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Being sued for £1 million


A White Paper by the Public Accounts Committee
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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The Russians had launched the Sputnik and we had succeeded in detecting the carrier rocket. Well, one factor of major importance then was that the media all over the world, they turned in our favour and instead of being critical and saying we were wasting money... Now, you, you might think that this was a very happy time. Well, I'm afraid it wasn't, for the following reason; the... the cost of building the telescope had been assessed at this meeting in January 1956. The excess cost had been assessed as being about £200,000.

Now, the... the most... most awful thing had happened at about this time. The... because... because of the money that the DSIR were putting into the telescope, the Public Accounts Committee had got hold of this problem. Now, in the ordinary course of events, this would have been quite routine and Sir Ben Lockspeiser who knew the whole story of what I've been talking about. He knew exactly what I've said about the air ministry. In fact, he was... he stayed here and... and was very sympathetic and he... he'd been kept completely in touch with all the details. Unfortunately, at this critical moment when the Public Accounts Committee decided to investigate the over expenditure, Sir Ben Lockspeiser had to retire under... just... just normal retiring age. He was succeeded by Sir Harry Melville.

Now, Sir Harry was a distinguished chemist from Birmingham and I think only a matter of week after he had taken office, it was a very short time, he had to appear before the Public Accounts Committee to answer these questions about the telescope. Well, he... he decided to come to Jodrell. He came very briefly for one afternoon, and remember he was a chemist, he wasn't an astronomer, he wasn't an engineer, and on the basis of that visit for one afternoon, he appeared before the Public Accounts Committee. The Public Accounts Committee published their report, a White Paper. It was a White Paper and incidentally we were... the inquisition with Sir Harry was over the expenditure of a small amount of money, £100,000 or thereabouts as far as DSIR were concerned and we were sandwiched between over expenditure of millions on one hand by the war office and, on the other hand, by the Royal Air Force. There's a famous cartoon by Papas in The Guardian showing... showing me with... with a begging bowl behind the images of the... of the army and the air force, walking away with their millions.

Anyhow, the great misfortune was not that we were being investigated, but that Sir Harry really knew nothing about all that... all that had happened during the telescope, and whereas Sir Ben would have dealt with these replies correctly and with great experience, Sir Harry was forced into talking about things he knew nothing about, and the evidence much of the evidence he gave was just... just simply wrong. For example, he... the one question was, so the professor lives on the site? Yes, he has apartments on site. You see, it was nonsense, but worst of all, he said, 'So there was no consultation between the engineer and the professor?' Sir Harry: 'No, there was no consultation'. Well, I mean... this was dynamite.

This was... this report was published in the newspapers and naturally... I mean look, you know I'd been in touch with Husband. I'd lived with him for five years and scarcely a day... and I... and I came home one day, I... I... just as this report had been published. Husband was on the telephone and he said, 'Look here, have you seen this report in the newspapers, there's been no consultation between us?' And I said, 'Yes'. He said, 'Well, do you mind writing a letter to The Times, telling them that that is not true and just explaining that we've had the fullest consultation?' Well, I started writing a letter to The Times and the... the vice chancellor was a lawyer, Mansfield... Cooper, and he said, 'Lovell, you cannot publish that letter in The Times. You are dealing with a White Paper', and he used legal language, he said the matter is sub-judice, so I was not allowed to write this letter saying that the evidence given to the Public Accounts Committee had been erroneous. That's the sort of thing that did not happen, you see. Well, Husband, of course, instead of being a friend, he became an enemy. He said, 'Oh well, look here', he said, 'You know, I... I'm... I'm a businessman', he said, 'My business would be ruined if I'm on record as having no consultation with my clients', so I said, 'Well, I'm not allowed to write this letter.' He said, 'In that case, I shall have to drag it out of you in the witness box'.

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: Sputnik 1, Soviet Union, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Birmingham, Jodrell Bank, Public Accounts Committee, Royal Air Force, The Guardian, The Times, Ben Lockspeiser, Harry Melville, Charles Husband

Duration: 6 minutes, 43 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 05 September 2008