A.M. Low

AMLow_300Archibald Montgomery Low (1888-1956) was a scientist and inventor, and the author of numerous books of popular science; his career (see particularly under War Experiences) at times resembled that of a hero of an early science fiction story. He liked to be known as Professor A.M. Low, perhaps because he had only very tenuous rights to this title at all (c.f. Captain W.E. Johns). As Lord Brabazon said in his introduction to Low’s biography, “Coming into contact with countless pukka scientists who had no idea I knew Low and like him, I was amazed at their venomous hatred of him and all his works. I don’t think it bothered him a bit” (11).

His children’s science fiction novel Adrift in the Stratosphere (1937) struck me the only time I read it as one of the worst SF books it had been my (mis)fortune to read; I may be quite wrong, but I cannot bring myself to read it again. It featured children who take off in the professor’s experimental space rocket; they meet hostile Martians and various kinds of death-rays. His first novel, Peter Down the Well: A Tale of Adventure in Thought (1933) had fantastical elements; Mars Breaks Through; Or, the Great Murchison Mystery (1937) features a scientist possessed by a Martian who can bring about world peace, but seems unwilling to; in Satellite in Space (1956) humans, including an old-time Nazi, meet Aliens from the Asteroid belt. My descriptions are taken from the entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

Low was born in Purley (Surrey), the son of an engineer father and a mother who was fascinated by inventions. Low’s fascination for everything scientific and mechanical was remarked from an early age. As a boy Archie Low would build gadgets and mix chemicals and cause neighbours to complain about noises and smells. When he was 11 he went to St Paul’s School in London—”I hated being there” (23)—but at 16 he went to the Central Technical College (which was incorporated into Imperial College London in 1910). this he enjoyed much more, and one of his inventions was actually marketed by an instrument-maker in Manchester.

He was always encouraged by his parents; only later did he appreciate what his father did for him, working by his side in the workshop in the family home, and being given a set of tools by him.

He loved work. He helped later in my Institute of Patentees work with Lord Askwith and in the Low Engineering Company with Lord Aberdare. He was in the R.F.C. in the GreatWar, and had brought his great knowledge of wood and constructional methods to help in the manufacture of aeroplanes (35).

On leaving the college, Low joined the engineering firm of his uncle, Edward Low, The Low Accessories and Ignition Company, in the City of London. Archie Low came up with various big new ideas: and the whistling egg-boiler, “The Chanticleer“, sold very well. 

In 1910 or thereabouts he married; he and his wife had two children, but, at some point before the war, she left him. She saw her occasionally thereafter, and when, after the Second World War, she was knocked down by the motorcyclist, he went to the hospital to identify her and to sit by her bed. “She never woke. I felt so unkind, in a sense, to be near her, yet I longed to be there” (175)

In May 1914 Low gave the first demonstration of TeleVista, “Seeing by Wireless”: the earliest version of what came to be called “television”. Low typically did not follow this up (he was very good at having good ideas; much less good at following them through). On the other hand, he was of course soon involved in the War: see his War Experiences.

After the war, he was as full of ideas as ever. He founded the Low Engineering Company, with Lord Aberdare. He was particularly involved in designing a new type of motor scooter. But, as usual, he was involved in all kinds of other projects. He listed what he had come up with in the years immediately after the War: infrared photography for use in design; an audiometer for sound photography at high speed; a sound mirror for detecting echoes in places; a machine for reproducing photographs by radio; a gas indicator for mines and submarines; an apparatus designed to enable blind people to read from ordinary type (94-95). He founded a new popular science journal, Armchair Science, and started producing books: Wireless Possibilities (1924); The Future (1925); Tendencies of Modern Science (1930); The Wonder Book of Inventions (1930); Popular Scientific Recreations (1933); Science in Wonderland (1935); and many more.

In The Future he showed how close his imagination was to the science-fictional imagination of the time:

Floating forts will take the place of our present battle-ships, which are already out of date. Cities will be protected against aerial attack in many ways, rays of wireless, power being given vital parts of machines coming from the ground, or from other aeroplanes flying over them. There will be vortex clouds of poison vapour, which would be released at sufficient height to render them innocuous to those below, but deadly to pilots of machines which tried to enter the zone. […] I see ahead all the important buildings having flat roofs on which aeroplanes can land, for this will be a necessity. I see also the doctors of the future who will all be really efficient psychologists. (Quoted Bloom 171).

He joined the British Interplanetary Society in 1933, and soon became its President.

He was becoming a well-known public figure. But his fluency with ideas and lack of perseverance with the results brought him many frustrations. His association with the BBC led him to suggest a programme about inventions; but when finally The Inventor’s Club appeared on the screen, after the Second World War:

It took me about six letters, one registered, before I could get a guarded apology out of them.
These things happen to us, and it has been my misfortune to see contact lenses, an average speed measure, not to mention some earlier attempts at television (the Televista), all appear later and without a single word of acknowledgement.
Luckily my inventions were either published or patented, and I demonstrated them long before they ever appeared elsewhere, so that no one could get up and call me a liar.
But it does not seem particularly fair, does it? (140)

When the Second World War came, he was attached to the Air Ministry: he was responsible for the examination of captured German aeroplanes and reporting on their weaknesses. But he wanted more, and joined the Pioneer Corps as a second lieutenant: he was promoted to the rank of Major before long. He experimented with new types of bombs and mines, and with mine-detectors, and spent a good deal of time travelling round and giving lectures to troops.

His health was not good by the end of the war, and deteriorated in the 1950s. He died before the Sputnik went up. His biographer said: “I can imagine Archie Low’s dismay it he had today been here, realising that the Russian satellite was touring round space, and that undoubtedly would be the first to get to the other world beyond this one” (1976).

I have used the Wikipedia entry on him; but most of my information comes from Ursula Bloom, He Lit the Lamp: A Biography of Professor A.M. Low (London: Burke: 1958), which drew extensively from Low’s own notes.



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