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Work on Radar at Bawdsey Manor


An aborted trip to France in 1939
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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The critical time came of 1938, when Prime Minister Chamberlain made his epic journey to see Hitler and then we had the year of appeasement, but things did not calm down. In 1939, for the next year and months we were lectured on protection against poison gas. We were issued with gas masks, and this had the following effect. I, having done this work with Wilson and Jånossy on the high energy air showers, Blackett had suggested that I build an apparatus and take it in a van to the Pics du Midi in the French Pyrenees and work high altitude to study these high energy impacting particles before they had developed so completely into these great air showers. And he suggested that I called in... in Paris on the way to liaise and perhaps pick up Pierre Auger, who had discovered these showers and go with him to the Pics du Midi.

Well, in 1939, I assembled, I hired or bought a van and began to put equipment, cosmic ray equipment, cloud chamber, small generator for supplying power into this van, and I was... must have been within a few weeks of starting this journey. In August 1939, the van was standing outside the Schuster Building in Couplan Street, and I was suddenly summoned to the telephone. This was Blackett from London. 'Lovell, you are on no account to start on that journey, I have another job for you'.

Now, what I did not know and was amazed to find out later that although Blackett was often absent from Manchester, we always assumed that he was at conferences or meetings in London, mainly concerned with physics. On the contrary, it transpired that he had been one of the foremost members of the committee set up by the air ministry, first meeting in January 1936 under Sir Henry Tizard, and then known as the Tizard committee, which had been ordered to study by the air ministry any means of detecting, of protecting the country from German bombs. And Blackett had been one of the foremost advocates of this committee, in favour of pursuing the system which became known as radar, which was then known as RDF and had been demonstrated by Watson-Watt in the famous Daventry Experiment when he showed that reflections, the Daventry transmissions could be reflected from an aircraft. Well, it's amazing now, so many years later to remember that Watson-Watt was regarded as the father of radar, and I will explain in a moment what happened but that indeed international communication was then so poor that it did not seem to be realised that the same effect of radar had been developed in many other countries, including Germany.

Bernard Lovell (1913-2012), British radio astronomer and founder of the Jodrell Bank Observatory, received an OBE in 1946 for his work on radar, and was knighted in 1961 for his contribution to the development of radio astronomy. He obtained a PhD in 1936 at the University of Bristol. His steerable radio telescope, which tracked Sputnik across the sky, is now named the Lovell telescope.

Listeners: Megan Argo Alastair Gunn

Megan Argo is an astronomer at the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory researching supernovae and star formation in nearby starburst galaxies. As well as research, she is involved with events in the Observatory's Visitor Centre explaining both astronomy and the history of the Observatory to the public.

Alastair Gunn is an astrophysicist at Jodrell Bank Observatory, University of Manchester. He is responsible for the coordination and execution of international radio astronomical observations at the institute and his professional research concerns the extended atmospheres of highly active binary stars. Alastair has a deep interest and knowledge of the history of radio astronomy in general and of Jodrell Bank in particular. He has written extensively about Jodrell Bank's history.

Tags: Pics du Midi, Pyrenees, Paris, Schuster Building, Coupland Street, London, Manchester, Daventry Experiment, Germany, Neville Chamberlain, Adolf Hitler, Lajos Jánossy, J G Wilson, Pierre Auger, Patrick Blackett, Henry Tizard, Robert Watson-Watt

Duration: 4 minutes, 31 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 05 September 2008