Leonardo Torres

Le plus lourd fardeau, c’est d’exister sans vivre.
Victor Hugo

Leonardo Torres y Quevedo (1852-1936)
Leonardo Torres y Quevedo (1852-1936)

In 1893 the eminent Spanish engineer and inventor Leonardo Torres y Quevedo (1852-1936) presented his first paper to the Spanish Royal Academy of Sciences. It was devoted to an algebraic machine, able to calculate the roots of an any-grade equation. The paper was accompanied by a working prototype of the device. That was the first automatic calculator, designed by Leonardo Torres in a long list of them.

Quevedo’s major motivation in all his work in the field of automatic machines (besides calculating machines and chess automatons, he built also an automatic weighting machine and a machine for playing a game, similar to Nim) appears to have been exploiting, to the full, the new facilities that electromechanical techniques offered, and to challenge accepted thinking as to the limitations of machines, but not to create a workable general-purpose electromechanical computer, or some else great. Torres certainly had the knowledge and potential to manufacture such a machine, but it was too early, the need for large scale fully-automatic calculating machines appeared as late as the 1940s.

Torres' algebraic machine from 1893
Torres’ algebraic machine from 1893

The algebraic machine of Leonardo Torres
The algebraic machine of Leonardo Torres was an analog computing device, featuring a mechanism based on a cone-shaped pulley with a helical groove around it. The algebraic machine was used for the resolution of equations like:
x9 + Ax8 = B
x9 + Ax7 = B.

Torres’ first automatic machine
Torres’ major written work on the subject of automatics was his fascinating Essays on Automatics, published in 1913, in which he devised the term Automatics. The paper provides us with the main link between Torres and Babbage. Torres gives a brief history of Babbage’s efforts at constructing a mechanical Difference Engine and Analytical Engine. He describes the Analytical Engine as exemplifying his theories as to the potential power of machines and takes the problem of designing such an engine as a challenge to his skills as an inventor of electromechanical devices. The paper in fact contains a complete design (albeit one that Torres regarded as theoretical rather than practical) for a machine capable of calculating completely automatically the value of the formula α=ax(y–z)2, for a sequence of sets of values of the variables involved (see the lower drawing). It demonstrates cunning electromechanical gadgets (switches, electromagnets…) for storing decimal digits, performing arithmetic operations using built-in function tables, and for comparing the values of two quantities. The whole machine was to be controlled from a read-only program (complete with provisions for conditional branching), represented by a pattern of conducting areas mounted around the surface of a rotating drum. Incidentally, the paper also contains, almost casually, what is believed to be the first proposal of the idea of floating-point arithmetic!

An assembly drawing of the machine from “Essays on Automatics”
An assembly drawing of the Torres’ machine from “Essays on Automatics”

Later on, Torres created a series of working prototypes of the above-mentioned machine. Possibly the first was a demonstration machine, capable of evaluating p x q–b (see the lower photo). How successful this was in practice we do not know.

A prototype of Analytical machine of 1914 (Colegio 1978)
A prototype of the Analytical machine of 1914 (Colegio 1978)

In 1920 Torres must have removed any uncertainty about his potential and knowledge to build a workable electromechanical calculating machine, because he startled the attendees at a Paris conference, marking the centenary of the invention of the first really practical calculating machine of Thomas Colmar, with a demonstration of his electromechanical arithmometer (see the lower photo). This machine consisted of an arithmetic unit connected to a (possibly remote) typewriter, on which commands could be typed and the results printed automatically. Torres apparently had no thought of making such a machine commercially, viewing it instead as a means of demonstrating his ideas and techniques.

The electromechanical arithmometer of Torres from 1920 (Santesmases 1980)
The electromechanical arithmometer of Torres from 1920 (Santesmases 1980)

To use the system, the operator types at the typewriter, in the usual manner, the statement of the operation, which he wishes to have executed. Thus if he wants to multiply 532 by 257, he presses successively on the keys representing the digits 5, 3, 2, then on the space bar, on the key representing the multiplication sign, again on the space bar, and finally on the keys for the digits 2, 5, 7: the machine thus types the statement 532×257. That’s all!
When the calculation is finished, the machine commands the typewriter which prints, after the data typed by the calculator, an equals sign and the result of the operation. Finally, the typewriter advances a line and the carriage is brought back to the left ready to print and execute a new operation.
The calculating machine and the typewriter are connected by an electric cable, so by using a long cable they can be separated by a big distance.
According to Torres the method of performing division is a main characteristic of my machine. It compares automatically the divisor and the remainder and then if the divisor is smaller, subtracts it from the dividend; otherwise, it divides it by 10, displacing the carriage by one place to the right.
Let’s see the principle of division, using the drawing from the presentation of Torres from 1920 (Bulletin de la Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale), describing the machine (see the lower drawing):

