Thursday, February 15, 2007

Count Peter Schilovsky: Forgotten Genius of the Gyrocar


This ingenious two-wheeled gyroscopically balanced motorcar was invented almost a century ago by Count Peter Schilovsky (in bowler hat), shown taking it for a trial run. After it was built and ran successfully, it was buried. Then, many years later, it was disinterred. Even without the distinction of an entombment and a subsequent resurrection, the car would have attracted attention anywhere. And so would its inventor, Count Peter Schilovsky, a tall, aristocratic Russian. Early in 1912, Schilovsky appeared at the offices of the Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company on Victoria Street in London with an unusual proposal. He would pay the Wolseley Company to build a gyroscopically balanced two-wheeled car of his design. Wolseley was then the largest automobile maker in Britain. Its plant at Addersley Park in Birmingham covered several acres and produced some 50 cars a week. Part of the giant Vickers empire, the Wolseley company had more than 1,400 machine tools in its factory. It was ideally equipped to handle the job the Russian inventor proposed.

Early Attempts
Ever since mankind got itself into mechanically propelled motion in the three-and four-wheeled vehicles that were early motorcars, inventors have dreamed of conquering the problems of balance to produce a two-wheeled motorcar. In 1908, a 20-year-old Detroit artist and self-taught engineer, James Scripps Booth, constructed such a car. Powered by a V-8 engine of his own design and charmingly named the "Bi-Autogo," the car was little more than a motorcycle--a two-wheeled car with a pair of small "training wheels" at the rear. The venture was eventually abandoned. Scripps Booth turned his energies to the production of more conventional four-wheeled automobiles.

One rotating device, however, had the potential to make a two-wheeled vehicle balance itself even when stationary: the gyroscope. Friedrich von Bohnenberger constructed the first of these in Germany in 1810. For years it remained little more than an interesting demonstration in physics classrooms. Steelmaker Henry Bessemer was the pioneer who first applied the gyroscope to a form of transportation. Bessemer had made a fortune from his ingenious process for producing steel in which air was introduced into molten pig iron, burning out carbon and other impurities. His process not only made him rich but also later earned him a knighthood. Prone to seasickness, Bessemer installed a gyroscope mounted on bearings beneath the public cabin of his Channel steamer, the S.S. Bessemer, to keep it upright in rough seas.

The experiment ended in a costly disaster. On its maiden voyage in 1875, Bessemer's ship sailed from Dover and crossed the Channel. In a calm sea in broad daylight, the out-of-control ship demolished a dock at the French port of Calais. After repairs, another attempt was made. Despite being in the hands of an experienced captain, Bessemer's ship again did not respond to the helm and smashed into the Calais dock. Bessemer wisely decided to abandon his plan for a fleet of gyroscopically balanced ships.

The first proposal to apply gyroscopic stabilization to a land vehicle was made in 1903 by Louis Brennan in his application for a British patent. Brennan had already made a fortune from his invention of the Brennan torpedo directed by wires from the shore and widely used for harbor defense. By 1907, he displayed a large working model of a monorail at a meeting of the Royal Society. In November of the following year, Brennan exhibited at his Brennan Torpedo Works a 22-ton, 40-foot-long gyroscopic car that successfully traveled on a specially built monorail line. This car could carry 40 standing passengers.

By coincidence, a German, Richard Scherl, was simultaneously demonstrating a smaller gyroscopic rail car capable of carrying six persons. Both monorails were supported by a single traditional rail and ballasted roadbed, as contrasted with suspended monorails that depend solely on gravity to keep them in balance.

Schilovsky's Gyrocar
Count Schilovsky explained to Wolseley's engineers that his one passion in life was an all-consuming interest in the gyroscope. Although he was a lawyer, he was no stranger to mechanics or mathematics, being the product of the system of higher education of Czarist Russia. Estimable in quality, it was a far cry from universal public education, being highly selective and limited to the wealthy and the ruling class. Schilovsky already held several British patents and a U.S. patent for monorail vehicles balanced by a gyroscopic device. It was inevitable that he should turn his attention to producing a rubber-tired two-wheel vehicle that could travel over roads.

Far from being regarded as a curious if impractical toy, such a car was already exciting interest in various war ministries. Road conditions in wartime could make the passage of four-wheeled, two-tracked vehicles difficult, if not impossible. His 1912 U.S. patent application had listed Schilovsky's address simply as "Kostroma, Russia." He was, in fact, the governor of the entire province of Kostroma, an area of some 32,500 square miles northeast of Moscow on the Volga River. Previously, he had been vice-governor of Simbirsk province, east of Moscow.

