This year we’re commemorating the start of the First World War in 1914, and from time to time we’ll be highlighting some of the many Royal Society Fellows who were involved. This first post is a birthday tribute to Keith Lucas, born 135 years ago today on 8 March 1879. Lucas was elected FRS in 1913, and was killed on 5 October 1916 at the age of 37. His instantaneous death was as a result of a collision with another plane in mid-air, while flying over Salisbury Plain. Flying accidents were an all-too-common occurrence in the Royal Flying Corps.


Keith Lucas FRS, from Proceedings of the Royal Society B, volume 90


Lucas was the grandson of a Waterloo veteran of the Royal Artillery, and son of an engineer who laid cables worldwide. His ancestry on his mother’s side featured mathematicians with great reputations as teachers of navigation and nautical astronomy. He appears to have inherited a strong combination of family traits: scientific interests and ability, skill in designing new apparatus, engineering capability and manual dexterity.

He initially won a classics scholarship to Trinity College Cambridge, but then devoted himself to the Natural Sciences. He made unique advances in physiology, being awarded the Croonian Lecture in 1912 by the Royal Society. His physiological studies were helped by his work in creating well-designed instruments, some of which he made with his own hands. Other, more elaborate instruments were made by the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, where Lucas became a director in 1906; here, he was able to discuss his designs with his friend Horace Darwin, chairman of the company. When elected to the Royal Society in 1913, Lucas’s certificate records his major achievements in physiology, also stating that ‘Much of his work was only made possible by the highly ingenious improvements designed by the author in the apparatus used’.

When the First World War broke out he became a volunteer, and subsequently passed the medical exam for the Honourable Artillery Company, preparing to enlist in the infantry. Horace Darwin, however, realised that his value to the country lay elsewhere: ’His scientific training and attainments, his knowledge of the manufacture of scientific instruments, and his remarkable powers of design and research’ were ideally suited for working at the Royal Aircraft Factory, where Colonel Mervyn O’Gorman, the superintendent and subsequently Lucas’s commanding officer, took him on immediately.

He arrived at the Royal Aircraft Factory on 14 September 1914, and took up residence, as O’Gorman describes, ‘in the little wooden hut, 12 feet by 10 feet, which was the only possible means of being housed in the crowded neighbourhood, where workpeople were sleeping as many as 11 in a six roomed cottage, or using in pairs for alternate day and night work the same beds. To be near his work was essential, as in summer he was often flying at dawn.’ His work was in the Experimental Research Department where he found himself making measurements of quantities which had never been measured before; methods had to be evolved, and instruments designed and made. In all this Lucas excelled. His achievements included the making of accurate sights for dropping bombs from aeroplanes, and subsequently finding the causes of errors in aeroplane compasses, his ‘space damped pendulum’ inspiring one part of the remedy and leading to a compass in which inaccuracies were greatly reduced. This was an enormously important development for accurate aeronautical navigation.

Lucas was one of the first of the employees of the Royal Aircraft Factory to be approached as suitable officer material in the formation of a Territorial Unit of the Royal Flying Corps, taking command of around 400 men. A popular officer who inspired confidence in his subordinates, he had a good influence over the younger officers, and gave lectures on technical subjects which were models of clarity.


Pilot’s log book belonging to Keith Lucas FRS (private collection)


His work involved flying as a passenger when he was experimenting with various instruments, but Lucas thought he could improve his work by becoming a pilot, for which he was granted permission. Many of his friends were concerned about his learning to fly, fearing that the advances he was making in aeronautics were so important that no chance of interruption should be taken. Posthumous letters from A V Hill, Sir Bennett Melville Jones and Mervyn O’Gorman, however, all emphasized Lucas’s opinion that ‘whatever the risk, men who are doing design and research work should have actual experience of the conditions for which they are working’.  Flying also gave him great pleasure, either solo or as a passenger. He died suddenly in the open air, doing the work he loved.

He is buried in Aldershot Cemetery, and is commemorated on the War Memorial in Fen Ditton, Cambridgeshire.


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