Sir John Ambrose Fleming (November 29, 1849-April 18, 1945), often called a father of modern electronics, is best known for developing the first successful thermionic valve (also called a vacuum tube, a diode, or a Fleming valve) in 1904. His invention was the ancestor of all electronic tubes, a development that gave birth not only to radio communications, but to the entire electronics industry.1
The modern vacuum tube, the triode amplifier, was achieved by Lee De Forest in 1906--an "invention that ran afoul of the Marconi Company which owned Fleming's patent."2 The development of radios, televisions, computers, phonographs, Dictaphones, film projectors, and the cultural and intellectual achievements they created are all a direct result of the vacuum tube. The vacuum tube was a key component of radios and most electronic devices until it was replaced by the transistor in the 1970s. Fleming was the "common thread that linked the work" of Thomas Edison, Gugliemo Marconi, and Lee de Forrest, and Nikola Tesla, who--according to a 1943 U.S. Supreme Court decision--invented the radio.3
An Eminent Scientist
Fleming showed an early genius for scientific and technical studies. As a student he studied under James Clerk Maxwell at Cambridge, graduating with a first-class-honors degree in chemistry and physics. He was in the top two percent in his class for his B.S. degree. He then earned a doctorate from the University of Cambridge in 1880.4 Dr. Fleming taught at both Cambridge University and the University of Nottingham. He was the first professor and chair of electrical engineering at the University of Nottingham and University College of London, a post that he held for 41 years. Dr. Fleming was an outstanding teacher in the classroom and very successful as a public lecturer on science.
He also worked with both the inventor of the radio, Nobel laureate Guglielmo Marconi, and the inventor of the electric light bulb, Thomas Alva Edison, in developing a variety of inventions.5 From Edison, Fleming learned about the ability of a vacuum tube to convert alternating current into direct current.6 From this information he developed his thermionic tube. When working with Marconi, Fleming helped to design the transmitter that Marconi used in his successful 1901 trans-Atlantic broadcast.7
In 1904 Fleming designed a vastly improved radio receiver for Marconi.8 Fleming even helped design and build much of the equipment that makes wireless communications possible. For example, he contributed greatly to the development of electrical generator stations and distribution networks, helping to usher in the electronic age by allowing long distance transmission of telephone signals. He even made significant contributions to radar, which was of vital importance in helping the Allies to prevail in World War II.
His many awards include the Hughes Medal in 1910, the Gold Alber Medal in 1921, the Faraday Medal in 1928, the Institute of Radio Engineers medal in 1933, and the highest distinction in the Royal Society of Arts. His most important honor, however, was a knighthood, awarded in 1929.9 In his career, Fleming authored 19 major physics and electronic textbooks and almost 100 scientific articles, many published in leading scientific journals.10 His 1906 and 1908 textbooks made critically important contributions to electronics. Fleming also authored several creationist books, including The Intersecting Spheres of Religion and Science and Evolution or Creation?
The Evolution Protest Movement
Sir Ambrose Fleming was an active creationist for most of his life. Henry Morris wrote that Fleming was an eminent scientist and one of the most outstanding creationists of the 19th century.11 Fleming was the first president of the group that had a major influence on American creationists, the British Evolution Protest Movement (EPM). The society was founded in 1932 by Fleming with ornithologist and prolific author Douglas Dewar.
The first meeting was held in the office of naturalist and author Captain Bernard Acworth. Other active founders of this group included Professor Douglas Savory, Dr. W. C. Shewell Cooper, and Dr. James Knight, vice president of the Royal Philosophical Society. An active Congregationist, Fleming remained involved in the EPM for most of his life, serving as a president of both the EPM and the Victoria Institute of England, another creationist organization.
Fleming argued that, as science progresses, more and more knowledge was uncovered that supported intelligence and design in the universe.12 A major reason Fleming rejected evolution was because "Organic Evolution is not an ascertained scientific truth fully established by facts but is a philosophy…without regard to the absence of any rigorous proof."13
The Case Against Evolution
In his book Evolution or Creation?, Fleming argued that evolution, like all naturalistic theories of origins, has failed to account for life, the mind, and humankind. He reasoned that, for a theory to be true, it must “not fail in critical places,” as does evolution.14
After giving several historical examples, Fleming noted that in physics, even one fact can force revision or falsification of a theory. Fleming then lists numerous examples of evolution’s failures, such as the unbridgeable gap between living and non-living matter or between the cell and organic compounds such as methane. His argument in this area, although strong then, is far stronger today.
