torres Quevedo's childhood home in Santa Cruz de Iguña, Cantabria.

He mainly worked on solving mathematical problems through the use of physics.

This meant he was able to overcome the limitations of the period to create machines that could carry out complex tasks akin to artificial intelligence.

Torres Quevedo spent the final years of his life teaching, researching, and creating resources to help educators.

His patents included typewriters, marginal pagination for manuals, a projecting pointer, and a didactic projector.

Recognition for a Prodigious Inventor
In 1916 King Alfonso XIII of Spain awarded Torres Quevedo the Echegaray Medal - the highest honor granted by the Academy of Sciences. In 1920 Torres Quevedo joined the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language (RAE) and shortly after was appointed a member of the Department of Mechanics at the French Academy of Sciences in Paris.

In 1922 the Sorbonne named him Doctor Honoris Causa and in 1927 he was chosen as one of the 12 associate members of the Academy.

He was also a member of various academies located both in Spain and elsewhere.

These included the Royal Spanish-American Academy of Cádiz, the Society of Physics and Natural History of Geneva, and the Academies of Sciences in Zaragoza, Buenos Aires, and Paris.

One of his most noteworthy distinctions was the recognition given to him by the IEEE (International Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) for his originality in developing remote controls, which eventually led to the invention of what he called the telekino.

In 2007 this distinction was made tangible with the laying of a Milestone at the Torres Quevedo Museum.

Torres Quevedo also received awards such as the Grand Cross of Alfonso XII and the Henri de Parville Prize from the French Academy of Sciences.

In 1953 events were held to commemorate the centenary of his birth, with senior academic, scientific, and university representatives from Spain and elsewhere taking part.

In 1991 the Niagara Parks Commission placed a commemorative plaque at the foot of the Whirlpool Aero Car in memory of its designer, Torres Quevedo.

It's inevitable that a person like Torres Quevedo would have monuments built in his honor.

In 1986 the "Amigos de la Cultura Científica" (Friends of Scientific Culture) encouraged the public to fund a statue of Torres Quevedo in Santa Cruz de Iguña, Cantabria.

On December 28, 2012, Google dedicated its Doodle to Leonardo Torres Quevedo on the 160th anniversary of his birth.

It featured the "Spanish Aero Car" carrying its inventor, some chess pieces in a nod to his chess-playing machines, and a cow symbolizing his first cableway in Molledo.

In 1958 a World's Fair was once again held following a hiatus caused by the Second World War.

This is the brochure on Leonardo Torres Quevedo handed out at the exhibition.

His work is presented as a precursor to automation and tele-mechanics, and his participation in the event meant the engineer was recognized as a key representative of modern Spanish science.

Leonardo Torres Quevedo's image and name were used in 1923 to publicize "Licor de Los 8 Hermanos" liquor in the weekly Argentine magazine "Caras y Caretas."

Detail from the note handwritten by Leonardo Torres Quevedo for the "Licor de Los 8 Hermanos" advert.

Starting Out as an Inventor: Cableways
Torres Quevedo was late to the world of invention, beginning at the age of 35 when he developed the cableway in his hometown of Molledo. But from then on, he was an unstoppable inventor across a range of fields.

In 1886, while living in Molledo, Cantabria, he built his first cableway. It traversed a 40-meter drop, 400 meters up, and was pulled along by a pair of cows.

In 1887 he patented a funicular with several cables supported by independent counterweights so there was no risk of danger if a cable should break.

The first cableway to transport passengers was installed at Monte Ulía in San Sebastián in 1907, but disappeared in 1912 when the Monte Igueldo amusement park became more popular.

The most famous cableway created by Torres Quevedo is the one at the Niagara Whirlpool.

The Niagara Spanish Aero Car Company Limited was created from the Spanish company "Estudios y Obras de Ingeniería" (Engineering Studies and Works) to build and assemble it.

Torres Quevedo's son Gonzalo managed the cableway construction and assembly process between 1914 and 1916.

The cableway links 2 sites on the Canadian shore of the Niagara River and spans 550 meters.

Algebraic Machines
Torres Quevedo first gained notoriety in the field after presenting "Sur les machines à calculer" (On Calculating Machines) in Paris. His importance was then confirmed by his 1900 presentation at the French Academy of Sciences on his paper "Sur les machines algébriques" (On Algebraic Machines). These texts represented a clear advance on previous knowledge in the field of calculating machines, which were only able to carry out simple calculations such as addition and subtraction.

Between 1910 and 1920 Torres Quevedo demonstrated the advantages of an electromechanical system over mechanical processes.

The inventor's final scientific publication was "Arithmomètre électromécanique" (Electromechanical Arithmometer) presented at the French Academy of Sciences, which will soon reach its 70th anniversary.

Algebraic machines are analog calculators that solve mathematical equations using quantities represented by physical values.

The mathematical process is linked to an operational process involving certain physical values, and the physical result obtained corresponds to the mathematical solution sought.

