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Inauspicious start to building the 400ft telescope


Wouldn't it be marvellous to have a 218ft steerable telescope?
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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I must now begin the story of the steerable radio telescope. With that even, with Hughes' map of the galaxy, it suddenly became clear to me that it would be marvellous if we could have a telescope of the size of the 218 foot Transit Telescope, which we could direct to any part of the sky. It seemed that we would stand much more chance, we knew very little about the great cosmic ray air showers, what effect the specular reflection would have, and whether it would be more profitable for us to look at lower elevation than in the zenith. And one day, with some trepidation, I mentioned this to Blackett, and I thought he would think it was a crazy idea that we would be able to build a telescope of that size, and move about and direct to any part of the sky. On the contrary, he was... became immediately excited. He was always, as I might have said earlier, fascinated by anything to do with the exploration of the universe, and having been possessed, as we all were, by the quite unknown... quite unknown where these enormous energies of the cosmic rays, not the cosmic radio emission, the cosmic rays, emanated in the universe. And he simply said to me, 'Well, look, if you can find somebody who could, might be interested and capable of building such a telescope, we'll think about it'.

And I think it was in 1949 that I first made some enquiries. Now, it didn't seem to me then to be all that difficult. I remember I had been putting six foot aerials under the fuses of the bombers, and flying them at 30,000 feet, and I thought, well, if it was possible to do that, surely it would be much easier to build a very large telescope fixed on the ground? I'm afraid I was mistaken. My initial enquiries to some of the firms that I'd been engaged with during the war received a very negative response. The responses were of two kinds; either that they were too busy on work of national importance, or that it was impossible to build the sort of instrument that I had in mind.

Then I had the idea of approaching Sisson, who was then the Head of the Grubb Parsons Newcastle works, dealing with the manufacture of telescope mirrors, and in fact, he had constructed most of the telescope mirrors of... which were then working in various parts of the world. Now, Sisson, he came to see me at Jodrell Bank because I had got to know him pretty well, and for other reasons, and I told him what I had in mind, but I said, 'You know, so far people say it's impossible. And he said, 'No, I don't think it's impossible'. And I said, 'Well, are you and your firm, Grubb Parsons, will be interested in looking into this?' And he said, 'No, we couldn't do... we're not equipped to build that sort of instrument'. He said, 'But we will be very interested in making the control system for you'. He said, 'But on the other hand, I do know a firm who might well be interested in your project'.

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: Transit Telescope, Jodrell Bank, Patrick Blackett

Duration: 4 minutes, 48 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 05 September 2008