FLEMING, Arthur Percy Morris



16th January 1881 to 14th September 1960

Biographical Text

Fleming was an electrical engineer who contributed in a wide range of fields including underwater detection, radar and radio broadcasting. He was also committed to the notion of more and better education for engineers and managers, and wrote several books on education and engineering.

Fleming was born at Newport on the Isle of Wight on 16 January 1881, the son of a farmer. He was educated at the Portland House Academy and then Finsbury Technical College in London, where he studied electrical engineering. Upon completing his training he worked briefly with the London Electricity Supply Company and with electrical instrument makers Elliott Brothers. In 1900 he joined British Westinghouse Company, and then went to the USA for a period of further training in Pittsburgh. In 1902 he joined the transformer department of Westinghouse in Manchester, rising to the rank of chief engineer and then, in 1913, superintendent of the department. In 1905 he married Rose Mary Ash, the daughter of a family friend from Newport.

During the First World War, Fleming and his department worked on the development of submarine detection systems, for which he received the CBE in 1920. When Metropolitan-Vickers (as Westinghouse had now become) established a research department in 1920, Fleming was chosen to lead it. In 1922 Fleming and his team established the second transmitter of the British Broadcasting Corporation, 2ZY, which began broadcasting a day after the first London transmitter came into operation. The transmitter was for some years located in Fleming’s research department at Metropolitan-Vickers.

Through the 1930s Fleming’s department was one of the world’s leading centres for electrical research. He became director of research and education for Metropolitan-Vickers in 1931. Among the advances made was the development of high-power thermionic valves, a device which led to the first practical working radar systems. Fleming continued his work on radar through the Second World War. He was knighted for this work in 1945. In 1954 Fleming retired and returned to the Isle of Wight, where he died on 14 September 1960.

Fleming had a passionate interest in education and training. Soon after joining British Westinghouse, he established a scheme for training boy apprentices in his department; by the time the First World War broke out, this scheme had expanded across the company. In 1914 he established a trade apprenticeship school at the company, and in 1917 he created and led its education department. One of his apprentices, Willis Jackson (later Lord Jackson of Burnley), recalled:

He [Fleming] used to say that the most important raw material of industry was its young people, and he took steps to ensure that his own young people, from the embryo craftsman to the university graduate, were recognised and treated as important.

(Jackson 2004)

Fleming’s interest in education extended far beyond his own firm. He was member of the council of the University of Manchester, of the governing body of Imperial College and of the delegacy of the City and Guilds of London Institute. He served on many committees, including the Ministry of Labour committee on teaching and youth training and the Federation of British Industries overseas scholarships committee. He was president of the education section of the British Association in 1939, president of the British Association of Industrial and Commercial Research and of the Electrical Research Association, and helped to establish the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. He became a member of the council of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1932, vice-president in 1935 and president in 1938. He received honorary degrees from the universities of Manchester and Liverpool.

Fleming was also deeply interested in the problems of management. In 1922 he edited a series of books on industrial administration for the publisher Sir Isaac Pitman, contributing one book himself and editing others by authors such as John Lee, Lillian Gilbreth, the British consultant and engineer James Bowie, the American economist Lionel Edie and the Australian industrial psychologist Bernard Muscio. His own contribution, An Introduction to the Principles of Industrial Administration, is a summary of current thinking. While Fleming mentions Taylorist scientific management, he is far more interested in issues concerning education and training, and argues strongly for the importance of developing workers, not only as skilled hands but as people.

Some of Fleming’s other works, notably Research in Industry and The Impact of Science on Industry, are calls for business to be more aware of technological advances and to use science more creatively. Science is transforming the world in which we live, says Fleming; business must move with the times and take advantage of the opportunities science offers.

Fleming’s interest in training and education, and knowledge more generally, made him an obvious candidate for speaker at the Rowntree conferences. His first paper, in 1919 in the aftermath of the Education Act of 1918, muses on the impact that the Act might have on educational levels generally, but cautions that companies still have both a moral duty and a practical requirement to engage with the education of young workers. He argues that works schools still have a place, in part because they enable easier monitoring of young people and selection of those with the greatest talent. The works school in effect becomes a reservoir of young people who can go on to further training and experience and acquire more skills.

