Leonardo Torres y Quevedo

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Leonardo Torres y Quevedo in 1917

Leonardo Torres y Quevedo (Spanish: [le.oˈnaɾðo ˈtores i keˈβeðo]; 28 December 1852 – 18 December 1936) was a Spanish civil engineer and mathematician of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Torres was a pioneer in the development of the radio control and automated calculation machines, the inventor of a chess automaton,[1][2] and a innovative designer of the three-lobed non-rigid Astra-Torres airship and the Whirlpool Aero Car located in Niagara Falls. With his Telekine, Torres-Quevedo created wireless remote-control operation principles. He was also a famous speaker of Esperanto.[3]


Leonardo Torres y Quevedo. Portrait by Joaquín Sorolla in 1917 at the Hispanic Society of America
Photograph showing the Spanish engineers José Echegaray and Leonardo Torres Quevedo at the Academy of Exact Sciences in 1916 on the occasion of having awarded the latter the medal bearing the name of the former.
Leonardo Torres Quevedo as a new member of the RAE together with some of the academics after the inauguration, 30 October 1920.

Torres was born on 28 December 1852, on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, in Santa Cruz de Iguña, Cantabria, Spain. The family resided for the most part in Bilbao, where Leonardo's 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, bringing his family to Madrid. The same year, Torres began his higher studies 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 began his career with the same train company for which his father had worked, but he 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 incipient 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. The fruit of these investigations appeared in his first scientific work in 1893.

He married in 1885 and had eight children. In 1889 he moved to Madrid and became involved in that city's cultural life. From the work he carried out in these years, the Athenæum of Madrid created the Laboratory of Applied Mechanics of which he was named director. The Laboratory dedicated itself 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. Among the works of the Laboratory, the cinematography of Gonzalo Brañas and the X-ray spectrograph of Cabrera and Costa are notable.

In the early 1900s, Torres learned the international language Esperanto, and was an advocate of the language throughout his life.[4]

In 1916 King Alfonso XIII of Spain bestowed the Echegaray Medal upon him; in 1918, he declined the offer of the position of Minister of Development. In 1920, he entered the Royal Spanish Academy, in the seat that had been occupied by Benito Pérez Galdós, and became a member of the department of Mechanics of the Paris Academy of Science. In 1922 the Sorbonne named him an Honorary Doctor[5] and, in 1927, he was named one of the twelve associated members of the Academy. From 1922 to 1926, he participates to the works of the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations.[6]

Torres died in Madrid, in the heat of the Spanish Civil War on 18 December 1936, ten days shy of his eighty-fourth birthday.

Google celebrated his 160th birthday on 28 December 2012 with a Google Doodle.[7]


Analytical machines[edit]

Torres Quevedo's 1920 electromechanical arithmometer, completely functional but never commercialized, which used a typewriter to send commands and print its results.

It has been commonly assumed (see Metropolis and Worlton 1980) 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. Ludgate, Torres y Quevedo, and Bush give the lie to this belief, and all made fascinating contributions that deserve to be better known.[8]

Torres Quevedo demonstrated twice, in 1914 and in 1920, that all of the cogwheel functions of a calculating machine like that of Babbage could be implemented using electromechanical parts. His 1914 analytical machine used a small memory built with electromagnets; his 1920 machine, the electromechanical arithmometer, built to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the invention of the arithmometer, automatically performed arithmetic operations represented in decimal numeral system and used a typewriter to send commands and print its results.[8]

Torres 1913 paper, "Essays on Automatics," introduced the idea of floating point arithmetic, which historian Randell says was described "almost casually,"[8] apparently without recognizing the significance of the discovery. Torres also proposed a machine that acts intelligently like a human or replaces a human, and is equivalent to various current automated control machines. This machine makes "judgments" using sensors that capture information from the outside, parts that manipulate the outside world like arms, power sources such as batteries and air pressure, and the most important, captured information and past information. It is defined as a part that can control the reaction like a living thing according to external information and adapt to changes in the environment to change its behavior.[9] [10][11]


Airship Astra-Torres built in 1911
Torres with a model of his airship in 1913
Statue of Leonardo Torres y Quevedo in the Museum of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Madrid (2010).

