Leonardo Torres y Quevedo

“Whenever he was faced with a problem, he always found a practical solution to it.” Grandson and namesake Leonardo Torres y Quevedo speaking about his famous grandfather at the IEEE Milestone dedication ceremony in his honor (2007).

Leonardo Torres y Quevedo was born on December 28, 1852, in Santa Cruz de Iguña in Molledo, Cantabria, Spain. His father, Luis Torres Vildóso y Urquijo, was a railway engineer working in Bilbao where Torres was raised and attended high school. During his high school years he spent two years in Paris to complete his studies. Torres had inherited his interest in science and engineering from his father. In 1870 he enrolled at the Faculty of Civil Engineering at the Technical University of Madrid where he graduated in 1876 as a civil engineer. He started work at the same railroad his father worked for but that same year he went on an extensive trip through Europe to see for himself what the more scientifically and technologically advanced countries were doing. After receiving a substantial inheritance from a few aunts he decided to resign from the railways and to dedicate himself to being a full-time inventor concentrating on mechanical inventions. He set up a private laboratory in Santander and started a live of scientific study and research. In 1899 he moved with his family – he had married in 1885 and eventually had eight children – to Madrid. The Athenaeum in Madrid appointed him to director of its newly created Laboratory of Applied Mechanics which was dedicated to the making of scientific instruments. Torres was a talented engineer and has constructed many remarkable machines, including some forerunners of our modern computer.

Torres y Quevedo’s cableway across the Niagara Whirlpool Rapids


His first significant invention was a funicular – an electrical railway system where the cars are pulled by cables – in 1887. This cableway was built in his hometown Molledo and spanned a width of about 200 meters. It was pulled by a pair of cows. Later funiculars were driven by electric motor and did not only transport cargo but also people. This was made possible by an ingenious and safe system of multiple support cables. His first public transport cableway was built in 1907 in San Sebastián. His most renowned cableway is his Spanish Aero Car or the Whirlpool Aero Car located at the Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada, which is still in operation today. It spans a massive 550 m across the Whirlpool Rapids and allows visitors to view the Whirlpool from a height of 42 m. Construction by a Spanish company and workforce started in 1913 and its opening was on August 9, 1916. A bronze plaque testifies to this all-Spanish feat and reads “Spanish aerial ferry of the Niagara. Leonardo Quevedo Torres (1852–1936).” Other Torres cableways have been installed successfully in Chamonix in the French Alps and in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The chess board shows the endgame “white king with rook versus black king” as played by Torres y Quevedo’s automaton El Ajedrecista. (see below)


The early dirigibles or airships had a rigid internal frame, like the Zeppelins, which made it difficult to collapse them for transport. Other dirigible balloons circumvented this problem by using the internal pressure of the gas to uphold the balloon. This however made it difficult to suspend a basket beneath the less rigid structure creating instability. Torres developed a system of internal flexible cables which created the required rigidity when combined with the internal gas pressure. He built the first Spanish airship using this design – the España – in 1896. The French company Astra acquired the patents for all countries except Spain for the construction of these dirigibles. They became known as the Astra-Torres airships and were used by the French and the British during World War I.

The Telekine remote control device as shown on a personalized Finland postal card (2011).

The Telekine remote control

In 1901 Torres developed a remote control device using wireless telegraphy. This machine was developed to test his new dirigibles without risking human lives. He patented his prototype – called the Telekine – in 1903 and defined the modern remote control operation principles. The word telekine came from the two Greek words tele (far away, distant) and kine (movement, force) to indicate the ability to create movement at a distance. In the first tests he used a tricycle which he could move forward and backward, turning left and right, using a remote telegraph transmitter. This trial was later extended to a small dinghy with eight people on board which he managed to control remotely over a 2 km distance in the Bilbao estuary. When he approached the Spanish government for financial support to use the Telekine in submarine torpedoes, his proposal was declined and he stopped further development of his remote control device.

Analogue calculating machines

Torres designed and built a machine which could compute the roots of algebraic equations with a precision of 1/1000. For this device he used an analog mechanical device that computed log (a+b) from log(a) and log(b). He also built a machine that could solve a second-grade equation with complex coefficients, and an integrator. Today this machine can be found in the Torres Quevedo Museum of the Technical University of Madrid. In 1920 Torres demonstrated an electro-mechanical calculating machine that was program controlled and had conditional branching. The machine performed the four arithmetic functions and was wired to a typewriter which was used as its input/output device. His calculating machines clearly are the ancestors to our modern analog and digital computers.

Souvenir sheet showing The Turk automaton on the right. On the left Gary Kasparov playing
IBM’s most powerful chess computer Deep Blue. Deep Blue beat Kasparov 3.5 – 2.5 in 1997.

El Ajedrecista – the first chess computer

Many attempts have been made in the 18th and 19th century to create a chess-playing machine. The first automaton – the word robot was only coined in 1921 – was The Turk which was built by Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1769. The machine was a fraud however since the cabinet of 4x2x3 feet hid a small person who mechanically controlled the hand movements of the turban wearing mannequin. The Turk had a remarkable success record in its travels around the world. The hoax of the hidden operator took years to be discovered. Later chess automatons were the Ajeeb (1868) of Charles A. Hopper and the Mephisto (1878) of Charles Gumpel, both based on the same fraudulous concept as the Turk.

Gonzalo Torres y Quevedo (Leonardo’s son) demonstrating the king-rook versus king endgame machine of 1920 to Norbert Wiener
at the 1951 Paris Cybernetic Congress (illustration on a personalized Finland postal card, 2011)

Torres y Quevedo built the first real chess-playing automaton in 1910 and dubbed it El Ajedrecista – the Chess Player (see illustration on the right). The machine played the white king with rook versus black king endgame. The machine used mechanical arms to move the pieces – a 1920 version used electromagnets for this purpose – and the opponents moves were detected by electrical sensors. El Ajedrecista debuted in 1914 on the Paris World Fair. Although by today’s standards a fairly simple machine it was a most remarkable achievement in the early 1900s and Torres can justifiably claim to have developed the first chess computer. In 1920 a second machine was built by Torres’ son Gonzalo under his father’s guidance which used magnets to execute the moves. Both machines are still in working order and can be found in the Torres Quevedo Museum of the Technical University of Madrid.

Torres y Quevedo died on December 18, 1936, in Madrid.

Torres y Quevedo honored

In 1916, King Alfonso XIII of Spain awarded Torres the Royal Academy of Sciences’ prestigious Echegaray Gold Medal. In 1920 he was elected to become a member of the Spanish Royal Academy of Sciences. In 1922 the Sorbonne University in Paris awarded him a honorary doctorate. In 1928 he was appointed president of the Spanish Royal Academy of Sciences. He also was a honorary member of the Geneva Society of Physics and Natural History.

On March 17, 2007, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) recognized Torres’ Telekine with an IEEE Milestone in Electrical Engineering and Computing. He was the first Spanish citizen to be honored in this way. The dedication was held at the Technical University of Madrid in its aptly named Torres Quevedo Museum.

Spain has issued two stamps to commemorate Torres y Quevedo: in 1955 a stamp was issued featuring his portrait and a 1983 stamp shows his famous Niagara Falls cableway.

© Wobbe Vegter, 2009

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