Archibald Low

(1878 - 1969)

Archibald Reith Low was born on 31 December 1878 in Aberdeen, the son of George Duncan Low and Jane Stuart Low (née Reith), and brought up with four brothers and three sisters at the Manse at Fountainbridge, Edinburgh, where his father was Minister of the Church of Scotland. He was educated at Watson's and, after one year at Edinburgh University where he studied Latin, Greek, French and Mathematics, he spent two years at Clare College, Cambridge. In 1901 he enlisted in the City and Imperial Volunteers, intent on fighting in the Boer War, gaining the rank of 2nd Lieutenant of Infantry. However, as he was embarking, news came that the Boer War was over. Not long after, the City and Imperial Volunteers was largely disbanded and Low returned to Clare College for another two terms.

Long before university days Low had determined to be an engineer by profession, so after Cambridge gained an engineering apprentice in a Glasgow factory. He was, however, not an apprentice for long. After a period during which he concentrated on electrical engineering he accepted a position of senior assistant to Frederick Handley Page in the electrical firm of Johnson & Phillips. When Handley Page left, Low was given his job, but soon resigned to become a consultant.

Having become acquainted with the work of German aerodynamicists, he turned to practical flying and joined the Farman school at Étampes, learning to fly in July and August 1910. Through a fellow pupil he became acquainted with Sir George White, who invited him to join the Bristol Flying School at Brooklands as manager, and himself gained his RAeC Aviator's Certificate there on 22 November the same year, flying a Bristol Biplane. Recognising his mathematical ability, in 1911 Bristol moved him to join George Challenger in the design department where they designed the unsuccessful Bristol Monoplane in 1911.

Low’s tenure at Bristol was not to last long as he was recruited in 1911 by Capt. H.F. Wood to join Vickers as Chief Designer of a newly formed Aviation Department, the two being already acquainted as Wood had been a pupil of Low’s at Brooklands. There he was involved in the redesign of a French R.E.P. monoplane into the first Vickers aircraft and was involved with many Vickers designs up to the E.F.B.3, but the relationship between Low and Woods was never good Low was not given a free hand as Chief Designer of Vickers Aviation and in October 1913 there was a Boardroom meeting at which arose sharp disagreements, leading to an acrimonious exchange of words. This led to a demand for his resignation which amounted to a peremptory dismissal.

There followed a somewhat ineffective period of private designing of various types of aeroplanes and gliders and a serious study of seaplane techniques.

Following the outbreak of WWI, Low was awarded a commission in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a Lieutenant, and posted to HMS Engadine in the Dardanelles as Senior Technical Officer RNAS, Mediterranean Fleet.. This was followed by a posting to HMS Ben-my-Chree, before he was ordered to report to the Air Department of the Admiralty at home in England.

Transferred to the RNAS and promoted to Lieutenant Commander, Low joined 'D' Section of the Air Department on 5 September 1916. He was posted to 'D' Flight at the Isle of Grain on 12 October, then returned to the Air Department on 12 March 1917, where he was involved in a variety of technical appointments.

On its formation on 1 April 1918, Low received a temporary commission in the RAF with the rank of Captain (acting Major), but was transferred to the unemployed list on 11 July 1919

From 1919 Low was Chief Librarian at the Air Ministry, devoting nearly all his time to research. For the next twelve years he disappeared into the backroom. Several periods were spent at the RAE, Farnborough. In 1932 he was sent to East Anglia as Senior Technical Officer of the RAF Bombing Station at Orfordness. In 1938 came a transfer to the RAE for work in the senior bracket of the Directorate of Technical Development. In early 1939, before the outbreak of the Second World War, he was retired as a Civil Servant.

When the war broke out he offered his services again, but was turned down, so in late 1940 he emigrated to Canada. He soon found work in a munitions factory near Toronto where he spent about a year in various laboratories perfecting tracer-bullet techniques. In due course he found himself a scientific adviser to the Canadian Government War Department. In 1949, at the age of 71, he “retired” for the second and last time and he and his wife returned to England.

In 1950 he and his French-Swiss wife Lina Cécile retired to Verbier in the Swiss Alps and later they lived on the outskirts of Zurich, though he would spend 4 to 6 months a year in England. His great passion was mountaineering, climbing the Matterhorn, and many less, equally or more ferocious mountains, until well into his seventies. The last great climb was probably the Fischerhörner, 14,800 feet, at the age of 72.

Major A R Low, RAF, MA, FRAeS died on 21st January 1969.

Biography References
  1. British Aviation, The Pioneer Years, Harald Penrose (Putnam, 1967)
  2. The Aeronautical Journal Of The Royal Aeronautical Society, April 1970

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