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Building the foundations of the MK I Radio Telescope


Good fortune paves the way for the MK I Radio Telescope
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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Now, the point about the DSIR is that I have made many appearances before their Council in dealing with this instrument, and explaining what it was. And now on that Council is one of the... my good fortunes. There are people, Chairman had been with me in the war, and many of the other members of the Council had been in my group during the war. The sort of thing, you see, that could not happen today. And the Council of the DSIR... they were quite keen on getting on with this project, but they simply did not have the money. I mean, they were used to giving grants of £1,000, not of £300,000.

And then there was another piece of good fortune. Sir Henry Tizard, who, of course, we've already mentioned in connection with the development of radar in the war, he... after being deposed during the war, he was reinstated to favour in the Attlee Government, and became the Director of, I think... the Scientific Director of the country's work, more or less. And he... he became involved in this, and I remember him saying to me, or writing to me, and saying that... warning me, you know, that it might not be possible or find the money to build this telescope.

The reason for my good relations with Tizard go back a long way. After I'd graduated in Bristol in 1936, I was demonstrating in the laboratory, and I was demonstrating to a young man, this young man turned out to be the son of Sir Henry Tizard. And it just so happened the at the time, Tyndall was showing Tizard around the laboratory, and from that moment, Tizard, right throughout the war, and thereafter, had always been a very keen supporter, and a great friend.

Now, Tizard had warned me that this project might be beyond the capability of finance by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. Then another piece of good fortune happened. Our Vice Chancellor was Sir John Stopford; he became Lord Stopford, a very eminent medical man, a Fellow of the Royal Society, who understood science and the scientific development. And by the sheerest of good fortune, he was then the Chairman of the Nuffield Foundation, and this led to negotiations between the Nuffield Foundation and the DSIR, and in the beginning of 1952, they had agreed to share the cost of building this telescope. And it was on... at Easter of 1952 that Blackett had said to me a few days earlier, 'I think you're through'. And at Easter I received an official letter from the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and I hope that letter still exists in the archives, but I'm afraid I can't be sure of that. The letter... I remember it vividly. It agreed to provide this money for the construction of this radio telescope, but it made the condition that they would expect me to stay in my post at the university to see the job through. That may seem remarkable now, but in fact there had been a number of examples, particularly in the development of high energy and nuclear machines, in which one or two individuals had obtained money, large sums of money, to build accelerators for nuclear work, and then left their posts and gone elsewhere. Well, I had of course, in any case no intention of leaving before the job was completed, and so the warning to me, or the request to me, was quite unnecessary. Anyhow, it's interesting that it was made, in this official letter. In 1952, we were free to proceed, in... from Easter of 1952 we had authority to proceed.

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: Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Bristol, Royal Society, Nuffield Foundation, Henry Tizard, Clement Attlee, Arthur Mannering Tyndall, John Stopford

Duration: 5 minutes, 20 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 05 September 2008