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Baltic Wharf - Totnes
In 1996 I discovered a passing reference to Thomas Fowler in a local history which fired my interest. It soon became apparent that no research had been done into this fascinating life. It was to become a very interesting journey rediscovering Thomas Fowler ... and his talented family, a branch of which now lives in the lake-district.
Having done much of the initial research, sadly, pressures of work meant I did not have the time to pursue things any further and I passed the baton to Pamela Vass who then did a great deal more research. Since then much has been written about Thomas Fowler, you only need to google his name to find numerous references. He was an unsung genious, but thankfully his contribution is now widely recognised.
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:
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.
Operation of the themosiphon as described in the patent:
It is reported at the time:
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:
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:
The image above is taken from a glass panel in the local church, commissioned by his son.
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:
Fowler writes to Airy:
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.
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:
Thomas spent his whole life in Torrington. He married Mary Copp in 1813. They had at least eleven children 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.
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 of society.
Science had only recently become a profession, William Whewell coined the term 'scientist' in 1833.