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How Jodrell Bank began

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The first images on my cathode ray tube at Jodrell Bank
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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Jodrell Bank then consisted of two fields converted to botanical, growing various things, two old wooden huts in which there were two gardeners, Aif and Frank, and so I joined up with Aif and Frank, and they had a coke stove and we ate sandwich lunches together and they knew- and I tried to start, the army again set the gear going and then left, so that once more I was left with this equipment about which I didn’t know very much, I didn’t know how to switch it on. But I had the problem of, there was no electricity anywhere near Jodrell Bank or anywhere in this district then and Aif and Frank were very friendly with the local farmer, called Moston and he had a diesel tractor, so he knew all about diesels, and he was summoned and discovered that the reason my diesel would not work was that it was that the diesel feed pipe was blocked with ice, so he dismantled it, got rid of the ice, we started up the diesel, so every time I wanted to work at Jodrell, I had to- and for a long time thereafter, we had to- this rather heavy business of winding the diesel. I switched on, I suppose, in mid December in a most extraordinary coincidence. So the- I anxiously looked at the cathode ray tube. It was free of this interference, but full of transient echoes, and I thought, marvellous. These must be the radar echoes from huge cosmic ray air showers. Then I had a few moments of doubt and I thought, No it can’t be. There can’t be as many huge air showers as that, so I reported this to Blackett and he advised me to consult Hey, which I did, and then the truth was revealed. Hey had used the equipment first of all to detect aircraft and then when the V2 rockets began to fall on London, he was asked to alter the direction of his yagi aerials, to see if he could detect the incoming V2. Now he did this and began to give warnings of approaching V2’s, when it was discovered that no V2 had been launched and no V2 fell on London, so Hey had been- on the other hand he did eventually detect the V2 rockets with this equipment. Now, Hey then studied the literature and he came across the papers of Schafer and Goodall in America who had apparently with equipment had found a similar phenomenon and they had carried out a minor investigation, and had suggested that the echoes they were obtaining were from the ionisation caused by meteors, shooting stars, burning up in the 80km to 100 km region of the atmosphere, and Hey sent me the paper, which was then highly confidential and that seemed to be the situation that what I’d been observing were the radio reflections of meteor showers and the reason that there were so many of them was it transpired later on that I was switched on in the very middle of a famous meteor shower, the Geminid or Geminid meteors which come to a maximum every mid December, and provide visible meteors at about 60 an hour.

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: Jodrell Bank, V2 rocket, London, USA, Patrick Blackett

Duration: 4 minutes, 42 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 05 September 2008