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My first research student


Patrick Blackett's contribution to building a new aerial
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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Now, he was an incredible man. His... before the war began, I think his father had given him a bag of tools and sent him to America. And in America, he had become Head of one of the big air... big aeroplane workshops, and had returned to England. Well, he... he was marvellous. He stayed with us for the rest of his life, and became Head of our Workshops, but at that time, he said, 'Look here, we can't mix all this concrete ourselves, we've got to buy a concrete mixing machine'. And so we made much more progress in putting it round the massive foundations, which we required to hold these scaffolding poles. The idea was to make a series of circular scaffolding poles. The outside diameter was determined by the amount of land we had between the hedge and the road we made into the field, which is now, in fact, the main tarmacadam road, leading past the Mark II Telescope. Because on that site that we built this transit telescope, the idea was, I think, that the outside circumference of this telescope was to be scaffolding poles of about 20 to 30 foot high, and then on the way into the centre region, we would have scaffolding poles of decreasing heights, and string between these fairly... maybe a quarter of an inch steel cable, not in the form of a paraboloid, because you had a catenary, but this was accurate enough, because we were working on a wave length of four metres. In the centre we proposed to build ourselves a wooden tower, and we had hoped, and in fact, we did get the framework of one of the receiving towers on the Chain Home Stations, because the focus of this paraboloid was going to be about 120 feet above the ground. Well, again, we started to build this wooden tower, but we, again... well, we were incapable of doing so. We, I think we abandoned it after we got the tower to about ten feet, and realised that the job was beyond us, and I then was fortunate enough to be put in touch with the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.

Now, this Department, the DSIR, had been formed after the First World War, to help stimulate various types of science, in Great Britain. And DSIR was then... became, for most of my time at Jodrell, the most important department for helping the development of science in the universities, and for supporting research students. And one day Blackett had brought out to see what was going on at Jodrell, one of the directors of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and he asked me what was going on. And I said, 'Well, look, we've got the... building this', told him why we were building this, what was to be known as the Transit Telescope, but we were in trouble with getting a mount to hold the aerial at the focus, which was 120 odd feet above the ground. And if we could... it might be easier if we could get a tubular steel mast to do this. And he... I can remember him saying, 'Now, well, you know, that is exactly the sort of problem that my Department would like to help with'.

And so that is how we procured from Coubro, a firm called Coubro and Sutton, or Coubro and Scutton a tubular steel mast, which was held by a series of stays, which we could mount at the dipole as the focus of this paraboloid. That contact, particularly with Cooborough and Scutton, and the person from there, who came to see us, by the name of Roberts, became of great importance later on, as I will mention. Anyhow, that time, that solved our problem of the focus, and the plan was we build a small array of dipoles on a wooden pole, and, using a Bosun's chair, would send to the top of the steel mast, and push the wooden pole into the mast, and then the cable would come down to our receiver. The original idea was to wind about 60 gauge wire around the catenarys held in these posts radiating from the centre, to form the reflecting surface. And since our wavelength was, as I say, four metres, it was not necessary to make these very close, and I think the original spacing was about four inches. I know that originally we intended to make a mesh, but I don't think we ever did that.

In the end, we were content with just one ring, separated by about four inches, right from the centre of this, rising to the circular poles. And the winding of that wire... there was 16 miles of it, we hired our families to wind the wire around where they could reach from the ground, and at higher levels we drove around a van, and from the top of this van we would wind the wire as the van slowly rotated... drove around underneath the paraboloid. I believe that it was... I believe that it was 1948, in the autumn of 1948, when we had completed this. It might sound a long time, but you have to remember that we were spending a lot of our time trying to teach in the university as well as operating at this place, Jodrell Bank. And I think in one of my notes, it was in October, of that year, that I first connected the transmitter to this 218 foot telescope, and hoping to observe new types of echoes, which could be associated with the large cosmic ray air showers. I don't think that much happened. I believe I observed a few echoes, but nothing of sufficient encouragement to make me believe that this was... these were anything to do with the cosmic ray phenomenon.

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: USA, England, Mark II Telescope, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, World War I, Great Britain, Jodrell Bank, Transit Telescope, Ted Taylor, Patrick Blackett

Duration: 8 minutes, 20 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 05 September 2008