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Howzat for a design? University of Cambridge engineers recreate Dr Venn’s devious bowling machine





University of Cambridge engineers have recreated a wooden contraption that bowled out an Australian international cricketer - and which was designed by the mathematician who gave his name to Venn diagrams.

The bowling machine was created in the early 1900s by Dr John Venn, president of Cambridge’s Gonville and Caius College, who died in 1923 aged 88.

The engineers tried coil springs in a one-fifth-scale model but went with bungee cords in the end, partly for health and safety reasons. Picture: Sam Russell/PA
The engineers tried coil springs in a one-fifth-scale model but went with bungee cords in the end, partly for health and safety reasons. Picture: Sam Russell/PA

Its recreation, which is capable of bowling at around 33mph, is intended for use at events and open days to inspire young people considering careers in maths and engineering.

The original was reportedly so accurate that when members of the Australian cricket team visited Cambridge in 1909, Dr Venn’s gadget clean bowled one of their star batsmen four times.

The engineers only had a black-and-white photograph of the 7ft machine to work with and a patent application from the time.

The machine propels the ball using a throwing arm powered by bungee cord, and also puts spin on the ball.

The cricket ball is loaded in the Venn bowling machine. Picture: Sam Russell/PA
The cricket ball is loaded in the Venn bowling machine. Picture: Sam Russell/PA

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

Hugh Hunt, professor of engineering dynamics and vibration at Cambridge, set the university’s Department of Engineering the challenge of recreating 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”.

Prof Hunt said: “It’s a great story, and an ingenious device, and at the time would have been in a lot of newspapers, but now it’s not really remembered outside the cricket world.

“Most people learn about Venn diagrams at school but not many know about John Venn’s quirky side – that he invented a bowling machine using wood and string and maths, which bowled out members of the Australian cricket team more than 100 years ago.

John Venn, who gave his name to Venn diagrams, also created a bowling machine that clean bowled an Australian international cricketer in 1909. Picture: Master and Fellows of Gonville and Caius College
John Venn, who gave his name to Venn diagrams, also created a bowling machine that clean bowled an Australian international cricketer in 1909. Picture: Master and Fellows of Gonville and Caius College

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

Thomas Glenday, head of design and technical services in the Department of Engineering, said the engineers had to work out the technical detail of the machine when recreating it.

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

“It meant we had to sketch it out for ourselves, figure out how the machine was actually going to work, and how it replicates the skill and speed of a spin bowler.

“The spin has been the key piece, and probably the most complicated part of the design.

The Venn bowling machine bowls a delivery. Picture: Sam Russell/PA
The Venn bowling machine bowls a delivery. Picture: Sam Russell/PA

“It’s thinking about the different forces that are acting on the ball simultaneously, and that transition of energy – it makes one hell of a diagram!”

He said that 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 partly from health and safety considerations as well, just to make sure the machine is safe as it can be”.

“Large coil springs are somewhat more dangerous than a bungee cord,” he said.

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

“I’m very pleased with how it’s turned out,” Mr Glenday said.

“It would be nice for it to be throwing balls at 100mph but it’s not designed to be a production machine.

“It’s a historic relic which should be treated as such.”

He said that a similar machine today may be made from carbon fibre and using a 3D printer but they wanted to be historically authentic so used hardwood.

“Back then it was where the skill set was – people were used to working with wood, which has natural faults, which moves, which is not necessarily square,” he said.

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

Alice Bebb, opening batswoman for the Cambridge University women’s cricket team, faced the machine. Picture: Sam Russell/PA
Alice Bebb, opening batswoman for the Cambridge University women’s cricket team, faced the machine. Picture: Sam Russell/PA

University student Alice Bebb, who is the opening batswoman for the institution’s women’s cricket team, faced the bowling machine to test it.

“It’s like no bowler I’ve ever faced before,” said the 23-year-old, who is in her fifth year reading medicine.

“It was like a very tall bowler bowling very close to you and it was quite difficult to predict where it was going to go.

“It spun a lot more than any bowlers I’ve ever faced before.”

She said the gadget did not manage to hit the stumps but it “pitched at a good length and turned a lot – it was a leg spin”.

The Venn bowling machine featured at Essex County Cricket Club on Monday as part of an event for the Essex Year of Numbers initiative to inspire a love of learning, with a focus on numeracy.



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