Archibald Low

(1878 - 1969)

Archibald Reith Low was born in Aberdeen on 31st December 1878 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. His mother was Jane Stuart Reith, aunt of the [then] present Lord Reith, who was thereby his first cousin. 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 Pilot Certificate No. 34 there on 22 November the same year. Recognising his mathematical ability, in 1911 Bristol moved him to join Challenger in 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. The result of all this was that very shortly after the outbreak of the First World War he was offered a commission as Lieutenant, Royal Naval Air Service, and despatched to the Dardanelles as Senior Technical Officer RNAS, Mediterranean Fleet. In mid-1918 he was recalled to Whitehall to form part of that same Technical Authority (RNAS) which, from the Mediterranean, he had persistently been badgering for better equipment for nearly four years. On his arrival at the Admiralty he was involved in a variety of technical appointments. He ceased to be a Lt. Cdr., RNAS and became Major, RAF. By this time the war was over and he retired from the RAF before the special ranks for Air Force personnel had been promulgated, and as a result remained known at the Air Ministry for the next 30 years under the curious style of Major, RAF. He was now in the rare situation of having been an officer in the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. From 1919 he 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 they retired to Verbier in the Swiss Alps and later they lived on the outskirts of Zurich. 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

V1.4.2 Created by Roger Moss. Last updated December 2019