In 1828 Thomas Fowler patented the first convective heating system.
This was the precursor to the modern central heating system. In 1840 he
invented a calculating machine, built in wood, that was much admired by
his contemporaries Augustus De Morgan, Charles Babbage, George Airy and
many others. The machine used a ternary calculating model.
In 1777 Thomas Fowler was born to Hugh and Elizabeth of Gt.Torrington
in North Devon, UK. The Fowler family were poor, Hugh was a cooper, and
Thomas received only a rudimentary education. He was apprenticed to a fell-monger
(seller of skins) at the age of 13. Despite this unpromising start in life
Thomas was arguably one of the great thinkers of his age, yet his life
has gone uncelebrated for the last 150 years.
His son, the Rev Hugh Fowler writes:
"...after a hard day's work among sheepskins he would spend half
the night poring over his mathematics, until he had gone as far as to master
Saunderson's Fluxions, the name of which the method of the differential
calculus, as far as it was then known, was designated. There was no one
alas! to take him by the hand, and help him to carry on his studies at
Cambridge, where alone such talent as he undoubtedly possessed could either
have been fully developed or adequately rewarded, so he was left, without
help or sympathy, to his solitary studies."
In 1828 he patented the Thermosiphon (British
Patent no 5711). This was to become the modern central heating system.
A heating system based on a design by Thomas Fowler was installed at Bicton,
then part of the Rolle Estate and received great acclaim in the Gardener's
Magazine of 1829.
"Mr Fowler has had the good fortune to hit on the idea that water may
be heated and made to circulate through a siphon, as well as through horizontal
pipes, or by force through pipes in any direction; provided always, that
the height of the siphon be not greater than to be counter-balanced by
the pressure of the atmosphere; say not greater than 30 feet. Any person
might have discovered the same thing by reflection, or in answer to the
question asked; but we are not aware that the idea has occurred, either
to the original inventor of the hot-water system, Bonnemain; to its introducers
into England, Bolton and Watt; to its subsequent introducer; Chabbanes;
to Count Romford; and to its reinventors, or English inventors, Atkinson
and Bacon; or to any to any of the numerous engineers now occupied in applying
this mode of heating."
The system is also described in a pamphlet written by Fowler which he dedicates
to John Sloley Esq. of Great Torrington who used the system in his vinery.
The patent laws of the time were flawed. By introducing any small change
to the original design, the resulting new version would not be covered
by the original patent. This meant that others could steal his invention
with impunity, which of course they duly did. His son writes in 1875:
"Unfortunately the invention was soon pirated in all directions. The
only remedy was costly legal proceedings, but even if he had had the means
to conduct them, success would have been doubtful."
Fowler became very embittered by this experience and this had an unfortunate
side-effect on the history of computer science.
(It is worth noting that the Romans had a convective heating system
called the Hypocaust. However, there
are fundamental differences. Firstly, heat was convey by hot air and secondly,
it was not a closed system. The hot air, having past through channels under
the floor, then was allowed to escape into the atmosphere.)
During the 1830's Thomas Fowler rose to become the sole manager and
partner of the only bank in the town, Messrs Loveband & Co. He also
became treasurer of the Torrington Poor Law Union. The tedious nature of
the calculation of payments for each of the parishes, which was one of
his responsibilities, led him to attempt to automate the calculations by
the use of tables. Fowler's solution was typically brilliant and led, in
1838, to Fowler's "Tables for Facilitating Arithmetical Calculations".
The tables used a method based on Fowler's realisation that "any number
might be produced by a combination of the powers of 2 or 3". The first
section of the booklet is the Binary Table, or a table of indices of the
number 2 from 1 to 130048. The second section is the Ternary Table, or
a table of the indices of the power of the number 3 from 1 to 3985607.
