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500 Twitter followers, Confucius connection and a Chinese South-Facing Chariot

15th May 2020

We’ve reached a milestone of our own with 500 followers on Twitter, and our 500th follower is the Confucius Institute at Coventry University.  Their aim is to promote the understanding of Chinese culture and language and we have worked with them on exchange visits from Chinese schools and visits to the LIA and our Engineering department for keen students, as well as translating some of our materials into Mandarin.

To celebrate this ongoing partnership we bring you the curious case of the Chinese chariot!

LAN-2-13-7-1 Figure from copy of article 'The yellow emperor's south-pointing chariot' published by the China Society, 1947Model of a "South-Pointing" Chinese Chariot, Chou Kung; Huang Ti, China, 1122-1155 BCE; 2698-2598 BCE. Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science MuseumLegend has it that around 2600 BC the Chinese Emperor Huang-ti built a chariot that had a statue mounted on top it.  The outstretched arm of the statue always pointed south, no matter what direction the chariot travelled in.  These chariots were said to lead the soldiers to victory  but the precise mechanism was always hidden inside the chariot and many engineers tried and failed to determine how it might have worked.

In 1932 Fred’s brother George was asked by a friend to see if he could engineer a solution to this centuries-old conundrum worthy of Confucius himself.  George felt that the idea that a magnet somehow controlled the movement was impossible and instead went back to first principles and devised and ingenious differential gear, similar to those found on the back axles of cars today.

George understood the significance of this as the differential gear was not ‘re-invented’ until 1720 by Joseph Williamson and then by Joseph Starley in 1887 and said:

This ingenious mechanism must be credited to Chinese engineers … the details of which have been lost for generations

He made a model entirely by hand using wooden gears to prove his theory and went on to give a speech to the China Society in 1947 about the legend and his solution to it.

This model is now with the Science Museum in London, but his paper about it is available online in the archive and you can have a go at making your own versions.  It was even featured in the Meccano Magazine in 1957 and there are instructions to build it in Lego too!

Find out more about George’s marvellous model in the Lanchester Legacy Vol 2 by Chris Clark.

LAN-2-13-7-2 Figure from copy of article 'The yellow emperor's south-pointing chariot' published by the China Society, 1947

LAN-2-13-7-3 Figure from copy of article 'The yellow emperor's south-pointing chariot' published by the China Society, 1947




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