The division mechanism of the arithmometer of Torres from 1920
The division mechanism of the arithmometer of Torres from 1920

The five drums D1, D2, D3, D4 and D5 represent the dividend. The three cranks M1, M2, and M3 represent the divisor. The three pointers Q1, Q2, and Q3 represent the quotient. The operation of the machine is not automatic, however. In short, the operator knows that he must subtract the divisor (operate the crank S) if it is smaller than the remainder or move the carriage (operate the crank A) if it is larger; he will compare the two numbers after each operation to decide what the next action must be. When the operation is finished, he will press the button r to return to zero.
At the end of the article, however, Torres mentioned, that in summary, automation can take into account all the circumstances which one wishes in order to decide the maneuver to be done and it can have the means to manipulate the control levers. I therefore believe that we have grounds to say that we can automate any arbitrary mechanical operation.

Leonardo Torres’s chess-machine
Leonardo Torres was not the first man, who dreamed of creating a chess-playing machine. Several attempts have been made for such machines before, but all of them were based on a fraudulent concept. The fraudulent chess-playing machine of Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen (called The Turk), presented in 1769, had a remarkable success record in its travels around the world but actually has a cabinet of 4x2x3 feet, which hid a small person, who mechanically controlled the hand movements of the turban-wearing mannequin. Later chess automatons were The Ajeeb ( from 1868) of Charles A. Hopper and The Mephisto (1878) of Charles Gumpel, both based on the same fraudulent concept as The Turk.

The first chess-automaton of Torres (back view
The first chess automaton of Torres (back view)

By the beginning of 1910 Torres commenced his work to make a chess-playing automaton, to prove his theory that machines could do many things popularly classed as thought. The machine dubbed El Ajedrecista (Spanish for Chess-player), was designed for the end game of King and Rook against King. This chess player was fully automatic, using electromagnets under the board, thus using electrical sensing of the pieces on the board and what was in effect a mechanical arm to move its own pieces.

The machine (see the upper images for the front and back view, and the lower photo of the machine) could, in a totally unassisted and automated fashion, deliver mate with King and Rook against King. This was possible regardless of the initial position of the pieces on the board. For the sake of simplicity, the algorithm used to calculate the positions didn’t always deliver mate in the minimum amount of moves possible, but it did mate the opponent flawlessly every time.

The first chess-automaton of Torres
The first chess automaton of Torres

El Ajedrecista made its public debut during the Paris World Fair of 1914, creating great excitement at the time. The machine was widely mentioned in the Scientific American magazine article of 6 November 1915, as “Torres and His Remarkable Automatic Devices”.

In an interview given to a Spanish journalist, Torres described briefly his machine as follows:
It is an apparatus, that plays chess with the king and the rook as if it were a person, knowing with absolute precision all moves that occur and always matting its opponent. Besides this, it warns its opponent, in a courteous manner, if any mistakes (i.e. illegal moves) are made by his opponent by means of light, and after its opponent has made 3 mistakes, it ceases playing, considering that its opponent is no match for it… This apparatus has no practical purpose, but it supports the basis of my thesis: that it is always possible to create an automaton the actions of which always depend on certain conditions and which obey certain rules that can be programmed when the automaton is being produced. Evidently, these rules will be such as to be self-sufficient to determine the performance of the automaton without any uncertainty and at any given moment.

In 1920 Torres and his son Gonzalo created and demonstrated a second chess automaton, which is similar to the first, but used magnets underneath the board, not a mechanical arm, to move the pieces. Like a number of his other inventions, both machines are still in working order and can be found in the Torres Quevedo Museum of the Technical University of Madrid. When in Madrid, chess enthusiasts should see these unique inventions for themselves. Players can show their love for the game by wearing chess board decorated wristbands or wristbands with the words “play chess” emblazoned on them.

