Low has been called the "father of radio guidance systems" due to his pioneering work on guided rockets, planes and torpedoes. He was a pioneer in many fields though, often leading the way for others, but his lack of discipline meant he hardly ever saw a project through, being easily distracted by new ideas. If it wasn't for this inability to see things to a conclusion, Low could well have been remembered as one of the great men of science. Many of his scientific contemporaries disliked him, due in part to his using the title Professor, which technically he wasn't entitled to do as he didn't occupy an academic chair. His love of the limelight and publicity probably also added to the dislike.
Archibald M. Low was one of the many forecasters of the concept of television in the early 1920s.
Low was born in Purley, London, the second son of John and Gertrude Low. His father was an engineer and Low's interest in all things mechanical and scientific was fired by visits to his father's place of work. The family moved to Erith in Kent when Low was still a baby. He was sent to Preparatory school at Colet Court when his family had to visit Australia. A few years later he also got to visit Sydney Australia with his family. He recalls being amazed to find that telephones were fitted in every house. As a young boy Low was forever experimenting at home, building homemade steam turbines or conducting chemical experiments that brought havoc to his local neighbourhood and caused his parents to receive many complaints about the bangs, smells and gases created by young Archie.
At the age of 11 he was enrolled into St Paul's School, an institution where he didn't fit in, being as he put it "too much of an individual". One of his classmates for several years was Bernard Montgomery, whom Low recalled as being "rather dull".
Aged 16 Low entered the Central Technical College, an institution far more to his liking, here his abilities really started to show. Under the guidance of his mentor Professor Ashcroft, Low's mercurial mind was given free rein over many of the scientific disciplines. During his time at the CTC Low designed a drawing device which he called "The Low flexible and adjustable curve". This device along with a dotted line pen and a self filling draughtsman's pen were marketed by Thornton's, a renowned instrument maker based in Manchester. He also spent a year devising and making a selector mechanism which allowed a lever when moved to fall into a pre-selected slot. It wasn't until 32 years later that pre-selected gears came in, long after Low had originally thought of them.
Low joined his uncle, Edward Low's engineering firm, "The Low Accessories and Ignition Company", which at the time was the second oldest engineering firm in the City of London. Unfortunately the company was in a constant struggle for solvency. Edward Low did what he could financially to help get his nephew's ideas off the ground, but what was really needed was a rich investor. During this pre-war period Low was constantly coming up with big new ideas, such as his Forced induction Engine, or gadgets like the whistling egg-boiler which he christened "The Chanticleer". It went on to sell very well, earning him some much-needed money. He also experimented with gas turbines, but the alloys available at that time wouldn't stand up to the required heat.
In May 1914 Low gave the first demonstration of what was to become television, he called it TeleVista. This demonstration was given to the Institute of Automobile Engineers and was entitled "Seeing By Wireless". Low's invention was crude and under-developed but the idea was there. The main deficiency was the Selenium cell used for converting light waves into electric impulses, which responded too slowly thus spoiling the effect.
The demonstration certainly garnered a lot of media interest with The Times reporting on 30 May;
|“||An inventor, Dr. A. M. Low, has discovered a means of transmitting visual images by wire. If all goes well with this invention, we shall soon be able, it seems, to see people at a distance.||”|
On 29 May The Daily Chronicle reported;
|“||Dr. Low gave a demonstration for the first time in public, with a new apparatus that he has invented, for seeing, he claims by electricity, by which it is possible for persons using a telephone to see each other at the same time||”|
Low, of course failed to follow up this early promising work, due in part to his temperamental failings and also of course the outbreak of World War I later that year. Nature commented that the work was overblown in "Sensational paragraphs on seeing by wire".