The principle behind Schilovsky's Gyrocar was the same as that of the toy gyroscope so familiar to children. It took advantage of the tendency of a rapidly spinning massive rotor to maintain its orientation in space when the position of the outside framework changed. Common examples of gyroscopic motion and stability are found in spinning tops, the wheels of bicycles and motorcycles and even the spinning of the Earth in space. In Schilovsky's two-wheeled car, the slightest tilting motion to either side would tip one of two pendulums and call into play a heavy, rotating gyroscopic flywheel to immediately check the tipping and return the car to an upright position.

Wonderfully Simple
Wolseley engineers admitted that Schilovsky's idea was wonderfully simple. Work on the "GY Car," as it was called in Wolseley Company reports, began almost immediately under the supervision of A.W. Dring, chief experimental engineer. His October 9, 1912, report show that springs to be installed on the car were being tested. On October 21, the modified four-cylinder Wolseley C5 engine, with a bore of 90mm and stroke of 121mm, was tested. This was basically the same gasoline engine installed in Wolseley cars of the period. It also turned a generator to power the electric motor that rotated the gyrostat.

The gyrostat--a 780-pound flywheel, the heart of the gyroscope--was tested for acceleration and deceleration in early November. In December the generator and electric motor were tested in the presence of Schilovsky, by then a frequent visitor to the plant. By July of 1913, the chassis of the GY car was completed to specifications and the electrical equipment had been tested installed. That the Gyrocar was no mere overgrown motorcycle is shown by the fact that the chassis alone tipped the scales at more than 5,300 pounds, and the body without trim or fittings weighed an additional 500 pounds.

Not only was Schilovsky's vehicle heavy, it was huge, with a wheelbase of 158-3/4 inches. This made it more than three feet longer than the 124-inch wheelbase of the 2007 Lincoln Town Car. The Schilovsky car's wire wheels were made by Rudge-Whitworth, and its tires (of a size identified as 915 x 100) were supplied by Dunlop. The finished car was ready in November of 1913. After a test run, the front fork mount was changed to a more nearly horizontal position. Additional testing early in 1914 resulted in minor modifications to the controls and the speeding up of the gyroscope wheel. Failure of the gyroscope in January put the car in the shop again for additional work. An automatic device was added to lower the side supports, or "sprags," whenever the gyroscope got into trouble.

Testing Completed
By April the Gyrocar was deemed ready for a public demonstration in London with reporters and cameramen present. One of the invited passengers was Louis Brennan, inventor of the Brennan torpedo and monorail enthusiast. Wolseley engineer Dring recorded the event in his notes:

"After this the car was stopped and the sprags let down, whilst I showed the press men and His Excellency's friends the Gyrostat and explained the working of same, demonstrating how by pressing the ball controls the car was balanced and ready for running again. Then His Excellency, the driver and myself took the car into Regent's Park where rides were given to His Excellency's most intimate friends. These runs were made at very low speeds in order to demonstrate that the gyrostat had perfect control of the car. We then started back to Portman Square, His Excellency being loudly cheered and highly congratulated."

Following the demonstration, fellow inventor Louis Brennan remarked to the press "one has to ride in such a vehicle in order to fully appreciate the luxury of travel in the absence of lateral displacements of ordinary motor cars." He also noted that a saving in the cost of tires would be achieved, not only because of their reduced number but because it was easy for the driver of a Gyrocar to choose the best path to steer--an important factor in undeveloped countries having poor roads. In 1929, Brennan, by then in his 70s, touted the advantages of a two-wheeled gyro car for use in warfare, a purpose for which the Shilovsky car had been promoted. Brennan's model car was demonstrated at Farnborough airport for British carmakers Austin, Morris and Rover, who decided that they had their hands full manufacturing conventional automobiles.

The Auto-Motor Journal, which called itself somewhat presumptuously "The Times of Automobilism," reported that another Schilovsky car would be constructed with sliding gears instead of the pendulums used to control the gyroscope. The new design was expected to be a much lighter car. Schilovsky was pleased with the Wolseley Company's work on the car. He may have intended to pick up his car or to have it shipped to Russia, but the First World War intervened. The car spent the war years in the Wolseley plant. Schilovsky's name and references to either his Gyrocar or monorail disappeared completely from newspapers and from engineering literature.