In 1902, Leonardo Torres Quevedo 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 1905, with the help of Alfredo Kindelán, Torres directed the construction of the first Spanish dirigible in the Army Military Aerostatics Service, created in 1896 and located in Guadalajara. It was completed successfully, and the new airship, the España, 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. So, in 1911, the construction of dirigibles known as the Astra-Torres airships was begun. The distinctive three-lobed design was widely used during the First World War by the Entente powers for diverse tasks, principally naval protection and inspection.

To find a resolution to the slew of problems faced by airship engineers to dock dirigibles, Torres y Quevedo also drew up designs of a ‘docking station’ and made alterations to airship designs. In 1910, Torres y Quevedo proposed the idea of attaching an airships nose to a mooring mast and allowing the airship to weathervane with changes of wind direction. The use of a metal column erected on the ground, the top of which the bow or stem would be directly attached to (by a cable) would allow a dirigible to be moored at any time, in the open, regardless of wind speeds. Additionally, Torres y Quevedo's design called for the improvement and accessibility of temporary landing sites, where airships were to be moored for the purpose of disembarkation of passengers. The final patent was presented in February 1911.[12]

In 1919, Torres designed, in collaboration with the engineer Emilio Herrera Linares, a transatlantic dirigible, which was named Hispania, aiming to claim the honor of the first transatlantic flight for Spain. Owing to financial problems, the project was delayed and it was the Britons John Alcock and Arthur Brown who crossed the Atlantic without stop from Newfoundland to Ireland in a Vickers Vimy twin-engine plane, in sixteen hours and twelve minutes.

The three-lobed dirigible continued to be manufactured after the patent expired in 1922 and today airships are still built with some ideas inherited from this non-rigid system.

Chess automaton[edit]

El Ajedrecista (The Chessplayer)

In early 1910, Torres began to construct a chess automaton he dubbed El Ajedrecista (The Chessplayer) that was able to automatically play a king and rook endgame against king from any position, without any human intervention.[13] Mechanical arms moved the pieces in the prototype, but by 1920, electromagnets under the board were employed for this task.

The device could be considered the first computer game in history.[14] It created great excitement when it made its debut, at the University of Paris in 1914. It was first widely mentioned in Scientific American as "Torres and His Remarkable Automatic Devices" on November 6, 1915.[15]


Torres's experimentation in the area of cableways and cable cars began very early during his residence in the town of his birth, Molledo. There, in 1887, he constructed the first cableway to span a depression of some 40 metres. The cableway was some 200 metres across and was pulled by a pair of cows, with one log seat. This experiment was the basis for the request for his first patent, which he sought in the same year: an aerial cable car with multiple cables, with which it obtained a level of safety suitable for the transport of people, not only cargo. Later, he constructed the cableway of the Río León, of greater speed and already with a motor, but which continued to be used solely for the transport of materials, not of people.

Cable car in the mount Ulía (1916)

In 1890 he presented his cableway in Switzerland, a country very interested in that transport owing to its geography and which was already coming to use cable cars for bulk transport, but Torres's project was dismissed, allowing certain ironic commentary from the Swiss press. In 1907, Torres constructed the first cableway suitable for the public transportation of people, in the mount Ulía in San Sebastián.[16][17][18][19] The problem of safety was solved by means of an ingenious system of multiple support cables. The resulting design was very strong and perfectly resisted the rupture of one of the support cables. The execution of the project was the responsibility of the Society of Engineering Studies and Works of Bilbao, which successfully constructed other cableways in Chamonix, Rio de Janeiro, and elsewhere.

But it is doubtless the Spanish Aerocar in Niagara Falls in Canada which has gained the greatest fame in this area of activity, although from a scientific point of view it was not the most important. The cableway of 580 meters in length is an aerial cable car that spans the whirlpool in the Niagara Gorge on the Canadian side, constructed between 1914 and 1916, a Spanish project from beginning to end: devised by a Spaniard, constructed by a Spanish company with Spanish capital (The Niagara Spanish Aerocar Co. Limited); a bronze plaque, located on a monolith at the entrance of the access station recalls this fact: Spanish aerial ferry of the Niagara. Leonardo Quevedo Torres (1852–1936). It was inaugurated in tests on 15 February 1916 and was officially inaugurated on 8 August 1916, opening to the public the following day; the cableway, with small modifications, continues to run to this day, with no accidents worthy of mention, constituting a popular tourist and cinematic attraction.[20]

Radio control: the Telekino[edit]

The Telekino, invented by Leonardo Torres y Quevedo in 1903, which executed commands transmitted by electromagnetic waves.

