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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY SIXTY The Spatial Intelligence of Felix Wankel

I have always thought badly of the province of Baden-Wurttemberg. Emil, a nice chap from here, caused my instant dismissal as a Gardener (Class II) at Fulbourn mental hospital, outside Cambridge. Emile used to pick me up in his blue deux chevaux-vapeur and this fateful day was his birthday. Sunny and bright, we rolled the top down and I was still singing Happy Birthday as we pulled up - admittedly a little late - in front of the foreman and assembled crew. The foreman didn't like the singing, or that we were late; nor did he like Germans, and he fired the both of us.

Emil came from Freibourg, to the south near the French border. Just now, we are further north in Heidelberg, on the Neckar River near where it flows into the Rhine. It is the most wonderful city with one of the oldest universities in Europe – though not as old as my college, from which Emile used to pick me up – 1350 trumps 1368.

Though the University is a relative youngster, Nobel laurels hang from it in profusion - 27 so far, plus 18 Leibniz Laureates (the top prize for scientists in Germany) and even two winners of Hollywood Oscars. But the memory of Emil's puttering deux cheveaux brings to mind a particularly notable Heidelberg character – Felix Wankel born in north Germany 1902 and buried here in 1988.

Felix Wankel (c)wikicommons

Felix's father died in the First World War and he was brought up by his mother, Gerty Wankel. They had very little money; Felix left school without qualifications and did not go to university. He did, however, possess extraordinary spatial intelligence - one of the triad of important intelligences (along with verbal and logico-mathematical) and an invaluable attribute that we still neglect in our educational system.

The idea that we possess multiple intelligences comes from Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist at Harvard. In addition to these three, he suggests another six -

musical - possessed by players and composers

interpersonal - sensitivity to others

intrapersonal - a deep understanding of the self

naturalistic - a "sensitive, ethical, and holistic understanding" of the world

existential - an intelligence possessed by the clergy, apparently

physical - aptitude for sport

Gardner is thinking of adding additional categories – teaching, for example - though he has turned down humour, cooking and sexual intelligence. Professor Nan Adams has suggested that there is also digital intelligence, presumably possessed only by nine year olds.

Brain surgeons who are operating in real-world 3-D but have only a 2-D scan to guide them need advanced spatial intelligence - as do many other professionals, such as architects and scientists. The double helix was first imagined before being discovered, and Einstein famously ran Gedankenexperimente, 'thought experiments' to work out his theories. According to his own testimony, this he did at the age of 17 by visualising chasing a ray of light:

If I pursue a beam of light with the velocity c (velocity of light in a vacuum), I should observe such a beam of light as an electromagnetic field at rest though spatially oscillating. There seems to be no such thing, however, neither on the basis of experience nor according to Maxwell's equations. From the very beginning it appeared to me intuitively clear that, judged from the standpoint of such an observer, everything would have to happen according to the same laws as for an observer who, relative to the earth, was at rest. For how should the first observer know or be able to determine, that he is in a state of fast uniform motion? One sees in this paradox the germ of the special relativity theory is already contained.

Spatial intelligence gives the possessor the ability to imagine and manipulate three dimensional space. People with visual impairment will often have spatial intelligence that turns touch into a resolved three-dimensional image of the object – and this gives an important clue as to how these separate intelligences operate. They need input: a physically intelligent person can't, for example, bend it like Beckham without a ball and practice.

In Felix Wankel's case, his input came not from his work as a publisher's assistant, but through luck. He was invited to join a group of amateur mechanics who met in a garden shed. They spent their evenings fiddling with car engines and, as the core ideas of internal combustion played out in his spatial imagination, he visualised a more efficient alternative that to this day is known as the Wankel Rotary Engine.

Traditionally, engines will have cylinders that work in pairs – as one pushes up, the other is pushed down. The piston pushed down compresses a mixture of air and petrol which, when lit by a spark, explodes and drives that piston up and the other one down. You can have more than two cylinders: some Bentleys have twelve; there is a Bugatti that has sixteen; while the British engineer, Simon Whitelock, has created a motorcycle with 48 cylinders (the Guinness World Record). The Race Marshal's Harley has just two cylinders - but their volume is three times that of Emil's deux cheveau, creating a machine that shouldn't be allowed.

The Wankel Rotary Engine (c)wikicommons

In the garden shed, Felix was able to imagine a world other than cylinders and pistons. His spatial imagination generated something like a triangular Toblerone rotating lengthways inside an elliptical tube. He saw that the straight sides of the triangle would make three spaces between the Toblerone and the curved wall of the tube. And he thought that if he filled each of these spaces with air and petrol and fired them sequentially, the effect would be the same as three pistons in their cylinders - but the engine would be smaller and lighter. The beauty of the rotary design is in the shape of the tube: being elliptical, the spaces fluctuate in size and so pull in and compress the air/fuel mixture.

Like Einstein, Felix says he was 17 when he had the first germ of his idea, though he did not patent his invention until 1929, when he had worked though the details. By then, he had been a member of the Nazi Party for seven years: he went on to meet Hitler, rise to the rank of Obersturmbannführer in the SS and to invent the rotary valve for the Luftwaffe. This single development made their aircraft engines more powerful and lighter and, were it not for the exceptional manoeuvrability of the Spitfire, may well have won the Battle of Britain for Germany.

In 1945 his career stumbled on his war record, but by 1951 Felix was back in business. He licensed the Wankel Engine to several motor car manufacturers – General Motors, Toyota, Mercedes Benz – but Mazda became the main company to run a production line based on his invention. His patents generated a great deal of money but Felix never got to drive one of his own cars – he was too short-sighted to pass the driving test.

Here is an entertaining film about the Wankel Engine -

An explanation of why the rotary engine has fallen out of favour -

If you have an interest in engines, here is a film about eleven of them -

Steppenwolf singing about engines -

And sensational news on the Grand Charity Raffle front: 200 tickets have been snapped up already and two wonderful chefs have offered to bake the raffle prize, a fabulous Frankfurter Kranz:

  • if the winner is in the United States or Canada, the cake will be baked by a great engineer, fisherman and the winner of our earlier Bake a Kranz competition - Marshall Johnson (see the post for Day Forty Six)

  • if the winner is from the British Isles, the cake will be made by one of the all-time top pastry chefs and film directors - Sheila Hayman

Thank you to Sheila and Marshall - and don't forget, tickets can be acquired at £2 or $2 each (£20/$20 a book) by donating at

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