Postwar Activities
Despite the wrenching upheaval of the Bolshevik revolution, Schilovsky survived and was back in London in 1922. He was invited to lecture to the November 24th meeting of the Physical Society at the Imperial College of Science. Schilovsky was listed as "Chairman of the Gyroscopic Society of Petrograd." His presentation was entitled "A Demonstration of Some Applications of the Gyroscope." The "big guns" of British physical science attended.

He revealed that 50 engineers and scientists were working on a monorail system to connect Petrograd and Tzarskoe Selo (later called Pushkin), a suburb some 15 miles distant. The Bolshevik government, faced with a huge and undeveloped country and having only limited financial means, decided to explore the advantages of an overhead monorail line. Schilovsky assembled a group of Russian experts: mathematicians, mechanical engineers, economists and track designers. German monorail experts were brought in to design the passenger cars and electrical system.

Following Schilovsky's lecture, Sir George Greenhill, 75-year-old former professor of mathematics at the Artillery College at Woolwich and author of an exhaustive 277-page volume entitled Report on Gyroscopic Theory, thanked Schilovsky for his presentation. Physicist Sir Charles Vernon Boys, later vice-president of the Royal Automobile Club, expressed his pleasure at seeing the Russian scientist alive and well, and hoped that Schilovsky would take back a message of good will and sympathy to his confreres in Petrograd--its name had not yet been changed to Leningrad. Professor Buys had been an enthusiastic passenger in Schilovsky's Gyrocar in its 1914 London demonstration.

Sir James Henderson, former professor of applied mechanics at the Royal Naval College and later advisor on gyroscopic equipment to the Admiralty, asked for details of the Russian monorail project. Schilovsky replied that the impression the Soviet government had actually completed the railway was unfortunately not true. About ten kilometers (6.2 miles) of track had been laid, but lack of funds and resources had kept it from being completed.

Schilovsky's presence at the London meeting is interesting, for it shows that the revolutionary government considered him a scientific asset and did not bar him from traveling outside the country. A year later, however, Schilovsky, his wife and their three daughters became permanent residents of England, making their home in a London suburb. In March of that year he attended a scientific meeting at the technical institute at Loughborough that discussed gyroscopes.

During the summer of 1923 he worked on the manuscript of a book, assisted by a young physicist, J.F.S. Ross, author of An Introduction to the Principles of Mechanics, whom he had met at the Loughborough meeting. It may have been a case of intellectual cross-pollination; later, Ross's 1931 Ph.D. thesis was entitled The Gyroscopic Stabilization of Land Vehicles.

Published by the respected London firm of E. and F.N. Spon, Schilovsky's book, The Gyroscope: Its Practical Construction and Application, appeared in 1924. It was considered sufficiently authoritative to merit republication by Spon in 1938 with no changes to the text. In his book, Schilovsky described his Gyrocar and offered as frank an appraisal as any inventor ever gave of the shortcomings of a brainchild: "But as the eccentricity of the gyroscope was only sufficient for a smooth curve in the direction of spin of the gyroscope, no rounding of sharp curves was possible to the left." Schilovsky added that he had already drawn up the necessary patent specifications to rectify this difficulty. Money being in short supply, however, an improved Gyrocar was never built.

Aircraft Instruments
Despite the "white elephant" outcome of his Gyrocar project, Schilovsky maintained an interest in gyroscopes. His book led to a meeting with Frederick Handley Page, famous British builder of giant aircraft, later knighted by King George in 1942. For Handley Page, Schilovsky designed the first of his Orthoscopes, the original turn and bank indicator for aircraft.

Turn and bank indicators are essentially two separate instruments. The turn indicator shows rotation about the vertical axis. It incorporates a small gyroscope that develops a torque when the aircraft turns. This torque controls a pointer that shows the pilot the turning rate in degrees per unit of time. The bank indicator shows rotation about the longitudinal axis and is the much simpler instrument of the two. It consists of a U-shaped glass tube filled with a damping liquid in which a small steel ball rolls. When the plane is horizontal, the ball is at the bottom. As the plane banks, gravity keeps the ball at the lowest point as the tube rotates from side to side.

G. H. Cooke, whose improvements included a simplification of the wiring and the addition of a small light bulb behind two movable screens, one red, and the other green, later introduced modifications into the Schilovsky Orthoscope. In the static position, these screens blocked passage of light. Banking the aircraft to the left exposed the red screen, while banking to the right exposed the green screen.

