Cambridge University engineers recreate a historic bowling machine

A wooden contraption that bowled an Australian international cricketer four times in 1909 – and was designed by the mathematician who gave his name to Venn diagrams – has been recreated by Cambridge University engineers.

The bowling machine was the brainchild of Dr John Venn and the hobby can launch balls towards a batter at around 33mph.

Dr Venn, who died in 1923 aged 88, was president of Gonville and Caius College Cambridge and invented the device in the early 1900s.

It was reported to be so accurate that when members of the Australian cricket team visited Cambridge in 1909, Dr Venn’s gadget net bowled one of their star batsmen four times.

Engineers recreated the machine for use at events and open days to encourage young people thinking about careers in mathematics and engineering.

All they had to work with was a black and white photo of the 7-foot machine, and a patent application from that time.

Dr Venn, better known for the Venn diagram, invented the device in the early 1900s

Dr Venn, better known for the Venn diagram, invented the device in the early 1900s – PA/CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY

The machine propels the ball using a throw arm powered by a bungee cord, and also spins the ball.

When the arm travels, it pulls a string, which turns a spindle and spindle and turns the ball holder and the ball.

Hugh Hunt, the professor of engineering dynamics and vibration at Cambridge, challenged the university’s engineering department to recreate the machine.

He has previously led teams of investigators on the Channel 4 shows Dambusters: Building the Bouncing Bomb, and Attack of the Zeppelins, and has a research interest in “spinning things that fly”.

Professor Hunt said: “It’s a great story, and an intellectual device, and it was in a lot of newspapers at the time, but now it’s not really remembered outside the cricket world.

“Most people learn about Venn diagrams at school but not many people know about the oddity of John Venn – that he created a bowling machine using wood and string and mathematics, which members of the Australian cricket team on the bowl more than a century ago.

“So the idea behind the project was to recreate a bit of history, and show how much fun you can have with math.”

The bowling machine hobby is set to 'show how much fun you can have with maths'The bowling machine hobby is set to 'show how much fun you can have with maths'

Bowling machine hobby set to ‘show how much fun you can have with maths’ – UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE/PA

Thomas Glenday, head of design and technical services in the university’s engineering department, said the engineers had to work out the technical details of the machine while recreating it.

“The patent is about the intellectual property, rather than the technical details, so we didn’t have a set of engineering drawings to work with,” he said.

“It meant we had to sketch it out ourselves, figure out how the machine actually worked, and how it replicated the skill and speed of the spin bowler. The twist is the main piece, and probably the most complicated part of the design.

“He’s thinking about the different forces acting on the ball at the same time, and that transfer of energy – it makes one hell of a diagram!”

He said they started with a one-fifth scale model and initially tried using coil springs, But they settled on bungee cords for the full-scale model “partly through practicality but also partly from health and safety considerations, but to make sure the machine is as safe as possible”.

“Big coil springs are a little more dangerous than a bungee cord,” he said.

He added that radar gun tests showed their machine was bowling at around 33mph.

“I’m really happy with how it turned out,” Mr Glenday said.

“It would be nice if it was throwing balls at 100mph but it’s not designed to be a production machine. It is a historical relic that should be treated as such.”

He said a similar machine today could be made out of carbon fiber and using a 3D printer but they wanted to be historically authentic, so they used hardwood.

“At that time, the skill set was there. People were used to working with wood, which has natural defects, which moves, which is not necessarily square,” he said.

“It’s a fun project, but we definitely wanted it to look the part.”

A bowler like no other

Alice Bebb, a Cambridge University student who is the opening batsman for the institution’s women’s cricket team, took the bowling machine to the test.

“He’s as good as any bowler I’ve ever faced,” said the 23-year-old, who is in his fifth year of studying medicine.

“It was like bowling very high bowling very close to you and it was hard to predict where it was going to go.

“He came with a lot more spin than any bowler I’ve ever faced.”

She said the plant failed to hit the stumps but “it was quite long and turned a lot – it was a leg turn”.

A Venn bowling machine will be on display at Essex county cricket club on Monday as part of an event for the Essex Year of Numbers initiative to encourage a love of learning, with a focus on numeracy.

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