Adrift in the Stratosphere

The once famous engineer and scientist, Professor Archibald ‘A.M.’ Low, is virtually forgotten today. He does at least boast a Wikipedia entry and I am sure he is remembered by the British Interplanetary Society, of which organisation he was once such an ornament. Oddly enough his reputation intersected my life on two occasions, times which I shall describe shortly. Archibald Montgomery Low was born in 1888. His father was an engineer and by the time of the 1911 census Archibald was described as a ‘consulting engineer’ himself. He hadn’t shone at St Paul’s school in London, but at the age of 16 joined the Central Technical College which after several evolutionary steps became today’s UCL. At college Low studied several scientific disciplines before leaving to join his uncle’s engineering firm. In the Great War his talents as an inventor resulted in a commission in the Royal Flying Corps. In the Second World War he was a major in the Royal Pioneer Corps, on both occasions working on experimental weapon design. Outside wartime he was a prolific author and inventor. He died in 1956.

Three things seem to have militated against real success for Archibald Low. First was his insistence on using the title ‘Professor’ to which even I cannot see he was entitled; he certainly never held a chair in a British university. The second problem was that he doesn’t seem to have been a good businessman, nor did he always have the discipline to see a project through to completion. In this respect he was very different from his contemporary, the aeronautical engineer Sir Barnes Wallis, who worked for an important company and moved from the R101, to airframe design, the Wellington bomber, the bouncing bomb and variable geometry aircraft. Finally some of Archibald Low’s projects required materials that didn’t yet exist. His design for a gas turbine required metal alloys that would resist high temperatures. Despite these drawbacks Low experimented with television, radio controlled drones, rocket guidance, and infra-red photography. Perhaps I could suggest that for all these reasons he was, in some ways, a British Tesla.

Among his other literary works he produced some science fiction works for children. One of these, Adrift in the Stratosphere, was the first book I ever borrowed from my secondary school library. I have to say that Low seems to have very little talent for fiction and, looking at the work with adult knowledge, did not even make much attempt to make his work scientifically plausible. However I must have liked it when I was eleven.

My second reason for admiring him was a story my father used to tell concerning him. It seems the turbine room in a London power station was made almost uninhabitable by a loud, high-pitched wine, from the mechanism. The company running the station found it hard to persuade employees to spend more than a few minutes in the room for this reason. They called in Professor Low who spent several hours walking up and down the turbine room. Finally he called for a 10lb hammer and struck one of the cog-wheels an almighty blow. The whine stopped and was never heard again. The company was delighted and asked Low to send in his account. When this arrived he requested a payment of 100 guineas. This seemed a great deal of money at a time when £2 per week was an average wage for a working man. As a way of discretely hinting at this overcharging the company secretary asked Low to submit an itemised account and by return of post received the following: ‘For hitting cog with hammer 6d; for knowing which cog to hit £104 19s 6d’. If this was even approximately true he was clearly one of the immortals!

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