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Getting support for the MK I Radio Telescope


Inauspicious start to building the 400ft telescope
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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This was the firm of Head Wrightson. So I got into touch with Head Wrightson. Got an immediate response. They had a Special Projects Department, at Slough, and the man in charge was a man called Dean. So I got in touch with Mr Dean, and went to see him, and told him what I wanted, and he said, 'Oh yes, we're very interested in that. We'll look into it'. And he eventually produced a beautiful model of a 200... I think it was a 230, 230 foot telescope, and he said, 'Would you like to come and see it?' So I went to see it, and then I said, 'Do you mind if I bring Professor Blackett to see it because I'm very dependent on him for progressing with this sort of thing?'

Well, now Dean's telescope was built in aluminium. It was... his model on the desk was beautiful to look at, and I, one day, arranged to meet Blackett in London and take him to Slough. That afternoon was an utter disaster. Blackett took an instant dislike to Dean, and particularly when he asked how much the telescope would cost, so far we'd been talking about £50,000, and Dean said, 'Well, of course, you know, there's a mass of aluminium in this telescope. I'm afraid it will cost maybe £200,000'. And so the... that was the end of that day, and Blackett was rather annoyed with me, but we arranged for Dean to come, a few months later, to Jodrell Bank, and discuss with us the possibility of reducing the size of the telescope, to making it more economical.

Then another awful thing happened. On a summer's day, I'd arranged for Dean and Blackett to meet at Jodrell Bank. Well, Blackett turned up, on the time arranged. Dean never appeared. He... and Blackett left as an angry man. He was very busy and he was not particularly pleased at being brought out to Jodrell Bank on what he then thought was a fool's enterprise. It was some time before I found out what had happened. Head Wrightson had closed their Special Projects Department at Slough, and had disposed of Dean. Now, I know nothing of those details, but I was told by the people in Head Wrightson that I should have had a letter, explaining to me that their Special Projects Department no longer existed. I do not recall every having... ever had the letter. In any case, that was the end of the... my contact with Head Wrightson, and with the Special Projects Department and Dean, and it was a very, very bad beginning to my idea of building a steerable telescope.

In the mean time, I had asked Roberts from Coubro and Sutton, Coubro and Sutton, I think it was, who had supplied us with the tubular steel mast for the 218 foot telescope, if his firm would be interested in building such a telescope. So he came to see me again, and said he had consulted with his firm, and they were unable to undertake such a project, but on the other hand, they were well in touch with a consulting engineer, Husband, of Sheffield, and he might well be interested. So I arranged for Roberts to bring Husband to see me at Jodrell Bank, and it was in September of 1949 that Husband appeared at Jodrell Bank. And I remember standing with him under the surface of the Transit Telescope, and he said to me, 'What is it that you want?' And I said, 'Well, I want a telescope of this size, of at least this size, mounted so that we could steer it to any part of the heavens. Is it possible?' And Husband said, 'Well, I don't know. It's about the same problem as building a swing bridge over the Thames'. And that was the beginning of the 250ft radio telescope.

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: Head Wrightson, Slough, London, Jodrell Bank, River Thames, Patrick Blackett

Duration: 5 minutes, 27 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 05 September 2008