Leonardo Torres y Quevedo (December 28, 1852 – December 18, 1936) was a genius Spanish civil engineer and mathematician who is famous for, among many other things, creating wireless remote-control operation principles.
Born in Santa Cruz de Iguña, Cantabria, Spain his family resided for the most part in Bilbao, where his father worked as a railway engineer, although they also spent long periods in his mother's family home in the Cantabria's mountain region.
In Bilbao he studied to enter an advanced high school program and later spent two years in Paris to complete his studies. In 1870, his father was transferred to Madrid. The same year, Torres began studying in the Official School of the Road Engineers' Corps. He temporarily suspended his studies in 1873 to volunteer for the defense of Bilbao, which had been surrounded by Carlist troops during the Third Carlist War. Returning to Madrid, he completed his studies in 1876, fourth in his graduating class. He married in 1885 and had eight children.
He began his career with the same train company for which his father had worked, but immediately set out on a long trip through Europe to get to know the scientific and technical advances of the day firsthand, especially in the new area of electricity. Upon returning to Spain, he took up residence in Santander where he financed his own work and began a regimen of study and investigation that he never abandoned.
Torres experimented with cable cars. In 1887, he constructed the
first cableway to span a depression of some 130 feet. The cableway was
pulled by a pair of cows. In 1907, Torres constructed the first
cableway suitable for the public transportation of people in San
In 1899 he moved to Madrid and became involved in that city's cultural life. From the work he carried out in these years, the Atheaeum of Madrid created the Laboratory of Applied Mechanics of which he was named director. The Laboratory was dedicated to the manufacture of scientific instruments. That same year he entered the Royal Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences in Madrid, of which entity he was president in 1910.
In the early 1900s Torres learned the international language Esperanto and was an advocate of the language throughout his life.
In 1902 he presented to the Science Academies of Madrid and Paris the project of a new type of dirigible that would solve the serious problem of suspending the gondola by including an internal frame of flexible cables that would give the airship rigidity by way of interior pressure.
In 1903, Torres presented the Telekino at the Paris Academy of Science and obtained patents in France, Spain, Great Britain and the United States. The Telekino consisted of a robot that executed commands transmitted by electromagnetic waves.
In 1905 he directed the construction of the first Spanish dirigible in the Army Military Aerostatics Service. It made numerous test and exhibition flights. As a result, a collaboration began between Torres and the French company Astra, which managed to buy the patent with a cession of rights extended to all countries except Spain, in order to make possible the construction of the dirigible in its country. In 1911, the construction of dirigibles known as the Astra-Torres airships was begun. Some were acquired by the French and British armies at the beginning of 1913, and were used during the First World War, principally naval protection and inspection.
In 1918, Torres helped design a transatlantic dirigible, but owing to financial problems, the project was delayed and it was two Britons crossed the Atlantic without stop from Newfoundland to Ireland in a Vickers Vimy twin-engine plane, in sixteen hours and twelve minutes.
In 1920, he entered the Royal Spanish Academy and became a member of the department of Mechanics of the Paris Academy of Science. In 1922 the Sorbonne named him an Honorary Doctor and in 1927 he was named one of the twelve associated members of the Academy. Torres died in Madrid, in the heat of the Spanish Civil War on December 18, 1936, ten days shy of his eighty-fourth birthday.
It has been commonly assumed that Charles Babbage’s work on a mechanical digital program-controlled computer, which he started in 1835 and pursued off and on until his death in 1871, had been completely forgotten and was only belatedly recognized as a forerunner to the modern digital computer. Torres y Quevedo was one who made fascinating contributions that deserve to be better known.
In 1914 and 1920 he demonstrated that all of the cogwheel functions of a calculating machine like that of Babbage could be implemented using electro-mechanical parts. His 1914 analytical machine used a small memory built with electromagnets; his 1920 machine used a typewriter to receive its commands and print its results.
In early 1910, Torres began to construct a chess automaton he called El Ajedrecista (The Chessplayer). The machine was able to automatically play a King and Rook endgame against King from any position, without any human intervention. This device was first publicly demonstrated in Paris in 1914, and is considered the world's first computer game. Mechanical arms moved the pieces in the prototype, but by 1920, electromagnets under the board were employed for this task.
For complete details and photos on this fascinating invention visit the Cybernetic Zoo website HERE.