In 1920 he built the electromechanical arithmometer: the world's first digital calculator. It used relays, was very quick, and could be connected to logic circuits.

The system consisted of a calculating machine connected to a typewriter on which the numbers and calculations were typed in the order they were to be performed.

The calculations were then carried out and the typewriter put them down onto paper.

Detail showing the typewriter, electromechanical systems, and relays.

In 1902 Torres Quevedo presented a new balloon design at the Academies of Sciences in Madrid and Paris that caught the state's attention. In 1904 the government decided to support these experiments and created the Aeronautical Testing Center. Its main objective was "the technical and experimental study of the problem of aerial navigation and directing the maneuvering of remote engines."

In 1905, with the help of Alfredo Kindelán, Torres Quevedo managed the construction of the first Spanish airship at the Army's Military Aeronautics Service in Guadalajara.

The "España" airship carried out numerous exhibition and test flights with great success.

Spain's limited budget and technological deficiencies led Torres Quevedo to turn to the French company Astra in 1909, granting it the worldwide patent exploitation rights.

However, this did not apply in Spain, where the airship could be freely built by any Spaniard.

In 1911 construction began on the "Astra-Torres" airships, which were acquired by the French and English armies from 1913, and used for naval inspection and protection duties during the First World War.

Torres Quevedo helped to improve the way the airships flew.

He devoted himself to improving their dynamic stability and detailed his conclusions in an essay that he presented to the French and Spanish Academies of Sciences.

In 1918 Torres Quevedo designed an airship that he named "Hispania," which he intended to make the first transatlantic flight from Spain.

Ultimately, such a flight could not be undertaken due to a lack of funding for the project.

Inventions with Continued Impact: the Telekine and Chess-Player
The key aspects of Leonardo Torres Quevedo's scientific work can be found in 2 essays. One, titled 'Automation. Its Definition. Theoretical Extent of Its Applications', was published in the Madrid Academy of Sciences journal in January 1914 and again in the "Revue Générale des Sciences Pures et Appliqués" on November 15, 1915.

Three devices of particular note resulted from his automaton designs: the electromechanical arithmometer, the Telekine, and the chess-player.

The Telekine was an automaton that carried out commands transmitted via Hertzian waves and converted these into movement.

The idea of a decision-making machine led Torres Quevedo to come up with an extension of conventional machine theory, which he called "automation." Its aim was to examine "the procedures that can be applied to building automatons with a somewhat complex relational ability."

In 1912 Leonardo Torres Quevedo built a machine that played chess to demonstrate his theories of automation.

He subsequently presented this experimental model in Paris in 1914.

In 1920 he built a second chess-player, introducing significant improvements to which he referred when presenting it.

As an automaton, it offered no real improvement on the first model.

It was more a scientific toy, designed to demonstrate the possibilities of general automation theory.

The Automation Laboratory
Torres Quevedo created an applied mechanics laboratory for the purpose of building advanced machines for businesses and scientists, including some as noteworthy as the winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, Santiago Ramón y Cajal.

The Automation Laboratory was founded in the early part of the 20th century, with Torres Quevedo as its director.

It is important to highlight the support the laboratory gave to other scientists (known as the "Generation of 1914"), for whom it produced a range of machines.

The 'Aeronautical Testing Center' was the precursor to what would become the 'Automation Laboratory.'

The name change is evidence of Torres Quevedo's ability to work in different fields. Various members of the scientific community and Spanish universities spent time in the laboratory.

The most extensive collaboration was with Miguel Pérez Santano, who invented a duplex system that improved how Hughes telegraphs operated.

Torres Quevedo Museum
The Higher Technical School of Civil Engineering in Madrid houses the most significant collection of inventions and models by Leonardo Torres Quevedo, donated by the inventor himself in 1928.

The first Torres Quevedo Museum was established in the former School of Civil Engineering in Calle Alfonso XII, Madrid, where inventions donated by Torres Quevedo himself were kept for students to learn more about his work.

During his lifetime, he built many mathematical devices that paved the way for computer science and automation.

These inventions were ahead of their time.

The collection consists of material used by Torres Quevedo for research and technical development, as well as some prototypes of his electromechanical devices and his main inventions.

The Torres Quevedo Museum is located in the Higher Technical School of Civil Engineering at the Technical University of Madrid (at Calle Profesor Aranguren, Ciudad Universitaria).

Visitors are welcome Monday to Friday mornings by prior appointment.

Torres Quevedo Museum
Credits: Story

Torres Quevedo Museum (Madrid)

Museum Director: Manuel Romana García
Editing: Miriam Guerrero Pérez
Texts: Miriam Guerrero Pérez and Consuelo Durán Cermeño
Advisors: Francisco González Redondo, Antonio López Vega, and María Pascual Nicolás
Image Sources: Museum collection, Francisco González Redondo Collection, Manuel Romana Collection, National Newspaper Library, Sorolla Museum
Video Source: YouTube

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.