Lilley Sam

Sam Lilley 


Samuel (always known as Sam outside of academic circles) Lilley was born in Belfast on 25th June 1914. His father, William Edwin Campbell Lilley, who married Lizzie Shaw in September 1913, worked in the linen industry.


Sam Lilley was educated at the Belfast Academical Institution from 1926 to 1932. His orientation in respect of the politics of science is already evident in an early speech he made to the Literary and Debating Society at the Academic Institution in 1931 on “the function of science in modern life”. It is our duty, he argued, “to see that every boy and girl in the future is given training in scientific method and in the application of science to life before his mind has become too conservative to appreciate the idea of progress”. He was already talking in terms of communism as a necessity for human development by this stage in his life.


In 1935, he graduated from the Queen’s University of Belfast with first-class honours in and mathematical physics. One year later he gained an M.Sc. for research in algebraic geometry at Queen’s.


Lilley visited Germany in 1935 and saw the Nazis march in Heidelberg and Munich. He also visited Italy in 1937, just to study its politics even though he saw himself an opponent of the Fascist regime. He joined the Communist Party that year, although his political radicalisation was greatly aided by his girlfriend, Pearl Brammar (see separate entry), already a Party member, whom he married on 12th August 1939.


Sam went to St. John's College, Cambridge to do postgraduate research from October 1936. He moved to London in October 1938 to begin a job as an assistant lecturer teaching mathematics at King's College, London.  When his Ph. D was approved in January 1939, his thesis was seen as being of an unusually high standard and a remarkable achievement for a man of his standing.


From February 1940 he began working as an experimental officer in the Armaments Research Department of the Ministry of Supply.  In May 1940 Lilley was awarded a three-year fellowship in mathematics at St John’s College, Cambridge. But this fellowship was suspended due to his being on war service from that year until the end of the war.  As an experimental officer in the Armaments Research Department of the Ministry of Supply, Lilley worked on the science of ballistics during most of the Second World War. 


During the war period, as his interests spread, he became deeply committed to the pursuit of the history of science and technology. His very first lectures on these subjects came about due to his membership of the Association of Scientific Workers (ASW – which merged with another union to form ASTMS in 1969), which published them in their journal, `The Scientific Worker’, in July 1942. In the same year, his personal experience with early computers led to his publication in `Nature’ of an article on ‘Mathematical machines’ in 1942, where he outlined the history of calculating machines.  Whilst his first booklet on `Science and Progress’ (1944) appeared in the Story of Science Series produced by the Young Communist League.


His interests gradually broadened to the wider field of the history of science and he published widely through various channels in the popular, political and professional press.  He wrote more than twenty-five articles and book reviews in `Discovery’ magazine from 1943 to 1955.


When he returned to St John’s in September 1945 Lilley successfully asked that the fellowship he had been granted five years earlier be changed to his new subject interest and the College Council gave permission for this.


Lilley was also a popular broadcaster on BBC radio. As a computer pioneer he presented the latest news on mathematical machines and artificial intelligence to a broader audience, being one of the first ever speakers to broadcast on computers, when he gave two radio talks in 1945.


From 1946, Lilley wrote a regular monthly article for the Communist Party in Ireland, `Unity: The Worker’s Voice’.


Lilley was active in setting up the British Society for the History of Science (BSHS) from the very first meeting at the Science Museum on 22nd November 1946 and he was one of the three candidates shortlisted for the first formal position in the history of science at Cambridge. But this was merely the first of many academic disappointments as his politics began to count against him, the more so as the Cold War progressed, until it was perhaps too late. Joseph Needham once wrote indignantly that Lilley was eschewed on account of his being a well-known Marxist”.


In the late 1940s, Lilley began working as an adult education science teacher in Nottingham, with a particular interest in relativity.


Lilley was a key figure in launching the Engels Society, an association of Marxist scientists formed immediately after the war, which later became infamous due to the controversy over the Lysenko affair, published from 1949 in the first volumes of the Transactions of the Engels Society.


Lilley’s major contribution to the popularization of history of science was undoubtedly his first book, `Men, Machines and History’ (1948), which had been written in his spare time while carrying on a war job. As indicated by the book’s subtitle, ‘A short history of tools and machines in relation to social progress ’, it outlines the role of tools and technology from some five thousand years ago. Lilley sees no such thing as a ‘scientific revolution’ suddenly and disjointedly arriving in the 17th century but considers the industrial revolution as being conceived thousands of years ago and then `growing up’ though an embryonic stage up to the end of the medieval period, maturing into childhood, up to 1660, and then youth, up to 1815, with the final maturity of science arriving in our modern period.


In September 1949 Lilley gave a talk on ‘Electronic calculating machines’ for the Overseas Service of the BBC.


In the early 1950s he was general editor of the popular science series Science in Action and he published a collection of Essays on the Social History of Science in 1953. Lilley participated in a series of talks for the BBC during 1949 and 1950. These talks were later published as `The History of Science: Origins and Results of the Scientific Revolution’ (1951).


After a long period of failing to obtain a position in academia, he finally secured a position from January 1950 as an organisng tutor at an initial salary of 700 per annum at the Birmingham University Extra-mural Department with responsibility for adult education in southwest Birmingham. ere, Lilley gave a series of courses in the history of science for the Workers’ Educational Association. The teaching obligations were massive and by 1954 a total of 1,510 people had passed through his classes; twelve had attended classes for the whole period, and 184 for at least three successive years.


Lilley was very much fascinated by the emergence of new automation technologies in various West Midlands factories and office spaces. He wrote a series of papers on the topic, eventually turned into Automation and Social Progress (1957) based partly on his journey to the USSR in 1955 to study the use of automation.


Lilley’s third project while in Birmingham concerned the history of the Lunar Society. At a dinner to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the death of Joseph Priestley in January 1954, which was chaired by Lilley on behalf of the Birmingham People’s Peace Committee, he suggested a revival of the Lunar Society.


In 1956 Lilley moved with his family from Birmingham to a position in the Extra-mural Department at the University of Nottingham, where he remained until his death.


The early 1960s was a turbulent period for Lilley personally, because he was left and subsequently divorced by his wife, Pearl, who took the children, including daughter Mavourneen. He would later remarry.  Pearl passed away on 12th May 2013. 


Seemingly, he gave up on applications for academic posts on the history of science and focused his attention on pursuing the subject the subject in the popular and political press.


His works also include, 'Automation and Social Progress', 'Science and Progress' and 'Discovering Relativity for Yourself' (Cambridge University Press, 1981).


Lilley remained a member of the Communist Party until his death in 1987 and was actively engaged in the Science Sub-committee throughout the 1960s and 1970s. He kept publishing material on history of science in Party journals. He was central to the launch of in launching the Communist Party’s Science Bulletin, which first came out appeared in the spring of 1972. At the first national aggregate meeting of communist scientists and technologists at Marx House in London in June 1972, Lilley gave the opening lecture on ‘Science and society and the struggle of socialism’.


Although it can easily be seen in retrospect that, in the 1940s, Lilley made a substantial contribution to British history of science his role, however, has largely gone unnoticed. This arises partly due to oppositional detractors who were rewarded with lucrative roles in science in the cold war era but also arising out of his exclusion and victimisation from academica, which kept his work hidden. Unquestionably, he was one of many long-standing members of the Communist Party who academic talents were denied due solely to their politics. As a pioneer in his field, it is especially damaging to the intellectual pursuits of that field, that Lilley was so rejected by the mainstream.




“Lilley revisited: or science and society in the twentieth century” By Vidar Enebakk

BJHS 42(4): 563–593, December 2009, Cambridge University Press

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