The Great War
When war broke out, Low joined the military and received officer training. After a few months he was promoted to captain and seconded to the Royal Flying Corps, the precursor of the RAF. His brief was to use his civilian research to find a way to remotely control an aircraft, so it could be used as a guided missile. With two other officers (Captain Poole and Lieutenant Bowen) under him, they set to work to see if it were possible. This project was called "Aerial Target" or AT a misnomer to fool the Germans into thinking it was about building a drone plane to test anti-aircraft capabilities. After they built a prototype, General Sir David Henderson (Director-General of Military Aeronatics) ordered that the Royal Flying Corps Experimental Works should be created to build the first proper "Aerial Target" complete with explosive warhead. As head of the Experimental Works, Low was given about 30 picked men, including jewellers, carpenters and aircraftsmen in order to get the pilotless plane built as quickly as possible. The plane, the Ruston Proctor AT from its manufacturer was designed by H P Folland. It had its first trial on 21 March 1917 at Upavon Central Flying School near Salisbury Plain, attended by 30–40 allied Generals. The AT was launched from the back of a lorry using compressed air (another first). Low and his team successfully demonstrated their ability to control the craft before engine failure led to its crash landing. A subsequent full trial on 6 July 1917 was cut short as an aerial had been lost at takeoff. At a later date an electrically driven gyro (yet another first) was added to the plane, but ultimately the "Aerial Target" project was not followed up after the war, due to the shortsightedness of military planners. In 1917 Low and his team also invented the first electrically steered rocket (the world's first wireless, or wire-guided rocket), almost an exact counterpart of the one used by the Germans in 1942 against merchant shipping. Low's inventions during the war were to a large extent before their time and hence were under-appreciated by the Government of the day, although the Germans were well aware of how dangerous his inventions might be. In 1915 two attempts were made to assassinate him; the first involved shots being fired through his laboratory window in Paul Street; the second attempt was from a visitor with a German accent who came to Low's office and offered him a cigarette, which upon analysis contained enough strychnine chloride to kill.
Lows principles were adopted by the Air Ministry for the Larynx "Long Range Gun with Lynx Engine", and explosive laden autopilot-ed aircraft which was developed by the Royal Aircraft Establishment from 1925. Further developments continued by the British before and during the Second World War.
Low could have made a considerable amount of money from these inventions, but his patents couldn't stay in force for the statutory period, as he was in the employment of the War Department everything he invented was as a part of his duties so he couldn't benefit financially from them.
Not long after the war Low started the Low Engineering Company Ltd in association with the Hon. C. N. Bruce (later Lord Aberdare). The company offices were on Kensington High Street, and Low spent much of his time trying to bring his inventions to fruition. As usual though he was easily distracted by gadgets that he devised, taking his attention away from the more important work. One of the better gadgets was a motor scooter that Low invented and manufactured in conjunction with Sir Henry Norman.
Despite his best efforts, business wasn't his strong point. An example of this is the magazine he started up with his friend Lord Brabazon and others. It was entitled Armchair Science, Low helped edit it, and at one point the sales figures were 80,000 a month, yet it never seemed to make a profit and was sold off. Another of Low's delights was speed, especially racing cars or motorbikes. He was a regular attendee at Brooklands and at one point invented a rocket propelled bike and numerous other gadgets and improvements for the internal combustion engine. An example of Low's prescience is that he was worried about the number of road traffic accidents that were occurring and believed speed in cities should be restricted to 25 mph using modern radio methods to enforce it. One of Low's peeves was excess noise, to this end he invented an audiometer to measure and record noise in a visual form. He conducted experiments on the London Underground and achieved some success in pinpointing trouble spots and reducing their impact by use of shields over the wheels and padding of the interior panels.
In 1938 Low had lunch with a gentleman called William Joyce. Joyce wanted Low to contribute an article to a paper he helped run. Low declined the offer being too busy; it was only a couple of years later that Joyce gained infamy as Lord Haw-Haw.
A few of Low's inventions from this period are:
- Using infra-red photography to check head space in engines;
- A machine for reproducing photographs by radio;
- An audiometer that was a forerunner of sound photography at high speed (used in engineering and architectural work);
- A device for converting ordinary print to Braille using photo electric cells;
- Cap-detonating sparkplug.
