As a small child I vividly remember visiting Jodrell Bank and being awestruck by the enormous radio telescope. I also went spinning around in a ‘zero gravity’ chair for far longer than health and safety officials would probably advise, and got my first taste of space ‘ice-cream’ (once tried, never repeated).

The establishment of Jodrell Bank after the Second World War is just one of the stories discussed in the Science Museum’s current exhibition ‘Churchill’s Scientists’ which examines the use and development of British science in support of the war effort and the peacetime research that ensued.

 

Detail from the ‘Central Register’ comprising some 7000 scientists who could contribute to the war effort, compiled with the assistance of the Royal Society (Archive Ref. No HD/6/8/7/3/2)

 

On returning to the Royal Society’s archives I was excited to find that we have recently added part of Sir Bernard Lovell’s diary of the construction of the telescope to our Turning the Pages online collection. Lovell spent the war working as part of a team developing airborne radar and returned to research in 1945 using scavenged radio equipment set up in the University of Manchester’s then botanical grounds in Cheshire. Seventy years ago this December Lovell turned on his radar equipment at the Jodrell Bank site for the first time and, despite initially being granted permission to stay for just two weeks, went on to lead the construction of the world’s largest steerable radio telescope, capable of tracking across the night sky.

 

Sir Bernard Lovell FRS (1913-2012) by Hubert Andrew Freeth, 1963, RS.9635 © Royal Society.

 

Lovell’s diary candidly discusses the administration, financing and engineering of the 250 foot telescope from 1952 to 1955. Though the giant bowl’s tilting mechanism included parts recycled from the gun turrets of battleships, its sheer scale (today after various additions the moving elements weigh over 2000 tonnes) coupled with increasing steel prices led to spiralling construction costs. Lovell’s diary describes the trials and tribulations of managing the many companies involved in the project, misunderstandings with the press, and a sometimes fraught relationship with Henry Charles Husband (1908-1983), who oversaw the telescope’s overall design.

At times the future of the telescope looked uncertain, but it just so happened that it was the only instrument in the West that could track the Sputnik satellite and later Soviet probes. Such activity helped inspire greater public support and the telescope’s construction debts were cleared. The Lovell telescope, as it is today known, was used to track Soviet and American probes aimed at the moon in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and has investigated quasars and pulsars, deepening our understanding of the structure of the cosmos. Jodrell Bank remains at the forefront of radio astronomy today and is set to be the headquarters of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the world’s largest radio telescope array.

 

Article in ‘The Times’, 14 October 1957, noting how engineering adjustments to the telescope were postponed to allow observation of the Sputnik satellite (Royal Society press cuttings)

 

The archives of the Royal Society also contain the extensive personal papers of two important figures featured in ‘Churchill’s Scientists’, and former Presidents of the Society: Patrick Blackett (1897-1974) who was Director of Operational Research with the Admiralty from 1942-1945, and Howard Florey (1898-1968) whose Oxford team were responsible for turning penicillin into a useful and mass-producible drug. We’ve also just added a biography of Lovell, Space Has No Frontier (2013) by John Bromley-Davenport, to our new acquisitions display. Do visit us to find out more or search our collections online.

‘Churchill’s Scientists’ continues at the Science Museum until March 2016 and, speaking of exhibitions, our ‘Seeing Closer’ exhibit celebrating the 350th anniversary of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, has now been extended until 17 December.

 

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