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THE story of the attempts to replace the manually operated gear-box and clutch
of the motor-car by automatic transmissions giving smoother and simpler driving
without an unacceptable loss of efficiency is a long and intricate one and only the
bare outlines can be given here. The two main types of automatic transmission
now used involve:
(a) the combination of a hydraulic coupling with an automatically controlled epi-
cyclic gear-box. This was the first fully automatic transmission to be introduced
commercially, as the Hydra-Matic gear, by the General Motors Corporation
of the United States;
(b) the combination of a hydraulic converter-coupling (i.e. a torque converter in
which the reactor is mounted on a free wheel, so that the features of a torque
converter and a hydraulic coupling are combined) also with an automatically
controlled epicyclic gear-box.
H. Fottinger in 1904 invented the separate torque converter and hydraulic coup-
ling. He was a trained electrical engineer and chief constructor to the Vulkan Ship-
yard, Hamburg, and intended the torque converter to replace electric transmissions
in ships. Numbers were built for this purpose; the hydraulic coupling also found
some marine uses later.
The hydraulic coupling was first applied to vehicles by Harold Sinclair, an
American engineer who interested the London General Omnibus Company in his
idea. The Company first fitted the coupling to buses in 1926. As the 'Fluid Fly-
wheel' it was used in 1930 in Daimler cars, combined with the Wilson epicyclic
gear-box. I The Hydra-Matic, invented by Earl A. Thompson, is basically similar
to this Daimler lay-out with one vital innovation, that of effective automatic control.
Thompson was a brilliant engineer who had joined the Cadillac Company as a
consultant in 1926 to develop his earlier invention of the synchro-mesh gear. As
the director of a group of Cadillac engineers he later built a two-speed automatically
controlled epicyclic transmission in the early 193o's, and remained in charge of its
development into the Oldsmobile semi-automatic transmission, introduced in 1937,
and the Hydra-Matic itself, introduced in 1939. The later work was done by the
General Motors central research organisation, Thompson remaining in charge of
Hydra-Matic development until he left the Company in 1941.
Although in the 193o's British individual inventors, notably A. W. Hallpike and
A. A. Miller, produced automatic control systems for epicyclic gear-boxes, the
British motor industry showed no interest and these transmissions were not manu-
Turning now to the torque converter: the original Fottinger torque converter
was efficient only at one speed ratio and its development for vehicles consisted of
widening the range of efficient speed ratios. Fottinger himself, on behalf of Belgian
and German companies, studied its application to motor-cars, although the first
I The epicyclic gear-box had been first used on cars by F. W. Lanchester in the 189o's

but it had been much improved by W. G. Wilson, a British consulting engineer, in the
early 192o's.

J. Jewkes et al., The Sources of Invention

John Jewkes, David Sawers and Richard Stillerman 1969
person in Germany to apply a torque converter to a car, in 1926, was the individual
inventor, Rieseler. In 1928 in Sweden, Alf Lysholm, chief engineer of the Ljung-
strom Steam Turbine Company, produced the Lysholm-Smith torque converter;
this was adapted by Leylands, the British firm, for buses and railcars in 1933, the
first commercial application of the converter.
The converter-coupling was invented by Allan Coats, a Scottish individual in-
ventor, in 1924. He appears to have made only one converter-coupling, although
they were also built under licence in 1933 in America and France. He later turned
to work on a normal converter, in which the reactor blades were pivoted; this he
developed for some years after 1928 in association with Vickers-Armstrongs and
the English Steel Company.
P. M. Salerni, an Italian living in England, has also worked on applying the
converter-coupling to cars. Mter twenty-five years' work, he has developed the
present Ferguson transmission, in which epicyclic gearing is placed before the con-
verter-coupling. But the first converter-coupling to be produced commercially was
the German Trilok, announced in 1934. It was the work of the Trilok research
society, consisting at first of Professors H. Kluge, W. Spannhake and von Sanden;
it had been formed and financed by a semi-governmental agency for the furtherance
of scientific development, and given a contract to investigate the application of the
diesel engine to locomotive drives. A converter-coupling was designed for this
application; it was developed and manufactured by Kleine, Schanzlin and Becker
of Frankenthal, the members of Trilok acting as consultants; its chief application
was in heavy military vehicles.
The chief contribution to the development of the torque converter and converter-
coupling in the United States was made by A. and H. Schneider and E. W. Spann-
hake1 who began work in 1935. Though holding engineering positions in various
companies, including the Warner Gear Division of Borg-Warner, the American
Locomotive Company and the General Machinery Corporation, which financed
them, their work on the torque converter was done in complete independence.
Their contribution was to raise the efficiency of the converter and converter-
coupling. Some of their torque converters and converter-couplings were used on
military vehicles during the war; the first commercially successful civilian applica-
tion of the converter-couplings in the U.S.A. was on White buses in 1946, under
licence from the Schneiders. Some motor manufacturers had meanwhile begun to
develop their own converter-couplings; the first to be introduced, in 1948, was the
Buick Dynaflow, an ingenious combination of the converter-coupling with epicyclic
gearing. Others have since followed until most automatic transmissions now embody
a converter-coupling.
Some engineers believe that the converter-coupling is too inefficient for small
cars; alternative types of automatic transmission have therefore been sought. Two
recent British examples are the Hobbs, a purely mechanical design invented
and developed as a solo effort by H. F. Hobbs; and the Smiths, which combines
a gearbox with the electro-magnetic clutch invented by Jacob Rabinow.
The inventions here have, therefore, come from very different sources. The out-
standing original inventions of the torque converter and the hydraulic coupling
were made, with an eye on marine uses, by an electrical engineer employed by a
1 E. W. Spannhake was the son of W. Spannhake, of the Trilok Research Society.