Torres was a pioneer in the field of remote control. In 1903, he presented the Telekino at the Paris Academy of Science and making an experimental demonstration.[21] In the same year, he obtained a patent in France, Spain, Great Britain, and the United States. It was intended as a way of testing a dirigible of his own design without risking human lives.

IEEE Milestone Plaque dedicated to the Telekino of Torres Quevedo.

The Telekino consisted of a robot that executed commands transmitted by electromagnetic waves. It constituted the world's second publicly demonstrated apparatus for radio control, after Nikola Tesla's Patented "Teleautomaton", but unlike Tesla's “on/off” mechanisms, Torres device was able to memorize the signals received to execute operations on its own and could carry out to 19 different orders. In 1906, in the presence of the king and before a great crowd, Torres successfully demonstrated the invention in the port of Bilbao, guiding a boat from the shore with people on board. Later, he would try to apply the Telekino to projectiles and torpedoes but had to abandon the project for lack of financing.[22]

In 2007, the prestigious Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) dedicated a Milestone in Electrical Engineering and Computing[23] to the Telekino, based on the research work developed at Technical University of Madrid by Prof. Antonio Pérez Yuste, who was the driving force behind the Milestone nomination.

Analogue calculating machines[edit]

Torres Quevedo's Algebraic Machine
Fusee sans fin (endless spindle)

Analogue calculating machines seek solutions to equations by translating them into physical phenomena. Numbers are represented by physical magnitudes such as may be done with certain rotational axes, potentials, electrical or electromagnetic states, and so on. A mathematical process is thereby transformed by these machines into an operative process of certain physical magnitudes which leads to a physical result corresponding with the sought mathematical solution. The mathematical problem therefore is solved by a physical model of itself. From the mid 19th century, various such mechanical devices were known, including integrators, multipliers, and so on ; it is against this background that Torres's work is defined. He began with a presentation in 1893 at the Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences of the Memory on algebraic machines. In his time, this was considered an extraordinary success for Spanish scientific production. In 1895 the machines were presented at a congress in Bordeaux. Later on, in 1900, la Memoria would present the calculating machines at the Paris Academy of Sciences. These machines examined mathematical and physical analogies that underlay analogue calculation or continuous quantities, and how to establish mechanically the relationships between them, expressed in mathematical formulae. The study included complex variables and used the logarithmic scale. From a practical standpoint, it showed that mechanisms such as turning disks could be used endlessly with precision, so that variables' variations were limited in both directions.[24][25]

On the practical side, Torres built a whole series of analogue calculating machines, all mechanical. These machines used certain elements known as arithmophores which consisted of a moving part and an index that made it possible to read the quantity according to the position shown thereon.[26] The aforesaid moving part was a graduated disk or a drum turning on an axis. The angular movements were proportional to the logarithms of the magnitudes to be represented. Using a number of such elements, Torres developed a machine that could solve algebraic equations, even one with eight terms, finding the roots, including the complex ones, with a precision down to thousandths. One part of this machine, called an "endless spindle" ("fusee sans fin") and consisting of great mechanical complexity, allowed the mechanical expression of the relation y=log(10^x+1), with the aim of extracting the logarithm of a sum as a sum of logarithms, the same technique which is the basis of the modern electronic Logarithmic Number System. Since an analogical machine was being used, the variable could be of any value (not only discrete prefixed values). With a polynomial equation, the wheels representing the unknown spin round, and the result gives the values of the sum of the variables. When this sum coincides with the value of the second member, the wheel of the unknown shows a root.

Bust of Leonardo Torres Quevedo in the headquarters of the Government of Cantabria in Santander.