Schilovsky later worked with Vickers-Armstrongs, Ltd., where he developed navigational gyroscopes for torpedoes at the Royal Navy's base at Devonport. He also assisted in the design and construction of the Sperry gyroscopic stabilizers installed in 1932 in the Italian Line's Conte di Savoia. The sleek and lovely vessel, the first gyro-stabilized vessel to cross the Atlantic, displaced 45,502 gross tons, was 815 feet long and had a beam of 96 feet. As one of the first large vessels to be equipped with gyrostabilizers, the roll of this ship in heavy seas was claimed to be limited to 3 degrees. Passengers reported that they still got seasick. Her maiden voyage to New York began on November 30, 1932. Regrettably, she had a too-short life. After brief wartime service as a troop transport, she was sunk by Allied bombing planes in the Adriatic near Venice. After the burned-out hulk was raised in 1945, plans fell through for refurbishing the ship to carry Italian emigrants to South America. She was broken up for scrap in 1950.

Following the ship project, Schilovsky returned to designing improved turn-and-bank indicators. His new instrument was small, lightweight and quick starting--the gyroscope was powered by the aircraft's slipstream--and had a constant speed. In 1937, he was working on a project to develop a directional gyrocompass for armored vehicles. The Vickers Group magazine Vickers News published an amusing cartoon in the May 1937 issue. It showed Schilovsky in a black hat and fur-collared coat conducting a test of one of his gyroscopic instruments. He left Vickers in 1940 and moved to Surbiton, a London suburb, where he continued his research in his own workshop.

In their declining years, Dr. and Mrs. Schilovsky lived in Holmer Park in Hereford, with Lady Wood, a friend. He would jokingly tell friends, "In Russia I used to devote half my time to governing the state and half my time to science; now I devote all my time to science." The Schilovskys had lost almost everything in the Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath, managing to salvage only a Stradivarius violin and a set of gold tableware. Yet, friends recalled that they never complained about their lot.

Over the years, Dr. Schilovsky's Gyrocar had been sitting in a corner of the Wolseley factory, the subject of occasional curiosity about its origin and the fate of its creator. The two-wheeled car managed to survive the spectacular 1926 bankruptcy that put the Wolseley Company into the hands of William Morris's car company, perhaps best known for its MG sports car.

Consigned to the Grave
As for the Gyrocar, in 1930 Wolseley decided to dispose of the unwieldy Schilovsky 1912 vehicle. Instead of turning it over to a scrap metal dealer, a huge hole was dug and the car was unceremoniously dumped in and buried. This should have been the end of the story. The factory freight yard was gradually extended, with railroad tracks and puffing locomotives covering the grave of the two-wheeled oddity.

In 1938, in one of those curious flip-flops of corporate policy that dot the history of technology, the decision was made to dig up the Gyrocar. Rail traffic was halted and tracks were moved. The monster carcass was located, uncovered and hauled up by a crane. Chassis and running gear--in a remarkable state of preservation despite their eight-year burial--were restored, and the car was accorded a place of honor in the company's museum.

According to a Wolseley factory legend, Schilovsky, now an old man, visited the factory museum one day to gaze once more at his invention. All the familiar faces he had known at the plant were gone. Even its output was different, for it was engaged in war production, and the plant's buildings had been camouflaged to resemble a housing development. The old man stood looking at the car for a long time, his tall figure stooped by age. Then he left, this time never to return.

The Gyrocar miraculously survived the destruction of the war. For a time it was hidden when a German invasion was feared after the fall of France. Having been saved from repeated wartime scrap drives that swallowed British fences, railings, lampposts and other objects of iron or steel, the now-venerable relic emerged unscathed from the heavy German air raids that badly damaged the factory.

Ironically, in 1948--in another unpredictable and totally indefensible turnabout in corporate thinking--someone in the Wolseley organization gave the stupid order to destroy the Gyrocar. The unusual vehicle, which had literally come back from the grave, was broken up and sold as scrap metal. The reason offered to justify its destruction was ludicrous: "It was hard to store. It always had to lean against something."

Fortunately, Schilovsky lived long enough to witness the ultimate technological triumph of the gyroscope. The German vengeance weapons--V-1 and V-2 rockets that rained down on England in 1943 and 1944--were gyroscopically guided. Gyroscopes are also at the heart of the inertial guidance systems of today's spacecraft. Dr. Peter Schilovsky died in 1955, still single-mindedly believing in gyroscopes and monorails, still hoping to convince the British Admiralty to adopt his gyroscopic ship stabilizer. It would be nice to think he passed away without ever learning of the ignominious fate of his Gyrocar.

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