H. Schneider had worked with W. Spannhake when the latter had been at the Vulkan Works
at the time of the early development of the torque converter by Fottinger.
shipbuilding company. The improvement of the epicyclic gear-box was largely the
work of a consulting engineer. Success in applying torque converters to vehicles
was largely the work of individuals, although the Lysholm-Smith converter arose
in a company. Individuals had much to do with the invention and development
of a satisfactory converter-coupling which has proved of the greatest importance.
On the other hand, the combination of the hydraulic coupling and automatic epi-
cyclic gear-box-, in the form of the Hydra-Matic, arose through the co-operation
of a gifted individual and a large corporation.


I. Fiittinger, H., contribution to discussion on paper, 'Recent Developments in

Hydraulic Couplings', Inst. Mech. Eng. Proc., 1935, pp. 158-61.
2. Heldt, P. M., Torque Converters, 1942.
3 Shorter, L. J., 'Transmission Gear Developments', Inst. Automobile Eng. Proc., 1937-
1938, p. 337
4 M'Ewen, E., 'Recent Developments in Automobile Transmissions', Inst. Mech. Eng.
(Automobile Division) Proc., 1947-48, p. 97
5 Letter from C. A. Chayne, Vice-President, General Motors, Jan. 25, 1956.
6. Letter from A. W. Hallpike, May 30, 1956.
7 Letters from J. N. Fieldhouse, Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd., June 13 and 14, 1956.
8. Letter from E. W. Spannhake, June 26, 1956.
9 Chayne, C. A., 'Automatic Transmissions in America', Inst. Mech. Eng. (Automobile
Division) Proceedings, 1952-53, Pt. 1.


THE foundations of the modern plastics industry were laid by Leo Hendrik Baeke-
land when he invented bakelite, the first thermosetting plastic. Earlier known plastics
hardened only upon cooling, softened when heated and were too soluble. Bakelite
does not suffer from these defects and now has an extremely wide range of uses.
Although Baekeland benefited from the successes and failures of his predecessors,
it was not until he had combined much scattered knowledge and experimented along
unconventional lines that he perfected his product. He was born in Belgium and
became a professor of chemistry and physics in Bruges. While visiting the United
States he was persuaded by a photographic film and paper manufacturer to work in
their laboratory, where he remained for two years. Mter leaving this company he
invented 'Velox', a new type of photographic paper which made a print instantane-
ously, and he formed a partnership with a financial backer to manufacture the paper.
He kept the process secret and refused to patent the idea. The Eastman Kodak
Company made repeated offers to buy the firm and finally Baekeland agreed to sell.
In a converted barn at his home in Yonkers, New York, he then began to experi-
ment widely. In 1904, when there was a sudden rise in the price of camphor, he
sought unsuccessfully for a substitute. He next turned to the possibility of producing
a synthetic shellac through the reactions of formaldehyde and phenolic bodies. It
was common knowledge that these two materials react, but with varying results
depending upon the conditions of the experiment and the proportions in which the
materials were used. Other workers, notably Kleeberg, A. Smith, A. Luft and
H. Story, had produced plastics which, for one reason or another, were not practical.