This might seem dehumanising, the reduction of young people to mere cogs in the industrial machine, but Fleming often points out the need to develop people not just as workers, but as people: ‘not only is it economically wise to discover and encourage latent talent, but it is a clear responsibility to both the employee and the community.’ Fleming also feels that education is necessary for the continued democratisation of industry; people need skills and knowledge if they are to take charge of their own lives and work.

What are the things that a boy should learn during his early working years? He should gain some knowledge of the economics of production. He should be made to realise that waste – of time, physical or mental effort, or materials – is criminal. He should be taught the importance of applied science in industry. He should be led to expect and demand hygenic working conditions. His faculties of observation, and of quick co-ordination between hand and eye, should be constantly developed. He should know the scientific laws underlying the work he is doing, and something of the origin and preparation of materials, tools and processes.

Fleming’s second lecture in 1928 was also on a subject very close to his heart, the application of science to industry. He opens the lecture by trying to explain the often hazy relationship between science and industry. He first defines industry as ‘the means by which nature’s resources are made available to mankind’; in other words, the purpose of industry is to refine natural resources until they are presented to consumers in a usable form. The key to that process of transformation is science. In some cases science allows for advances to existing processes, and Fleming cites chemistry and metallurgy as examples of sciences having transforming effects in, for example, textiles and metal-working. In other cases, a new scientific discovery forms the basis for entire new industries, as was the case with electricity.

Fleming gives a lengthy series of examples of this transforming effect of science upon industry, and then goes on to give an even longer list of the challenges that still need to be met and the kinds of scientific endeavour required to solve the relevant problems, in fields a diverse as agriculture, ceramics and navigation.

Where is the necessary knowledge to come from? Fleming asks. The answer is in part through structured scientific experimentation, but also from the personal experience of workers and managers, and from continued study and examination of the world around us. Fleming presents a ‘three circles’ model of what we would now call knowledge management. The first, ‘inner circle’ is based on design and testing within the factory as well as market surveys and statistics, a kind of learning by doing. The middle circle comprises experimental work of a more structured nature, including development of new materials and new products. The ‘outer circle’ consists of learning from the outside world: scientific papers, conferences, liaison with universities, cooperation with other companies and so on.

Cooperation, in Fleming’s view, is one of the most important ways forward. He cites some of the collaborative research work already being done by various industry bodies, and concludes with a plea: the sharing of research in sciences is increasingly bringing peoples and nations together as they seek to solve the world’s common problem. Surely, Fleming says, such collaboration offers us a way forward towards world peace.

Fleming’s third paper, given in September 1930 as the economic consequences of the 1929 financial crash began to grow more apparent, focuses again on the theme of the links between science and industry. He argues that in a time of intense competition, firms have two choices: they can rationalise and become more efficient, or they can innovate their way out of trouble by developing new products or even moving into new industries. Of the two, it is clear which Fleming prefers: greater efficiency usually means job losses, while innovation means job creation, and at a time of rising unemployment, he believes this is the way forward.

The process of applying science to industry, Fleming acknowledges, is not always easy. There are a number of gaps to be bridged: between the ‘pure’ scientist like Faraday who makes the original breakthrough and the practical application of that science to everyday problems; from the working prototype in the laboratory to a product that can be commercialised; and between the imagination of the scientists and entrepreneurs and the pragmatism of capitalists, who will only invest in a product if they can see a clear gain.

However, there are organisations that bridge those gaps. Fleming praises particularly the Mellon Institute in America and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Germany, and also the scientist-consultant Alexander Little (founder of the consulting firm A.D. Little), whose specific aim was to help companies commercialise scientific discoveries. As in his previous papers, Fleming believes that education, training and collaboration are the best ways forwards towards prosperity, and companies should be prepared to invest in all of these.


Jackson, W. (Lord Jackson of Burnley), ‘Fleming, Sir Arthur Percy Morris’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.


“FLEMING, Arthur Percy Morris,” The Rowntree Business Lectures and the Interwar British Management Movement, accessed May 27, 2020, http://rowntree.exeter.ac.uk/items/show/17.