Sir Ambrose Fleming (1849–1945)
More than half a century ago it seemed the progress of science was demolishing all possibility of belief in the supernatural as recorded in the Bible. Yet at least one Englishman’s heart was burning with indignation. His thoughts and feelings began to erupt into words. Powerful words.
Sir Ambrose Fleming brought out his book, The Origin of Mankind: Viewed from the Standpoint of Revelation and Research. This was an ‘epoch-making book’, in the words of Right Reverend Bishop E.A. Knox (D.D.). Knox said of Sir Ambrose’s book: “It should call a halt to widespread misconceptions as to the scientific theory of Evolution … A bird’s-eye view of the progress of research during the last half-century.”
Sir Ambrose’s by-line to the book carries the letters: ‘Kt., M.A., D.Sc., E.Eng., F.R.S., etc.’ and sets out his areas of ascendancy: ‘President of the Victoria Institute and Philosophical Society of Great Britain; President of the Television Society; Emeritus Professor of Electrical Engineering in the University of London; Honorary Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge; Fellow of University College, London, etc.’ The date on the Foreword, signed simply ‘J.A.F.’, is September 1935. Sir Ambrose was then 86 years old, a great age for an experienced warrior to be battling the powers of darkness in the contest for men’s minds and souls.
But the book failed to turn the tide of unbelief. J.A.F.’s words sound a hideous sort of knell in our minds: “Whatever may be the effect on the religious opinions of adults or scientific men of an adherence to this evolutionary theory of human origin, it is unquestionable that it is disastrous to the ethical development or spiritual life of the young or uneducated to lead them to believe that ‘men are descended from monkeys’; or that ‘the chimpanzee or gorilla are man’s nearest relatives’.” We have observed that each generation since has seen a more odious harvest reaped.
John Ambrose Fleming was the first of seven children born to Rev. James Fleming1, D.D., and his wife Mary Ann on Thursday, 29 November 1849, in the Congregational manse on the outskirts of Lancaster in England, his forebears included several missionaries on his mother’s side. His close association with these relatives strengthened his Christian commitment.
Ambrose’s earliest education was watched over by his mother. She opened the door to knowledge early when she taught him to read. Most of his early learning consisted of memorisation, and the Children’s Guide to Knowledge was his favourite lesson book.
As a youngster of 11, in his workshop at home Ambrose modelled engines and ships. He explored the fascinating world of photography, cameras, and the collodion process. He mastered his Play Book of Science, and was ready to enter the University College School in Gower Street London at 17—passing his matriculation, although bottom of his Latin class!
He longed to be an engineer. But family finances forced him to earn a living by teaching—at Rossall, then later at Cheltenham. By October 1877, at the age of 27, he had saved enough to support himself, so with happy anticipation he entered St John’s College the next year. There he started practical work in the Cavendish Laboratory under James Clerk Maxwell, the well-known Scottish physicist whose lectures he had been attending. By 1879, at 30 years of age, he acquired the then rare degree of Doctor of Science in the University of London for his paper, ‘Electricity Treated Experimentally’.
Again he returned to teaching, this time as Professor of Mathematics and Physics in the newly opened University of Nottingham. After only two years he was back in London as electrician to the Edison Electric Light Company. These were the days of electrical pioneering. The pressing question for the industry, if it were to go to the domestic market, was ‘the sub-division of the electric light’—that is, the producing of a number of small independent sources of illumination instead of the then single bright arc lamp.
A patent was taken out for the following arrangement:
A boiler and steam engine with a dynamo were installed in the basement of a house which was to be lighted by electricity. An arc light with a mirror sent a beam like a searchlight up a straight chimney shaft, and near the ceiling of each room plane mirrors intercepted different parts of the beam and so reflected light into the various rooms! The light in any particular room when not wanted, being shut off by closing a shutter in the room! (From the first Fleming Memorial Lecture by Dr J. T. Macgregor-Morris.)
Whether to connect transformers in series or parallel had not then been decided, and the great difficulty of producing a small but reasonably efficient source of electric light is illustrated by such a fantastic arrangement.
Fleming relates an exciting experiment in his lectures of 1891–92. He told his students how Kings Cross Station and Gower Street Station on the Metropolitan Line were lighted by Gaulard and Gibbs transformers with their primaries in a series. When more lights (50V or 100V incandescent lamps) were turned on in parallel at Kings Cross, the voltage and candle power of the lamps at Gower Street automatically increased. To stop them burning out, the lights in Gower Street had to be turned on to the same number.