For example, Fleming, in harmony with the understanding of the science of his day, described the cell as a "very small drop or lump of a jelly-like material called protoplasm."15 Science then knew next to nothing about the cell and its parts compared to today. The mitochondria, rough ER, smooth ER, DNA, histones, and thousands of other organelles and protein systems--plus around 100,000 different proteins in the cell--were all unknown or very poorly understood in 1939. For this reason, Fleming's argument is immensely stronger today. Professors Green and Goldberger wrote just 30 years later:
[T]he macromolecule-to-cell transition is a jump of fantastic dimensions, which lies beyond the range of testable hypothesis. In this area all is conjecture. The available facts do not provide a basis for postulation that cells arose on this planet. To postulate that life arose elsewhere in the universe and was then brought to earth in some manner would be begging the question; we should then ask how life arose wherever it may have done so originally. This is not to say some paraphysical forces (meaning beyond material, such as God) were at work. We simply wish to point out the fact that there is no scientific evidence.16
Since then, the case against molecule-to-human evolution has grown even stronger with the advance of science. Fleming recognized that "evolution is essentially atheistic" and is actually "an attempt to dispense with the very idea of God and substitute for an Intelligent Creator an impersonal non-intelligent agency," namely mutations, time, chance, and natural selection.17 He concluded from his study of the evidence that the "assumptions underlying Darwin's theory…and the general theory of inorganic evolution have not withstood the valid criticisms leveled at them."18
The Infinite Variation Theory Proved Wrong
Another argument that he expounded, which has been confirmed today, was against the Darwinian assumption that infinitesimal natural variations accumulate in life, allowing natural selection to function.19 Fleming has been vindicated in this argument --Mendel disproved this aspect of evolution, showing that the source of variation is genes. Today the "infinite variation" of Darwin's genetic transmission theory has been discarded and replaced by Mendelian genetics, involving discrete units called genes.
Of much interest is Fleming's historical survey of evolution. For example, he noted:
[Professor] de Vries' theory of Mutations and Mendel's discoveries on the transmission of the unit characters have come in as antagonists more or less of the original Darwin ideas, and it cannot be denied that no theory of organic evolution or explanation of its causation has commanded perfectly general acceptance. Rather, as H. F. Osborn, the late eminent American palaeontologist, said to the British Association in 1931: "We are more at a loss than ever to understand the causes of evolution. One after another the Buffonian, Lamarckian, Darwinian, Weismannian, and de Vriesian theories of causation have collapsed."20
Noting the conflicting views of a large number of biologists, Fleming concluded:
[W]hilst freely admitting the insufficiency of all so far advanced explanations of precise causes and nature of evolution, [they] still cling to a belief in the existence of…evolution…and dismiss from their view any acceptance of deliberate creation as an impossible solution of the problem of species.21
Sir John Ambrose Fleming was a leader in the electronics revolution that changed the world. As a professor at a major university, he carefully researched the evidence for Darwinism, concluding that the theory is not supported by science. He also influenced hundreds of students to evaluate the evidence in science for Darwinism. An outstanding scientist and creationist, he played a significant role in the development and maturation of the early creation movement. As Travers and Muhr wrote, he "had an unusually long and active life," and his life changed the world as did few other scientists.22
- Morris, H. M. 1993. History of Modern Creationism. Santee, CA: Institute for Creation Research, 68-69.
- Travers, B. and J. Muhr, eds. 1994. The World of Invention. Detroit, MI: Gale Research Inc., 253.
- Brittain, J. E. 2007. John A. Fleming. Proceedings of the IEEE. 95 (1): 313–315.
- Fleming, A. 1934. Memories of a Scientific Life. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 238.
- Travers and Muhr, The World of Invention, 253.
- Brittain, John A. Fleming, 315.
- Morris, History of Modern Creationism, 238.
- Ibid, 68, 120.
- Fleming, A. 1938. The Intersecting Spheres of Religion and Science. Pembridge, Villas: Christian Press.
- Ibid, 42.
- Fleming, A. 1938. Evolution or Creation? London: Marshall Morgan and Scott.
- Ibid, 64.
- Green, D. and R. Goldberger. 1967. Molecular Insights into the Living Process. New York: Academic Press, 406-407.
- Fleming, Evolution or Creation?, 9.
- Ibid, 13.
- Ibid, 35.
- Fleming, The Intersecting Spheres of Religion and Science, 42.
- Travers and Muhr, The World of Invention, 253.
* Dr. Bergman is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Toledo Medical School in Ohio.
Cite this article: Bergman, J. 2009. Sir Ambrose Fleming: Father of Modern Electronics. Acts & Facts. 38 (11): 12-14.