Soon after he had devised the tables he used the same ideas to build
a mechanical calculating machine. This was exhibited
before members of the Royal Society in May 1840. In a subsequent letter
to George Bidell Airy Fowler writes:
"This Machine was constructed entirely with my own hands (principally
in Wood) with the utmost regard to economy and merely to put my Ideas of
this mode of calculation into some form of Action; It is about 6 feet long
, One foot deep and three feet wide., In Brass & Iron it might be constructed
so as not to occupy a space much large than a good portable writing desk
and with powers such as I have described."
The then Astronomer Royal, Professor George Airy was to promote Fowler's
invention to a gathering of the British Society for the Advancement of
Science in August 1840. In the minutes of that meeting we read:
"Mr Airy gave an account of Mr Fowlers new Calculating Machine. The
origin of the machine was to facilitate the guardians of a poor-law district
in Devonshire in the calculating of the proportions in which the several
divisions were to be assessed. The chief peculiarity of the machine was,
that instead of our common decimal notation of numbers, in it ternary notation
was used; the digits becoming not tenfold but threefold more valuable as
they were placed to the left; thus, 1 and 2 expressed one and two as in
common, but 10 expressed not ten but 3, 11 four, 12 five; but again 2 can
be expressed by three, one taken from it. Now, let T (one with a bar over
it), written thus with a small bar above it, mean that it is subtractive;
then 12 and 2T are the same in effect, both meaning five; and for a similar
reason, by replacing 2 with 1T, we have five written in there several ways;
12, or 2T, or 1TT. The last is the form used it is obvious by an assemblage
or unit digits thus positively or negatively written, any number may be
expressed. In the machine levers were contrived to bring forward the digits
T or 1 as they were required in the process of calculation."
Fowler writes to Airy:
"I had the honor in May 1840 to submit the machine to the inspection
of many Learned Men in London among whom were the Marquis of Northampton,
Mr Babbage, W F Baily and A de Morgan Esq with many other Noblemen and
Gentlemen, Fellows of the Royal Society etc and it would have been a great
satisfaction to me if I could have had the advantage of your opinion also.
They all spoke favourably of my invention but my greatest wish was to have
had a thorough investigation of the whole principle of the machine and
its details, as far as I could explain them, in a way very different from
a popular exhibition:- this investigation I hope it will still have by
some first rate men of science before it is be laid aside or adopted.
Charles Babbage, Augustus De Morgan, George Airy and many other leading
mathematicians of the day witnessed his machine in operation. These names
have become beacons in the history of science yet nowhere will you find
reference to Thomas Fowler. Airy asked that he produce plans of his machine
but Fowler, recalling his experience with the Thermosiphon, refused to
publish his design.
I am fully aware of tendency to overrate one's own inventions
and to attach undue importance to subjects that preoccupy the mind but
I venture to say and hope to be fully appreciated by a Gentleman of your
scientific achievements, that I am often astonished at the beautiful aspect
of a calculation entirely mechanical.
I often reflect that had the Ternary instead of the binary Notation
been adopted in the Infancy of Society, machines something like the present
would long ere this have been common, as the transition from mental to
mechanical calculation would have been so very obvious and simple.
I am very sorry I cannot furnish you with any drawings of the Machine,
but I hope I shall be able to exhibit it before the British Association
at Devonport in August next, where I venture to hope and believe I may
again be favoured with your invaluable assistance to bring it into notice.
I have led a very retired life in this town without the advantages of any
hints or assistance from any one and I should be lost amidst the crowd
of learned and distinguished persons assembled at the meeting without some
kind friend to take me by the hand and protect me."
The machine was superior in many respects to Babbage's calculating
machine, the Difference Engine, generally regarded as the first digital
computer. Fowler's machine anticipated the modern computer in its
design by using a ternary calculating method. This is in contrast to Babbage's
machine which performed a decimal calculation, an approach which made his
machine very complicated. The government of the day became increasingly
disillusioned by the money they were having to pour into its development.
So much so that the government refused to even look at Fowler's machine.
