From gown to guns

Laurence Scales investigates Ri member John Fletcher Moulton: lawyer, scientist, and Director of Explosive Supplies in WW1.

  • Moulton and shells

    John Fletcher Moulton and 15 inch high-explosive howitzer shells.

    Credit: Public domain

They discovered substances in which the combustible and the oxygen are present in one and the same molecule. Like the lion and the lamb, of which the prophet speaks, they lie down together and it is not until the molecule is shattered by heat or shock or some other like agency that they rush together into combustion. As might be expected such a combustion is instantaneous, and the explosion it produces is very violent, far exceeding all that had previously been known. These bodies were the earliest forms of what are now known as High Explosives.

Extract from Science and War: Rede Lecture (1919) by Lord Moulton

After three years of fighting in World War 1 it came to the point that Britain was driven to asking children to gather conkers to make up a shortage in the raw material for cordite, propellant for shells and cartridges. The Director of Explosive Supplies for the Ministry of Munitions, who was doing his utmost to keep the troops in ammunition, was a lawyer, but also a scientist and a Ri member for 40 years from 1877. His name was John Fletcher Moulton (1844-1921).

In the early 1890s two Ri ‘names’, Frederick Abel and James Dewar (the latter, Ri Fullerian Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Laboratory, 1877 to 1923) were at the centre of a scandal over their development of cordite. First, they appeared to take advantage of Alfred Nobel’s own propellant formulation in their invention. Then, at government expense, they sought to profit personally, and compromise national interest, by patenting it abroad. Nobel took the matter to court and lost, but the ensuing rancour probably cost Dewar the Nobel Prize. The case was doomed by the wording of Nobel’s patent, particularly the implication of the term ‘insoluble’ as it might relate to different solvents. The barrister fighting the case for Nobel was John Fletcher Moulton.

Moulton had studied mathematics and became Senior Wrangler (top mathematician in his year at Cambridge). He chose to become a barrister, but remained an amateur scientist. He was invited to Spain to watch a solar eclipse with John Tyndall in 1870, and like Tyndall he was an Alpinist. Working with William Spottiswoode on electrical discharges in low pressure gases led to his election as Fellow of the Royal Society in 1880.

  • Moulton illustration in Vanity Fair

    Caricature in Vanity Fair, 1900

    Credit: Public domain

The revamp of patent law in 1883 provided a lift to Moulton’s career. It was said of him that ‘he worked far more rapidly in a case of which an hour ago he had known nothing, than brilliant advocates who had studied it for days.’ The unusual combination of legal and scientific knowledge served his clients well. This is discussed in the Royal Society’s ‘Notes and Records’. Marconi’s wireless telegraphy was not a single invention but an assembly of different inventions. Which parts were novel? Which parts were Marconi’s? Or was the combination novel? Perhaps the fact that Moulton, the leading patent lawyer of the day, helped frame the patent kept challengers at bay and Marconi’s name in the public consciousness to this day. Moulton became a senior judge and a peer.

Moulton was the first Chairman of the Medical Research Council in 1912, and he was 70 when the Great War broke out. His son, H. Fletcher Moulton wrote in The Life of Lord Moulton (1922):

I then found that, though he had never spoken of it, he had for very many years lived in apprehension of this great disaster. Probably his experiences at the outbreak of hostilities in 1870 had made the Franco-German War a more living thing to him than to most men, and he had felt from that time that it was but a prelude to a far greater catastrophe. The dread of this European war had always been with him, and this had increased with each step which he saw science take to make it easier to spread misery and destruction. His fear of such a war had no national basis; it was founded on a realisation of the human misery which it must entail.

He worked unceasingly throughout the war, running up stairs every day to the top floor office found for him at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. His original task was to find raw materials to make dyes, no longer available from Germany. But it soon occurred to someone that the coal tar needed had a far more pressing use in making explosives. According to his son’s memoir, Moulton increased the production of high explosive a thousand fold. ‘He thought in tons while others thought in pounds.’

One difficulty he faced related to the very legal case in which he had acted for Nobel. He was constrained to organise production of propellant using scarce multi-purpose acetone as a solvent in place of abundant ether so that the government could avoid paying royalties to Nobel.

Perhaps his most significant contribution to the defence was to champion compound explosives such as amatol, a mixture of high explosive TNT and oxidiser ammonium nitrate. Despite the perception that the TNT was being diluted, it was more powerful than TNT alone. But he had to fight service chiefs wanting to continue using pure TNT. Amatol was far more efficient in terms of materials, the production capacity of specialist factories, and imports as it reduced the need for TNT.

After the enemy first used chemical weapons in 1915, Moulton took on the distasteful but, he also believed, necessary task of making Britain’s stock of poison gas. Lord Moulton died, still in harness, a few years after the end of the war. He is a perhaps rare British example of a scientist who rose to make decisions of urgent national importance.

Laurence Scales is a volunteer working with the Ri Heritage and Collections team. He also leads unique and eclectic London tours focused on the curious history of science, invention, medicine and intelligence. He is a graduate in engineering and has worked in various technological industries.

Find out more on his website, and follow him on twitter: @LWalksLondon

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