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Updated: 10 Feb 2006
Kurstenbrander pic
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Clockwork power, in the sense of energy storage by a coiled spring, is one of the oldest means of applying power known to man, being invented between 1500 and 1510 by Peter Henlein of Nuremberg. The most common use of clockwork was in, er, clocks, but this page restricts itself to its attempted use as a propulsive power.


Robert Whitehead is well-known as the originator of that boon to mankind, the torpedo. He was born in Little Bolton in 1823, into a family of engineers. By 1864 he was manager of an engineering company in Fuime, near Trieste, which did work for the Austrian Navy. Whitehead and an Austrian Navy Captain, Giovanni de Luppis, collaborated on an unmanned self-propelled boat designed to blow up blockading warships. It was called the "Der Kustenbrander" ie The Coastal Fire Ship. Whitehead tried for several months to help Luppis with his invention but they failed to come up with a practical weapon, there being serious problems with the clockwork engine and the tiller steering.

Left: The Clockwork Kustenbrander.

This is a picture of a model of the craft. No pictures of the real thing are known to exist. The propellor and rudder are on the right.

Regrettably I have so far found no details of the engine, but I strongly suspect it was very short on both power and endurance. Whitehead later used compressed-air to power his torpedoes; as with the clockwork tram described below, clockwork was superseded by air as the latter proved to be a much more effective "spring" for energy storage, despite the losses inherent in compressing air and throwing away the heat generated by doing it.


Unlikely as it may seem... it has at least once been seriously proposed to transport people by means of clockwork. Here is the only example I have found so far.

A clockwork tram was built by Thomas Middleton and Co, of Southwark, London, to the design of a Belgian, E H Leveaux. It was used to haul a tramcar at the Lillie Bridge depot of the Metropolitan and District Railway (London) in May 1875, reaching a maximum speed of 7 mph over a half-mile run. Experiments continued into 1876, but were then abandoned.

Unfortunately no technical details are available at present. Presumably there was something like an enormous clockspring, but how was it wound up? By a stationary steam engine?
The compressed-air trams used the same principle, in a sense, as the elasticity of the compressed air can be regarded as a sort of spring. They, however had a much greater range and were reasonably successful.

If anyone could shed more light on this murky corner of transportation history I would be most interested to hear about it.


To engineers of a certain age, Meccano holds some poignant memories. Clockwork motors were available to power the models. Here are a couple that I have.

Left: The big Meccano motor.

This motor was produced in the late Fifties; I have not been able to positively identify the model number, but I think it is the reversing version of motor No 1.

The lower lever is the stop/start control, and the upper lever gives forward or reverse. It still works perfectly. There is a simple centrifugal governor which gives roughly constant speed despite varying torque from the spring; a single little weight moves outwards until it rubs on the inside of a metal cup.

This motor is quite an impressive bit of engineering, but I have to say it was never used after I got my E15R electric motor.

Left: Inside the big Meccano motor.

A: Output shaft
B: Reversing mechanism
C: Governor

The stop/start lever at the bottom works by pressing on a disc on the governor shaft.

Left: The small Meccano motor.

My first motor! This little item was called the "Meccano Magic Motor". It was not exactly powerful.

Unfortunately there seems to be something wrong with the spring or winding system on my example.

For more on Meccano clockwork motors see here:



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