During the 1890s Sir Ambrose worked with the famous Italian inventor Marconi. As an electrical engineer, Marconi invented methods of communication such as wireless telegraphy—winning the Nobel Prize for physics in 1909. Sir Ambrose enjoyed working with Marconi in his radiotelegraphy experiments.
As a teacher, Sir Ambrose meticulously prepared his lectures. He put no limits on his efforts to demonstrate material for his students—to perfection, if possible. Every word was chosen with utmost care so that he became extremely popular and deeply admired for his unremitting zeal in communicating knowledge.
As President of the Victoria Institute from 1926 to 1936, Sir Ambrose gave some brilliant annual addresses.2 The Victoria Institute had been formed in 1865, only six years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. The institute was neither especially creationist nor anti-evolutionist, yet its members included some outstanding people whose work brought much of value to the creationist movement.
It seemed few members of the institute were capable of commenting on Sir Ambrose’s papers. From this it has been conjectured that the practice of ‘no discussion following annual addresses’ probably originated from the impressive erudition of the president. His scientific achievements are described in part in Who Was Who:3
Exhibitioner, Foundation Scholar and Honorary Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge; Lecturer on Applied Mechanics in the University of Cambridge; has been intimately associated with the development of all the great applications of electrical science in the last 25 years; the telephone, electric lighting and wireless telegraphy; and is the inventor of the Thermionic Valve.
In the later years of his association as president of the Victoria Institute, Sir Ambrose was approached to help fight a new battle in England. A number of active creationists in the Victoria Institute saw the need for an organised group specifically to try to combat evolution and its pernicious influences. So, in 1932 a body was set up called the Evolution Protest Movement. Sir Ambrose was its first president, and he served in this capacity until 1941.4
Well-known evolutionist and science writer Isaac Asimov describes in technical detail the sum of Fleming’s accomplishments in electrical research.5 He concludes that by 1904, at age 55, Sir Ambrose had developed a rectifier and called it a ‘valve’ since it turned on for electric current in one direction, and off for the current in the other. This device came to be known as the ‘tube’ in the United States.
In his revelatory skills he did not confine himself to scientific topics. He could speak just as lucidly on the case for the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem being the site of the Resurrection, or the report of the Archbishops’ commission on Christian doctrine, as he could on the visions of Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel. His great gift was to present complex subjects in terms laymen could understand, and in a homespun fashion, drew philosophical conclusions from the discoveries he described.
Sir Ambrose loved the Bible and saw the modernist’s attitude of rejecting the miraculous as being non-scientific. In his nineties, when hindered by deafness, Sir Ambrose still attended scientific meetings accompanied by a young man who made notes for him. Sir Ambrose would jump to his feet and refute statements, ruthlessly exposing arguments in his downright and honest manner. He had learnt early and was mentally alert and penetrating till near the end. He did not retire till aged 77.
In 1933 the world was reeling towards the brink of World War II. The theory of evolution was producing ghastly fruits through Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and Russia’s atheistic communism was practising its wholesale murder of religious reactionaries. And now, at the age of 83, Sir Ambrose was still preaching from the pulpit of St Martin’s Church, London, on the evidence for the Resurrection.
Sir Ambrose was the author of more than 90 scientific papers in the field of electronics. He received many awards for his distinguished scientific career. As we consider his life, we can honour him for the bold and tireless zeal that his life displayed, spiritually as well as scientifically, in an age when creationist scholars were a rarity.
References and notes
- On the 1851 UK census, Rev. James Fleming is described as the independent minister of High Street Chapel. Return to text.
- These papers included Relativity and Reality (1928), Maths, Energy, Radiation, Life and Mind (1929), Creation and Modern Cosmogony (1930), Light (1931), and Philosophical Conceptions of Modern Physical Science (1936). Return to text.
- Who Was Who, Vol.IV, 1941-1950 (4th ed.), Adam and Chas. Black, London, 1967. Return to text.
- In 1980 the Evolution Protest Movement changed its name to the more positive one of the Creation Science Movement. Return to text.
- Asimov, I., Biographical Encyclopaedia of Science and Technology—the Lives and Achievements of More than 1000 Great Scientists from Ancient Greece to the Space Age, Doubleday and Co., Inc., Garden City, New York, 1966. Return to text.