Thomas Fowler was an inventor of a calculating machine which was a forerunner to today’s computers.
He was born in Torrington in 1777, son of a cooper, and at 13 was apprenticed to a fellmonger (dealer in hides and skins, especially sheep, who removed the wool or hair from the hides in preparation for tanning). In his spare time he began to study mathematics. He was entirely self-taught as money was short and he had no opportunity to study at university.
He built himself a printing press from a plan of his own invention and set up as a printer and book seller. He did well in this business and subsequently became a clerk and then a partner and finally manager of the only bank in town. He was also organist at the parish church.
In 1828 he patented a device known as a thermosiphon which was the basis of the modern system of central heating using radiators. However, patent laws were very weak in those days and his invention was pirated and, as he couldn’t afford legal proceedings, he received no royalties or recognition for his invention.
His talents were recognised by some prominent people in and around Torrington (including Lord Clinton) who did everything they could to encourage him in his work and bring his inventions to public notice.
In 1838 he published his ‘Tables for Facilitating Arithmetical Calculations’ and in 1840, when he was 63, he constructed his first calculating machine. He considered this to be his greatest achievement. It was made of wood, as he couldn’t afford to make it out of metal, and measured 5ft high, 4ft wide and 4ft long (1.5m x 1.2m x 1.2m) and was capable of working out complex multiplications and divisions. He took his machine to King’s College at London University where many leading scientists were impressed with its efficiency and it was exhibited for some time in the college museum.
Although this calculating machine was a direct forerunner of the pocket calculators and home computers we have today, the only result of this experiment for Thomas Fowler was loss of money and health and final disappointment. Like many inventions, his calculating machine was used by others to their own advantage but he wasn’t able to make any money out of it.
While his machine was at King’s College, Thomas Fowler died in 1843 and the machine was taken apart and sent back to his son, Hugh, in pieces. Hugh admitted that he didn’t know how to put it back together again despite having some written instructions dictated by his father on his death bed.
Thomas Fowler is remembered in a stained glass window in the south transept of the parish church installed in his memory by the townspeople and others who recognised his talents. His name also lived on in the Thomas Fowler IT Centre which, for a few years, was part of the Castle Hill communications centre set up in the late 1990s along with the library, the tourist information centre and the 1646 Civil War museum.