A.M.Low: the professor who wasn’t a professor

a-m-lowDiscovered in a July 1930 issue of Armchair Science, an article by the magazine’s ‘technical advisor’ A. M. Low entitled ‘Little Things and Big Minds’. In it Professor Low argues that we shouldn’t be impressed by large things—whether they are exaggerated claims for some patent medicine, or some mechanical apparatus, such as a typewriter. Machines are made from small parts, just as matter is composed of atoms and molecules; and big phenomena, such as broadcasting is powered by electricity, which is a flow of electrons. Small is beautiful, in other words.

This homily is a preface to the contents of the rest of the magazine, which is mainly devoted to broadcasting, the electron and diatoms. In addition, however, there are fascinating features on the newly invented saccharine, the proto-helicopter known as the autogyro, and tinned food. There is also a double-page spread entitled ‘On My Travels’ by Low, who looks about thirty (he was 42).

In his writing Professor Low reads like any other popular scientist of the time, such as Oliver Lodge, and indeed he calls himself a scientist. But he wasn’t. Low did not hold a degree in science and though he had been an honorary professor of physics for a few years, he was essentially a mechanical engineer by training and a compulsive, though undisciplined inventor. During his life, the fact that he adopted the title ‘professor ‘, antagonised many ‘proper’ scientists, who were probably far less intelligent and inventive than he was.

Today, Low is dismissed as an eccentric, but he might have been much more than a sort of Professor Branestawm figure if he had possessed the discipline of the university professionals who despised him, and had brought to fruition some of his brilliant ideas. Today, many do acknowledge Low as the genius behind the idea of guided missiles, but so many patents were left badly administered, and so many inventions remained undeveloped, that he must be regarded as far from being the major man of science that many predicted he would become, but as a ‘ nearly man’.

Low’s most astonishing underdeveloped invention was a television system that he called TeleVista. This dates, amazingly, from 1914—before wireless itself had been fully developed. So can Low, rather than John Logie Baird be credited with the invention of TV? Not really, because Low only got so far along the road. His television set was a crude version that lacked components that would have made it viable, and so it was never demonstrated publicly. [R.M.Healey]

 

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