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John Fletcher Moulton

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John Fletcher Moulton, Baron Moulton (1844-1921), Director-General of the Explosives Department. Mathematician, barrister, judge, and politician

President of Junior Institution of Engineers

1904 Member of the committee appointed by the Board of Trade to review the gas industry

1912 Lord Justice

1917 Moulton was given the task of producing poisonous gases


1921 Obituary [1]

JOHN FLETCHER MOULTON, BARON MOULTON, P.C., K.C.B., G.B.E., M.A., F.R.S., was born on 18th November, 1844. He received his early training at the Wesleyan School at New Kingswood, near Bath, and afterwards entered St. John's College, Cambridge, where he had a brilliant career. In 1868 he became Senior Wrangler and took a gold medal at London University. In 1874 he was called to the Bar, where he rapidly became famous, particularly

in connection with patent cases. He was elected an Associate of the Institution in 1877, and a Member in 1881. His death, which occurred on 9th March, 1921, removed from English society a public man whose career made a special appeal in many different quarters and, among others, a very special one to electrical engineers. Being an eminent lawyer who for many years conducted a leading practice at the Bar in connection with patent and industrial cases it would, in any event, have been inevitable that he should be largely occupied with a branch of industry in which technical advance and practical extensions have been so greatly developed as they were in the electrical industries during the years covered by his active career. The early telephone litigation ; the distribution of the London area among competing electric companies ; the litigation that arose about the original incandescent electric lamp ; the 3-wire system of laying distribution mains ; the use of transformers in the distributing system ; the distributing arc lamp ; the protection of telephone circuits from interference by traction currents ; all these matters, of capital importance in connection with the electrical engineering industry, were matters in the conduct of which he was largely occupied, and many are the stories told of his acumen and resource in dealing with them.

One of these stories which can now be given to the larger world, tells how he astonished both his clients and the adversary in the Edison v. Holland action re the incandescent electric lamp. It was a very hotly contested action ; physicists of great eminence were called on both sides to give evidence, and the question became vital whether certain forms of filament which Edison had described in his specification could be made to work. Eminent chemists had tried to make them and had failed. The plaintiff's experts were confident that they could succeed, but the only evidence which they could give was evidence of opinion and insufficient to counterweigh the definite evidence of failure adduced for the defence. Ultimately, in complete perplexity, the judge ordered a test experiment to be made in the presence of Sir George Gabriel Stokes. This was an experiment of great moment, having regard to the issues which hung upon it, and the plaintiff company proposed to go to their leading expert and engage him and his laboratory in their exclusive service until the test was over. They attended chambers to consult Mr. Moulton who, with Sir Richard Webster (Lord Alverstone), was acting as their counsel, as to the arrangement of details. He took their breath away by an emphatic negative and counter proposal. "The right way," said he, "to conduct this experiment is not in a laboratory at all but in a factory. Take a large room in your establishment at Ponders End, fit it up with complete appliances for the manufacture of these filaments and set a small staff of operatives to produce lamps from them. When the defendants come for inspection let them see, not an expert chemist exhibiting his unrivalled manipulative skill, but boys and girls making Edison filaments as a matter of business routine." The thing was done. A dozen operatives were engaged for a fortnight in producing the lamps in question and when the inspecting experts, Sir George Stokes, the reporter, and the experts of the other side came to inspect, they found an industry running on a small commercial scale. There were thousands of Edison lamps in stock,, and scores in every stage of manufacture. Criticism was seen to be futile and for once a litigant convinced not only his judge, but his adversary also, that he was right.

It was not in connection with litigation only that Lord Moulton was effective ; he had also a fine faculty of exposition which enabled him to address students with very marked success. His mind was comprehensive and his knowledge very extended, so that the material for helpful analogies came very easily to him. To the mathematical type of mind such working in analogy is very familiar. Famous examples occur in the application by Fresnel of the formulae of wave motion to explaining the phenomena of light, and the elaboration by Clerk Maxwell of the pregnant electromagnetic theory by which the phenomena of electricity, magnetism and light are co-ordinated. In the perception of such underlying analogies Lord Moulton was singularly ready, and his utterances—especially his addresses to scientific bodies—owed much of their charm and effect to this great quality. But it was not as an expositor only that he came before the electrical world. In this department he made a notable contribution of pioneer work in the paper on the sensitive state of electrical discharges in rarefied gases which, in collaboration with the late Dr. Spottiswoode, at that time President of the Royal Society, he contributed to the " Proceedings " of that Society in 1879 and 1880.

It is not altogether possible to stifle a regret that a career so rich in promise should in the end have deviated from the path of scientific research into that of professional eminence. And yet, when all is considered, it would be unreasonable to quarrel with a fate which, enabled. Lord Moulton to discharge so important a part as that which he undertook, when over 70 years of age, in the organization of the supply of munitions during the great war. A personal influence and consideration which scientific eminence, however distinguished, would not alone have sufficed to secure for him, was necessary to the effective discharge of the onerous duties of Director General of Explosives Supplies. Any career so crowned is crowned with a very complete success, and we may well forbear to discuss alternatives in a case where it is so hard to suggest one which would, on the whole, be an improvement either from his point of view or from ours.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. 1921 Institution of Electrical Engineers: Obituaries
  • Biography of John Fletcher Moulton, ODNB
  • Wikipedia