Had Thomas Fowler published his design he would no doubt have won the support
of many leading mathematicians of the time. Unfortunately, it took several
decades before his approach was re-invented and in the mean time his name
had slipped into obscurity.
In Doron Swade's paper on Charles Babbage he talks of how, in 1971,
Maurice Wilkes, published an article 'Babbage as a Computer Pioneer'.
This was the first authoritative evaluation of Babbage's contribution
in modern times. In it he accuses Babbage of not of pioneering the modern
computer age but of delaying it. He argues that Babbage became associated
with failure and that this discouraged others from advancing the cause
of automatic computation. ( Maurice Wilkes was a distinguished pioneer
of modern electronic computers, who led the post-war team at Cambridge
that built the first practical electronic computer, the EDSAC.)
The Rev. Hugh Fowler writes:
"The government of the day refused even to look at my father's
machine on the express ground that they had spent such large sums, with
no satisfactory result, on Babbage's 'Calculating Engine',
as he termed it"
Thomas spent his whole life in Torrington. He married Mary Copp
in 1813. They had at least eleven children (I keep on finding more!) but,
as was common at this time, several died before reaching adulthood; the
average life-expectancy was only 40 in the 1830's. The genius of
Thomas Fowler is evident in some of his children, particularly his daughter
Caroline, who was composing, books i.e. taking the print and placing it
back to front and upside down in a composing stick ready for printing,
by the age of eight.
|Thomas Fowler born. Son of a cooper. Little education. Self taught
with the only book 'Ward's Mathematician's Guide'
- John Ward's Young Mathematician's Guide, 1st Edition 1707,
12th Edition 1771 (Shelf No: 1509/1167)
|Apprenticed at the age of 13 to a fellmonger (a fell = an animal hide)
|Became a Printer and Bookseller
|Married Mary Copp in St. Michael's on 21 February
|Published 'Field Sports as followed by the Natives of India'
by Daniel Johnson, Surgeon H.E.I.C.S (Shelf No: 1040F8), 1827 second edition.
|Patented the Thermosiphon
|Installed a heating system at Bicton for the Rt. Hon. Lord Rolle Mr
Coldridge, ironmonger, directed the works.
|Treasurer of the Poor Law Union
|Became partner in the bank Messrs. Loveband & Co. (formerly Cooke
& Co until 1821) 1836 Joint Stock Banking Act allowing banks to print
bank notes if less than six partners.
|Published ÎTables for Arithmetical Calculations' (Shelf
No: 712F48 in British Library-only copy!)
|Calculating Machine first constructed
|Calculating Machine improved
|Thomas Fowler died on March 31 of 'Dropsy of the Chest'.
|Messrs. Loveband & Co was merged with the National Provincial Bank.
|Stained Glass window in south transept of St. Michael's Church,
Torrington in his memory. Commissioned by his son Hugh, probably during
the restoration of the church.
|Read biography written by his son Rev Hugh Fowler to Devonshire Association
August, North Devon Journal published the biography.
The Napoleonic Wars had come to a conclusion in 1815. The release from
this yoke precipitated calls for social change. It is a time of great ferment
in which many social changes are taking place. Much of this is catalysed
by a new feeling of intellectual freedom which expresses itself in an explosion
of scientific and engineering advances that themselves change the face
Science had only recently become a profession, William Whewell coined
the term 'scientist' in 1833.
Other Computing Machines
|Calculating Clock.(6 digit machine)
|Pascaline (5-digit machine)
|Sir Samuel Morland
|Gottfried von Leibniz
|multiplying calculator (like Leibniz's.)
|J. H. Mueller
|Difference engine (conceived idea)
|Thomas de Colmar
|3rd-order difference engine
|better & simpler difference engine
|an internal multiplication table
|Frank S Baldwin
|Dorr E. Felt
|William S. Burroughs
|more robust Comptometer
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