Gustav De Laval invented the continuously operating cream separator, a perfection of an existing separation mechanism. More significant perhaps was his improvement of the steam turbine, an advancement that helped fuel the Industrial Revolution. Later in his career, he invented the vacuum milking machine, automating the cow-milking process. De Laval’s scientific interests were wide-ranging, and his inventions covered a broad range of applications. His work ethic matched his creative impulse, and he performed a staggering amount of inventive work in his career. In this sense, he was a kind of Swedish thomas edison.
Carl Gustav Patrik De Laval was born on May 9, 1845, at Orsa, in the Dalecarlia province of Sweden. His family had emigrated from France to Sweden in the seventeenth century. De Laval revealed his ingenuity as a child, and he studied mechanics at the Stockholm Institute of Technology and chemistry at the University of Uppsala, where he earned his doctorate.
Antonin Prandl, a German inventor, was the first to mechanize the cream-separation process when he invented a centrifuge that used the force of rotation to split the cream from the milk in 1864. This machine did not improve efficiency immensely, though, as the cream still had to be skimmed off the milk by hand, thus requiring the farmer to stop the machine every time it finished separation. In 1877, De Laval worked from Prandl’s basic design, introducing turbines that allowed for continuous operation—the centrifuge could be emptied and refilled while the machine kept running. This innovation proved the key to improving dairy farmers’ efficiency, such that De Laval is now recognized as the inventor of the high-speed centrifugal cream separator.
De Laval patented his invention in 1878 and simultaneously collaborated with Oscar Lamm, who owned an engineering firm, to establish a company for making and marketing the continuous-operation cream separators. The company proved so successful that it had to change status in 1883 to a limited company, now named AB Separator, with Lamm as chairman of the board and managing director. Clemens von Bechtolsheim, a German inventor, subsequently improved upon De Laval’s separator design by adding alfa-plates that divided the milk into thin layers, a process that increased the efficiency of the mechanism. This innovation was so successful that the company’s name was eventually changed to Alfa Laval AB in the 20th century.
De Laval’s work on the separator required him to experiment with turbines, which he used to drive the machine. In 1887, he invented a small, high-speed turbine with a single row of blades that could reach the speed of 42,000 revolutions per minute. However, this model did not prove practical for commercial applications, so over the next decade, De Laval experimented with many different turbine designs, building a variety of different kinds of turbines. He employed more than a hundred engineers to construct his different designs, allowing for trial-and-error discovery that would have been impossible on his own.
In 1890, De Laval invented the steam turbine, despite the fact that he lacked knowledge of the properties of steam. He compensated for this shortcoming by simply designing the turbine to the properties of steam that he observed. For example, he designed a convergent-divergent exit nozzle, which was shaped so that the steam could travel in different directions. He also made innovations to the vane-wheel and the turbine disc, which sat on a flexible shaft and functioned properly well above the critical whirling speed.
In 1897, depression set in, a condition that plagued De Laval the rest of his life. Despite this, he continued to produce inventions of scientific and practical merit. In 1913, he invented the vacuum milking-machine, which used mechanized suction instead of hand-action to extract milk from cow teats, thus drastically decreasing the time necessary to milk cows and thus increasing the efficiency of the milking process.
De Laval interested himself in a wide array of scientific pursuits, ranging from aerodynamics to electric lighting to electrometallurgy. In testament to his prodigious output, he received 92 Swedish patents, and founded 37 companies for the marketing of his inventions. His diaries, in which he recorded his scientific and technical ideas, numbered in the thousands and are now housed in the Stockholm Technical Museum. De Laval died on February 2, 1913, in Stockholm.