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Strengthening the bowl of the telescope


Troubles building the MK I Radio Telescope
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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So the construction of the telescope proceeded, and then in 1955, a series of great troubles emerged. 1955, as far as I remember, opened fairly calmly, the bogies began to arrive, the centre pivot was in position, the two towers rising from this diametric girder had been assembled nearly to the height of the trunnion bearings, and all orders had been placed for the trunnion bearings and so on. Well, in 1955, two or three things happened, which led to deep troubles.

I was... It’s difficult now to not interweave several things that were now occupying me. I ought to say that in... shortly after we began the construction of the telescope, I had a letter from Sir Harold Spencer-Jones, whose support had been absolutely vital in making it possible to begin the building of the telescope. And the letter surprised me. It ran something like this. 'Dear Lovell, I am the Chairman...' This is the Astronomer Royal writing to me. He said, 'Dear Lovell, I am the Chairman of the Aero Navigation Committee of the Department of...' I've forgotten what it was called them, it changed so much, anyway it was the Department of Defence. And now what could I do? I had left TRE five or six years earlier and I had hoped that I would be... entirely concentrate on the defence and war behind me. Unfortunately, or fortunately, it happened to not be the case, and the calls was this letter I received from the Astronomer Royal. He had said, 'We need your help'. And there was every reason for them to think that I could be helpful, even if I couldn't be, because I had been very much associated in those critical years of the war, with the device, which was not only a bombing device, but an accurate navigational device. So I had, the only decent thing I could do, was to... Spencer-Jones had helped me, was to agree to help him.

Now, that began my association, during the construction of the telescope, with an entirely different matter. I mean, first of all I served for quite a long time, on Spencer-Jones’ Committee. I became his Vice-Chairman, and then I became the Chairman. I was then asked to join the Air Warfare Committee belonging to the Ministry of Defence, and there were various reasons put to me again that I could not refuse. And then also the Aeronautical Research Council itself, so I was heavily diverted, and spent much time in London, as well as at Jodrell.

Now, during that period, and at about 1955, I was asked to see the Scientific Advisor to the Air Ministry. He was Coburn, whom had been... I knew... I had known very well during the war because he had been head of the Countermeasures Division in TRE. And I... when he... his office was then opposite the Houses of Parliament, and I said I would call on him on my way home from a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society, on a Friday afternoon, but I had to be at Euston to catch a train at six o'clock, or something like that. I went to see Coburn, in this office. He had a splendid view of the Houses of Parliament and of Big Ben. And as he told me the hands of the clock crept round, and I simply could not leave him, what he was telling me, and what he was asking. I lost that train and many subsequent ones.

His request was, in essence, very simple, but very worrying. He told me that they had information from their agents that the Soviets were well advanced on the development of ballistic missile, and that there was absolutely no means in the West of detecting the launching of such a missile. And that he asked me to make modifications to the telescope, which was being built, so that in any emergency this could be used to help the West in the detection of the missile. Now, I said, 'Well, Coburn, I'm sorry, I'm willing to help, but what you’re asking is impossible. We're already in debt, and who is going to pay for this?' And he said, 'There'll be no problem'. He said, 'The Air Ministry will bear the cost of the alterations you're being asked to make'.

So I returned to Jodrell Bank. I immediately got hold of Husband, and I said, 'Look, for various reasons I want to change the design of the bowl. And I want to change the... some aspects of the driving system'. So he said, 'What do you want?' I said, 'The first thing I want to do is to make the telescope operate on a much higher frequency'. And I said, 'This means reducing the mesh to something like half an inch', and so that was that. I had acquainted with the Vice Chancellor of this contact, in general outline. Well, that was one thing, which led to the drama of 1955, and the trouble was made much worse by two other factors.

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: Telecommunications Research Establishment, Astronomer Royal, Aeronautical Research Council, UK Parliament, Royal Astronomical Society, Euston Station, Harold Spencer-Jones, Charles Husband

Duration: 8 minutes, 22 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 05 September 2008