The second chess-automaton of Torres
The second chess automaton of Torres
Gonzalo Torres demonstrates the chess-automaton to Norbert Wiener in 1951
Gonzalo Torres demonstrated the chess automaton to Norbert Wiener in 1951

A description of the machine was created by Professor Aranguren, from the Complutense University of Madrid:
Roughly speaking, the movement of white pieces depends on the movement of the black king. Each of the 64 squares of the chess board (8 rows x 8 columns) is formed by three metallic pieces separated from each other by an insulating material; the central piece is circular and is connected to the positive terminal whereas the side pieces are triangular and are respectively connected to two conductors, one horizontal and one vertical.
The black king has a silver mesh-base that connects the central piece of the square to the triangular ones, thus closing two electrical circuits that move two respective sliding bars, one horizontal and one vertical, until they reach two positions that determine the black king position on the chess board. Similarly, the positions of the white king and rook are defined by four sliding bars, two for each of the pieces. When the black king moves into a position, the corresponding sliding bars move and close, by means of suitable contacts, the electrical circuits which act in turn on the white pieces making them move according to the game strategy. The white pieces have a steel ball in their base and are driven by electromagnets, which are placed under the table and suitably activated for each black king position.
When a check situation occurs, a phonographic disc pronounces the sentence “check to the king”. When checkmate occurs, the disc pronounces the corresponding sentence, and a warning light indicating mate is turned on. In these cases, an electromagnet removes the tension from the board, thus ending the game. The automaton won. Although the chess automaton function was limited to particular chess end-games, Torres Quevedo proved that further advances in computer technology were possible at a time when the information about “artificial intelligence” was very limited. At the time of this invention, Torres Quevedo was President of the Academy of Sciences of Madrid, Spain.

Another explanation and a drawing of El Ajedrecista can be found in the article Les automates: Le jouer d’checks automatique de M. Torres y Quevedo by Henri Vigneron from 1914 (see below):

The (defending) black King
is in the same zone as the (white) rook is not in the same zone as the rook and the vertical distance between the black king and the rook is
more than a square one square, with the vertical distance between the two kings being
more than two squares two squares, with the number of squares representing their horizontal distance apart being
odd even zero
The rook moves away horizontally The rook moves down one square The king moves down one square The rook moves one square horizontally The white king moves one square towards the black king The rook moves down one square
1 2 3 4 5 6
A principle assembly of El Ajedrecista
A principle assembly of El Ajedrecista

If the opponent plays an illegal move, a light comes on and the robot refuses to make a move. Once three such illegal moves have been made, the robot ceases to play altogether. If, on the contrary, the robot will carry out one of six operations, depending upon the position of the (just moved) black king. In order to archive this, Mr Torres uses two zones on the chessboard: the one on the left consisting of the a-, b-, c-files, and the corresponding one on the right consisting of the h-, g-, and f-files. We then have six operations as shown in the above table:

Both versions of Torres’ chess automaton are still working and are on display at the Colegio de Ingenieros de Caminos, Canales y Puertos in Madrid.

Biography of Leonardo Torres

Leonardo Torres y Quevedo in 1873
Leonardo Torres y Quevedo in 1873

Leonardo Torres y Quevedo was born on 28 December 1852, on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, in a stone house in Santa Cruz de Iguña, a small village in the north of Spain, near Molledo (Cantabria), Santander.

From his mother, Valentina Quevedo de la Maza, who was also born in Santa Cruz de Iguña, Leonardo inherited the Castilian austerity and her love for the highlands. From his father, Luis Gonzaga María Torres Urquijo, AKA Luis Torres de Vildósola y Urquijo (1818-1891), a civil engineer from Bilbao, he inherited his scientific rigor and his love for mathematics, a passion very useful in his long career as an inventor.

Luis Torres and his wife Valentina were well-educated, very intelligent, and strict people, who tried to devote as much as possible time to their family but had to travel a lot. Besides Leonardo, they had a daughter, Joaquina Torres de Vildosola y Quevedo (born in 1851), and a younger son, Luis Torres Quevedo (born on 21 March 1855), who became a military officer and inventor with numerous patents in his name (e.g. the photographic machine from 1886).

As a little boy, Leonardo used to rummage about his father’s office, examining his engineering books, instruments, and drawings.

Leonardo Torres as 7 years old (left photo) and 12 years old boy (right photo)
Leonardo Torres as 7 years old (left photo) and 12 years old boy (right photo)

The family resided for the most part in Bilbao, where Luis Torres, a descendant of one of the most liberal families in Bilbao—Urquijo, worked as a railway engineer, although they also spent long periods in his mother’s family home in Santander’s mountains. In Bilbao, Leonardo studied a bachelor’s school program at the Instituto de Enseñanzas Medias, and later spent two years (1868-1870) at the College of Brothers of the Christian Doctrine, Paris, to complete his studies. In 1870, his father was transferred, bringing his family to Madrid. In 1871 Leonardo began his higher education at the Civil Engineering Faculty of Madrid, where his father was already a professor. 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.