Second World War and later
At the outbreak of the Second World War Low initially joined the Air Ministry in a civil capacity. His job was to examine captured German aircraft and prepare reports for British pilots to enable them to identify the weak points of the enemy aircraft. Later on he joined the Royal Pioneer Corps and was promoted to Major. Between experiments in his back garden laboratory, he gave frequent talks to service personnel on scientific matters. Low was frequently in bad health from the late 1930s onwards, having never fully recovered from a bout of pneumonia he suffered a few years earlier. Although nothing that he experimented with during the war ultimately came to fruition, he did work on some interesting projects:
- The 'W' bomb – a riverine mine for Operation Royal Marine being designed by MD1. It floated just beneath the surface, came up when needed and spread a kind of umbrella out of itself which would detonate when touched. The primary inventors were Millis Jefferis and Stuart Macrae – the latter was formerly an editor of Armchair Science with whom Low was on friendly terms.
- A bomb that when dropped on airfields would be buried to the hilt but leave trailing wires on the surface. An aircraft touching these wires would detonate the bomb.
|“||The telephone may develop to a stage where it is unnecessary to enter a special call-box. We shall think no more of telephoning to our office from our cars or railway-carriages than we do today of telephoning from our homes (1937)||”|
|“||The second stage in the development of space-ships could be the launching of what have been called 'space-platforms'...The rocket or space-station will travel round the earth in twenty four hours at most. The value of such stations might be very great; they might enable world-wide television broadcasts to be made; they would transmit data about cosmic rays; or solar radiation; and they might have incalculable military value (1950)||”|
|“||No team ever invents anything, they only develop one man's flash of genius||”|
|“||I always say that the greatest discovery is that we know practically nothing about anything||”|
Low was a prolific author of science books. He aimed several of his books at the layman to try to nurture interest in science and engineering. Quite a few of his books contained predictions on scientific advancements.
As well as these non-fiction books he wrote four science fiction novels for the younger reader.
- The Two Stroke Engine:A manual of the coming form of the internal combustion engine (1916)
- Wireless Possibilities (1924)
- The Future (1925)
- Tendencies of Modern Science (1930)
- On My Travels(1930)
- The Wonder Book of Inventions (1930)
- Popular Scientific Recreations (1933)
- Science in Wonderland (1935)
- Recent Inventions (1935)
- Great Scientific Achievements (1936)
- Conquering Space and Time (1937)
- Life and its Story (1937)
- Home Experiments (1937)
- Electrical Inventions (1937)
- Science for the Home (1938)
- What New Wonders! (1938)
- Science in Industry (1939)
- Modern Armaments (1939)
- How We find Out (1940)
- Mine and Countermine (1940)
- The Way it Works (1940)
- The Submarine at War (1941)
- Romance of Fire (1941)
- Science Looks ahead (1942)
- Tanks (1942)
- Musket to Machine-Gun (1942)
- Facts and Fancies (1942)
- Parachutes in Peace and War (1942)
- Benefits of War (1943)
- Tick-Tock (1944)
- Six Scientific Years (1946)
- How Secrets Work (1946)
- Your World Tomorrow (1947)
- They Made Your World (1949)
- Look, Listen and Touch (1949)
- It's Bound to Happen (1950)
- The Past Presented (1952)
- Electronics Everywhere (1952)
- Wonderful Wembley Stadium (1953)
- Thanks to Inventors (1954)
- Peter Down the Well (1933)
- Adrift in the Stratosphere (1937)
- Mars Breaks Through, or The Great Murchison Mystery
- Satellite in Space (1956)
- Associate of the City and Guilds of London Institute
- Member of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers
- Fellow of the Chemical Society
- Fellow and President of the British Institute for Radio Engineers
- Chairman for 24 years of the AutoCycle Union
- President for 32 years (1925-1956) of the South Eastern Centre of the AutoCycle Union
- Chairman of the RAC Motor Cycle Committee
- Vice-Chairman and chairman for 20 years of the British Automobile Racing Club
- Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society
- Principal of the British Institute of Engineering Technology
- Fellow of the Institute of Electronics
- One of the founder members, and President (1936–1951) of the British Interplanetary Society
- Associated Hon. Asst, Professor of Physics at the Royal Ordnance College, by the Army Council
- Stuart Macrae (1971). Winston Churchill's Toyshop. Roundwood Press. SBN 900093-22-6.
- Low's patents
- Low's bibliography at Copac[permanent dead link].
- Low's bibliography at WorldCat.
- He lit the lamp, Low's biography, written by Ursula Bloom, (introduction by Lord Brabazon), published in 1958.