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Howzat! Cambridge University engineers recreate Venn’s historic bowling machine

A recreation of Dr John Venn’s bowling machine (Cambridge University/ PA)
A recreation of Dr John Venn’s bowling machine (Cambridge University/ PA)

A wooden contraption that bowled out 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 its recreation can launch balls towards a batter at around 33mph.

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

It 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.

John Venn, who gave his name to Venn diagrams, also created a bowling machine that clean bowled an Australian international cricketer in 1909. (By permission of the Master and Fellows of Gonville and Caius College/ PA)
John Venn, who gave his name to Venn diagrams, also created a bowling machine that clean bowled an Australian international cricketer in 1909 (Master and Fellows of Gonville and Caius College/PA)

Engineers recreated the machine to be used at events and open days to inspire young people who are considering careers in maths and engineering.

All they had to work from was a black-and-white photograph of the 7ft machine, 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 Venn bowling machine launches a ball at a batter in the nets. (Sam Russell/ PA)
The Venn bowling machine launches a ball at a batter in the nets (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 engineering department 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.

John Venn, a former President of Cambridge’s Gonville and Caius College, created the original device in the early 1900s. (By permission of the Master and Fellows of Gonville and Caius College/ PA)
John Venn, a president of Cambridge’s Gonville and Caius College, created the original device in the early 1900s (Master and Fellows of Gonville and Caius College/PA)

“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 a hundred years ago.

“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 university’s Engineering Department, 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.

A batter strikes a ball launched by the Venn bowling machine. (Sam Russell/ PA)
A batter strikes a ball launched by the Venn bowling machine (Sam Russell/PA)

“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.

“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.

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

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.

The cricket ball is loaded in the Venn bowling machine. (Sam Russell/ PA)
The cricket ball is loaded in the Venn bowling machine (Sam Russell/PA)

“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.”

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

Alice Bebb, opening batswoman for the Cambridge University women's cricket team, faced the Venn bowling machine. (Sam Russell/ PA)
Alice Bebb, opening batswoman for the Cambridge University women’s cricket team, faced the machine (Sam Russell/PA)

“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 is to feature 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.