With the intention of demonstrating them, Torres also built a machine for solving a second-order equation with complex coefficients, and an integrator. Nowadays, the Torres machine is kept in the museum at the ETS de Ingenieros de Caminos, Canales y Puertos of the Technical University of Madrid (UPM).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Williams, Andrew (16 March 2017). History of Digital Games: Developments in Art, Design and Interaction. CRC Press. ISBN 9781317503811.
  2. ^ Gizycki, Jerzy. A History of Chess. London: Abbey Library, 1972. Print.
  3. ^ (eo) José Antonio del Barrio, Kvazaŭ-ZEO* super la Niagaro, pp. 40-42, La Riverego, nr. 242-244, 2020.
  4. ^ Leonardo Torres Quevedo y el esperanto
  5. ^ "Torres Quevedo doctor "honoris causa"". La Libertad (in Spanish). 25 November 1923.
  6. ^ Grandjean, Martin (2018). Les réseaux de la coopération intellectuelle. La Société des Nations comme actrice des échanges scientifiques et culturels dans l'entre-deux-guerres [The Networks of Intellectual Cooperation. The League of Nations as an Actor of the Scientific and Cultural Exchanges in the Inter-War Period] (phdthesis) (in French). Lausanne: Université de Lausanne.
  7. ^ Video on YouTube
  8. ^ a b c Randell, Brian. "From Analytical Engine to Electronic Digital Computer: The Contributions of Ludgate, Torres, and Bush" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 21 September 2013. Retrieved 9 September 2013.
  9. ^ L. Torres Quevedo. Ensayos sobre Automática – Su definicion. Extension teórica de sus aplicaciones, Revista de la Academia de Ciencias Exacta, Revista 12, pp. 391–418, 1913.
  10. ^ L. Torres Quevedo. Essais sur l'Automatique - Sa définition. Etendue théorique de ses applications, Revue Génerale des Sciences Pures et Appliquées, vol. 2, pp. 601–611, 1915.
  11. ^ B. Randell. Essays on Automatics, The Origins of Digital Computers, pp. 89–107, 1982.
  12. ^ González-Redondo, F.; Camplin, G. (2015). The Controversial Origins of the Mooring Mast for Airships: An Historical Overview of a Neglected Branch of Aeronautical Technology that has Great Potential for Future Use. Icon. International Committee for the History of Technology. pp. 81–108.
  13. ^ Montfort, Nick (2005), Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, MIT Press, ISBN 978-0-262-63318-5
  14. ^ Montfort, Nick (2003). Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction. MIT Press. p. 76. ISBN 0-262-63318-3. In 1912 Leonardo Torres Quevedo ... devised the first computer game ... The machine played a KRK chess endgame, playing rook and king against a person playing a lone king.
  15. ^ Torres and his remarkable automatic devices. Issue 2079 of Scientific American, 1915
  16. ^ "Un transbordador pionero 1907". 1 December 1997.
  17. ^ "Instituto Geografico Vasco "Andres de Urdaneta" Euskal Geografi Elkargoa (ingeba)". ingeba.org.
  18. ^ "Ferrocarril del Monte Ulia – San Sebastián". Spanish Railway. 5 May 2012.
  19. ^ "Teleférico – Casiopea" (in Spanish). 3 June 2011.
  20. ^ Whirlpool Aero Car – Niagara Parks, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada
  21. ^ Sarkar 2006, p. 97
  22. ^ H. R. Everett, Unmanned Systems of World Wars I and II, MIT Press – 2015, pp. 91–95
  23. ^ "Milestones:Early Developments in Remote-Control, 1901". IEEE Global History Network. IEEE. Retrieved 29 July 2011.
  24. ^ Horsburg, E. M. (Ellice Martin); Napier Tercentenary Exhibition (1914). "The Instrumental Solution of Numerical Equations by D. Gibb, M.A.". Modern instruments and methods of calculation : a handbook of the Napier Tercentenary Exhibition. Gerstein – University of Toronto. London : G. Bell. p. 263.
  25. ^ Girvan, Ray. The revealed grace of the mechanism: computing after Babbage, May 2003
  26. ^ Mehmke, R. (1908), "I23", Encyclopédie des sciences mathematiques pures et appliquées, Paris: Gauthier-Villars, p. 351

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