Alf James Rudolph Lysholm appears to be the least known engineer who developed a piece of kit that can now be found in many different applications: planes, trains, automobiles – even refrigeration units! In fact, by far the majority of web sites that discuss Lysholm have simply cut and paste a very small item from Wikipedia. His life though, was far more than just a couple of sentences.
Before we start with the man himself, what is interesting is that the Lysholm name appears to be centred in Norway – in Trondheim, a town on the coast of the Norwegian Sea but not too far away from Sweden, where our hero was born. Lysholm was born in Stockholm on the 14th December 1893. Incidentally, the name has been associated with Trondheim since the 16th century.
Not much is known about his early life except that he graduated from university (KTH Department of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanical Technology) in 1917 and went to work for the Ljungstroem Steam Turbine Company as an assistant to the chief designer. At that time, Ljungstroem’s was a design house and didn’t actually manufacture any equipment, however this changed the following year when they moved premises and created a workshop to start building what they designed.
Lysholm’s work was on steam turbines and he was instrumental in registering several patents in Sweden for associated technologies. These were either in his name, the company’s name or as a group. By the mid 1930s he had designed and built a non-condensing turbine locomotive, which was shipped to the local mines. This was so successful in Sweden that several more were ordered, however it was in licensing that the company made their money. The locomotive design was licensed to several companies across Europe, in fact all their subsequent technologies were licensed across the globe.
At the same time, Lysholm was busy designing air heaters and developing the company’s rotary turbine. It was in this area that Lysholm’s most famous patent was registered: the screw compressor. However by the early 1930s, steam turbines were being replaced by new gas turbines that had a number of engineers across Europe and the US busy with their evolution. Lysholm created a multi-stage rotary turbine inside a gas turbine unit for efficiency. It was Lysholm who designed an airframe and fitted this system creating the world’s first turboprop. There were some issues in testing and the idea was dropped.
Lysholm realised what was wrong with his turboprop – it was the propeller! He removed it and created an early jet engine and in the process received a patent from the Swedish Government in 1935. His patented screw compressor became an integral part of this engine – and a marine gas turbine. This lead Lysholm to travel to Scotland in 1937 to further develop the idea as a twin-screw compressor for James Howden & Company in Glasgow. The twin-screw was found to be even more efficient than the earlier design. Howden were already a licensee of the earlier technologies from Ljungstroem’s and they looked at buying further licences.
War broke out and Lysholm returned to Sweden which, like Switzerland, was a neutral country. This meant that they could sell to whoever wanted a licence and as such, both sides of the European war used Ljungstroem technology. On one side, the Germans used the compressor technology for their locomotives, early jet engines and marine engines. In the mid 1930s, the Reich Ministry for Armaments and War Production had instructed Aerzen, a manufacturing company in north Germany to design a screw compressor, intended to be an exhaust gas compressor in their new submarines. Aerzen realised that it would be easier to buy a design rather than create a new one, so after two years of negotiations, they bought a licence from Ljungstroem’s!
The Allies also used the same kit – the British, through Vickers and James Howden, used several licensed items. However it was the Americans that really wanted “competitive” advantage and Lysholm travelled to New York in the early 1940s to help the navy. So much so, that in 1942 he was technically conscripted into the military! Presumably this was to stop him leaving too early and being captured by the enemy. With war came a desire to re-engage with the concept of jet engines, so Lysholm became involved with marine and aircraft systems.
Lysholm left Ljungstroem’s in 1944, again I’m making an assumption that being in the US was a problem for his European employer! Lysholm remained busy though, becoming a consultant for several companies: Twin Disc Clutch Company in Wisconsin, from 1946 until his death; for Volvo in Sweden from 1950 to 1958; for Krupp in Germany from 1953 to 1965 and for Scania-Vabis also in Sweden from 1963. He also became a professor of steam technology at Stockholm University of Technology from 1950 to 1960. This appeared to be a backward step as steam had taken a back seat to other technologies, however he helped teach students about the basic concepts that could be used in other forms.
He also developed a multi-stage torque converter as well and different styles of turbine blades, in fact he held over 100 US patents! His screw compressor is now the favoured technology underpinning superchargers that are common in high performance cars.
Lysholm was married to Jane and together they had one child. He died on the 20th February 1973 after helping to improve the efficiencies for many types of transportation. I am surprised that not much more is known about him, considering that his technologies are so widely used.