Luis Torres de Vildósola y Urquijo (1818-1891)
Luis Torres de Vildósola y Urquijo (1818-1891)

In the same 1876, Leonardo began his career with the same train company for which his father had worked, but soon he decided to resign from the railways and dedicate himself to being a full-time inventor, concentrating on mechanical and electrical inventions. In fact, Leonardo was already a wealthy man, after receiving in the late 1860s a substantial inheritance from a distant relative, Pilar Barrenechea. As a teenager, still in Bilbao, Leonardo was taken care of by the unmarried Barrenechea sisters, relatives of his father, and one of them, Pilar, declared him an heir of his property, which facilitated his future independence (she was a very wealthy person, who left in the property and in money many millions of reals and bequeathed her entire fortune to Leonardo). Thus he immediately set out on a long trip through Europe to get to know the state of the art in technology. He traveled to France, Switzerland, and Italy, where he was mainly interested in everything related to electrical applications, e.g. in Paris he met some great scientists: Henry Poincare, Paul Appel, and Maurice d’Ocagne.

Upon returning to Spain, on 16 April 1885, Leonardo Torres married in Portolín (Santander), to Maria Luz Niceta De Polanco y Navarro (1856-1954), a daughter of Miguel Polanco y Corvera (born 1818 in Santillana) and Julia Navarro y Trujillo (born 1833 in Madrid).

Leonardo Torres and his wife Luz Polanco y Navarro
Leonardo Torres and his wife Luz Polanco y Navarro

The couple had eight children (4 boys and 4 girls: Leonardo (born 1887, died 2 years old in 1889), Gonzalo Torres-Quevedo y Polanco (born 1889, died 9 March 1965), Luz, Valentina, Luisa, Julia (also died young), Leonardo, and Fernando). The couple moved to Moledo-Portolin, a small village close to Santa Cruz de Iguña, where they spent their first married years.

It was in the early 1880s when Leonardo Torres started with inventions. Soon after his marriage, on 9 September 1887, Torres received his first patent—in Germany, for a small funicular (so-called transbordador or ferry). Soon he received a patent in Spain (Nr. 7348) for “A multi-wire aerial cableway system”, and in 1888 he extended this patent to the United States, France, Italy, Canada, Great Britain, Prussia, Austria-Hungary, and Switzerland.

Later on, Torres (and according to his patents) designed several other funiculars (cableways), the most famous of which is the Whirlpool Aero Car over Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada, which started in 1913 and finished in August 1916 (directed by Torres himself and his son Gonzalo on the place), and still working at present without having any problem in its over hundred years of working (see the lower photo). Other Torres’ funiculars have been installed successfully in Mount Ulia in the Basque Country, in Chamonix in the French Alps, and in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Quevedo's Whirlpool Aero Car over the Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada
Quevedo’s Whirlpool Aero Car over the Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada

In 1893 Torres presented his first paper to the Spanish Royal Academy of Sciences for an algebraic machine, able to calculate the roots of an any-grade equation and print the solutions. That was the first automatic calculator built by Torres in a long list of them. This machine however has not been manufactured.

In 1889 Torres moved to Madrid with the firm intention of carrying out the projects he had devised in previous years and became involved in that city’s cultural life. In 1890 he made a trip to Switzerland, presenting his ferry project, but without getting the expected support. From the work he carried out during these years, the Athenaeum 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.

Another field of interest for Torres was Aerostatics. He presented his first project for the airship to the Spanish and French Academies of Sciences in 1902, receiving immediate recognition (later on he would receive patents for his airship). In 1906 he built his first dirigible balloon and two years later built the second one with the partnership of the French constructor Astra, whose company bought the patent. During WWI both French and English armies used Torres dirigibles in order to counteract the German Zeppelins (in the nearby photo you can see the second airship of Torres—Torres Quevedo №2, demonstrated in Guadalajara in 1908).

Torres is also the inventor of an electronic device, widely used every day—remote control. The work on Aerostatics drove Torres to the invention of the so-called Telekine, as he wanted to control the flight of dirigible balloons from the ground, without risking human lives. He started work on this system in 1901 and in 1903 the Telekine was presented to the Academy of Sciences in Paris, in the same year, he obtained a patent in France, Spain, Great Britain, and the United States. In the patent he describes the Telekine so: It consists of a telegraph system, with or without wires, whose receiver sets the position of a switch, that switches on a servomotor, operating any mechanism. In 1906, in the presence of the Spanish king and before a great crowd, Torres successfully demonstrated the invention in the port of Bilbao, guiding a boat from the shore (see the nearby photo for the prototype of Telekine, from the Museum of Torres Quevedo in Madrid, source Antonio Yuste).