Carl Gustaf Patrick de Laval (1845–1913)

Laval was a Swedish engineer whose innovations profoundly influenced the growth of the dairy industry and the development of steam power.

His name was of French origin, his family having settled in Sweden in the seventeenth century. He was born near Orsa in the mining province of Dalarna, and studied at the Technical Institute (later the Royal Technical Institute) in Stockholm, and at the University of Uppsala, where he graduated in engineering in 1866, and received a doctorate in chemistry in 1887. After graduating he worked for a time in menial clerical occupations, and was for a time a storekeeper at the Falun copper mine. He was employed as an engineer at the Kosters-Bruk ironworks from 1872.

In 1877 after reading an article in a German journal, Milchzeitung (Milk Times), he became concerned with dairying and in particular with the separation of cream for butter production from milk, seeking a way of doing it that was both faster and more thorough than existing gravity methods. In 1878 he perfected a continuous centrifugal cream separator, into which milk flowed in a small and continuous stream and was whirled and separated as it passed through, the cream leaving from one aperture and the skimmed milk from another. The separator was patented, and revolutionised dairying throughout Europe, stimulating in particular the growth of co-operative creameries in Scandinavia, the Netherland, northern Germany and Ireland. It was demonstrated at the 1879 meeting of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, which conferred on Laval its silver medal.

Several companies, including Bergdorfer Eisenwerk of Hamburg, Boeke & Huidekooper of Groningen, H C Peterson & Co of Copengagen and T Pilter of Paris began production of the separator under license. Laval formed a partnership in 1878 with Oscar Laam, a member of a banking family. The concern was re-structured in 1883 as a limited company, AB Separator, which since 1963 has been known as Alfa Laval. A German, Clemens von Bechtolstein, developed the idea of using conical disks, known as Alfa disks, in separators, and the company acquired his patent in 1889. The company faced severe competition from other manufacturers in the late 19th century.

Laval continued to develop other aspects of dairying technology, taking out a patent for a milking machine in 1894, and completing a vacuum milking machine in 1913. The separator was used for various other industrial purposes beginning in 1882 with its application for processing fish oil in Norway in 1882.

In 1882 Laval completed an impulse steam turbine, and continued to develop his ideas in this field in the following decades. In 1890 he introduced a nozzle that increased the speed of steam entering a turbine, and designed new forms of reduction gearing necessitated by higher turbine speeds. He was awarded the medal of the Verein Deutches Ingenieure in 1904 for his contribution to turbine technology.

Laval was also concerned with electrical engineering and opened a factory in Stockholm for the manufacture of incandescent and arc electric lights. One of his former turbine actories at Nacka, near Stockholm, is preserved as a conference centre.

Laval founded 37 companies, and was awarded 92 Swedish patents. He was a man of wide interests who sat for eight years in the Swedish parliament, and was received honours for his innovations from many countries