New York side of Niagara Gorge c1901

George Forbes

1849 – 1936

George Forbes

a polymath with outstanding contributions in several fields of engineering and science.

Engineering Achievements

George Forbes was highly influential in getting large scale applications of electric power implemented in practice. He proposed the electric system for operating the London Underground – the first large scale application of the technology – which with modern refinements is essentially still in use.

He invented the carbon brush for electric motors and dynamos.

He carried out the feasibility studies for many of the earliest infrastructure scale hydro-electric schemes in the world and in particular was the electrical consulting engineer on the first large scale system at Niagara.

He proposed the existence of a ninth planet in the solar system.

He invented a range finder for naval guns used for 30 years.

George Forbes is an example of a brilliant scientist and engineer who was too modest and did not regard financial reward as particularly important and so failed to capitalise on his inventions and contributions. He latterly relied on the charity of former colleagues who understood his huge impact and he died in relative poverty.

His Life

  1. 1849 Born in 3 Park Place Edinburgh on 5 April to James David Forbes and Alicia Wauchope
  2. 1871 Age: 22 Graduated with a BA from Cambridge University (Christ's College and St Catherine's College)
  3. 1872 Age: 23 Appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at Anderson's University, Glasgow
  4. 1874 Age: 25 Published 'Transit of Venus'
  5. 1877 Age: 28 Was the only British War Correspondent with the Russian Army during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877
  6. 1880 Age: 31 Moved to London
  7. 1880 Age: 31 Proposed the existence of 9th planet
  8. 1882 Age: 33 Invented carbon brushes for electric motors - still in use today
  9. 1891-95 Age: 42-46 Supervising engineer for Niagara Falls hydroelectric scheme
  10. 44 Advised on hydro scheme in India
  11. 46 Advised on hydro scheme in South Africa
  12. 1896 Age: 47 Advised on hydro scheme in New Zealand
  13. 1898 Age: 49 Advised on hydro scheme in Egypt
  14. 1903-6 Age: 54-57 Worked for Admiralty, developed a rangefinder used until WW2
  15. 1906 Age: 57 Moved to Pitlochry
  16. 1913 Age: 64 Working with Admiralty devising signalling for submarines
  17. 1936 Age: 87 Died on 22 October at 13 New Parade, Worthing, England
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