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Looking for somewhere to work with no electrical interference

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Returning to Manchester and work on cosmic ray showers
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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I was released from the war in June or July 1945, and we bought a small house in a suburb of Manchester called Timperley. It had a nice garden with a brook running through it and I returned to the university and went into the room where my cloud chamber, which I’d used six years earlier was there, still the dust sheet over it, so I pulled off the dust sheet and thought, Oh my goodness, I must try to get this device working again. Well, what a change. I wanted a screwdriver and there was no money to buy one, when a few months earlier I could just pick up the phone and have a Lancaster Bomber delivered. The change was dramatic but it was not the sort of life one had left before the war. During the war, pre war life seemed idyllic, but after the war was not. There was still- bread rationing did not occur until after the war, petrol was short. In Manchester there was water rationing and money was short. Money became important. During the war, money was never mentioned. It was whether one could do things not how much it would cost, so I fiddled about for some time with this cloud chamber and then Blackett, he’d resigned from being the Director of Naval Operational Research, and had come back to Manchester and he came into this room and said- Whatever are you doing? I said- I’m trying to get this cloud chamber to work again, and he said, Why I thought you were going to try this new method of detecting extensive air showers. I said- Oh heavens above. I’d completely forgotten of that, in the cauldron of the war, and he said, Look, go into the library. Put the sheet back on that cloud chamber and see what you’re going to do. He said, Have a go at this new method. So I went into the library and the few papers I’ve had, and I realised that in order to have any hope of detecting these great showers by radar, I needed, I needed a long wavelength, but I’d been working of course for most of the war with a very short wavelength and of course in all the war 1.5 metres and then in the centimetric region. So I did a few calculations. Blackett reminded me. I’d forgotten about the paper that bore our names, so I got hold of this paper and did a few calculations, and realised that I really did need a radar working on a wavelength of several metres not centimetres. I knew J.S. Hey, who’d been with the army operational research group in Byfleet and I know he’d been associated with the four metre equipment which had been used for helping the ack ack guns around London. So I phoned Hey to see if there was any chance of borrowing four metre equipment and he said, No problem. They said, We’re only too glad to dispose of it. It’s being tipped down coal mines because no one wants it. So he arranged for the army to bring to Manchester a 4.2 metre, I think it was 36 megahertz, mega cycles in those days but megahertz now and this was brought into the Coupland Street opposite the physics department, and of course it caused an absolute sensation in the university, because people in the university had been there all through the war and had never seen any big equipment, and with the army, a couple of chaps of the army we set up this equipment outside what is now the Schuster Building, and erected yargi aerials on top. The diesel generator, a transmitter in a separate cabin and then the receiver cabin with the yagi aerials on top. So I- eventually the army left and I got acquainted with this equipment and with all the instruction books and switched it on and hoped to see the echoes from these big air showers. Well, what I saw was what turned out to be a massive interference on the cathode ray tube and in those days, electric trams were still running down Oxford Street and only a few yards from where my equipment was. Furthermore they were extraordinary, direct current supply. It was all over Manchester, and in the university and the trams were running on direct current, so I showed this to Blackett and I said, the only hope is to find somewhere away from this interference. So he- a few days later we- I met the Bursar called Rainford with whom I had much to do. He was then the Deputy Bursar but he became Bursar later on and became a very important factor in my life, and he seemed to be the only person there who seemed to have any interest and was pleased to see one come back from the war. All the people remaining there had been busy with piles of sand and buckets, doing their best to put out the fire bombs and they were not in the slightest bit interested in those of us who returned to the university after six years’ absence.

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: Alastair Gunn Megan Argo

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.

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.

Tags: World War II, Manchester, Lancaster Bomber, Avro Lancaster, London, Schuster Building, Oxford Street, Patrick Blackett

Duration: 7 minutes, 11 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 05 September 2008