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The Reith Lectures and USAF Project Able


Trying to raise the money to pay off our debts
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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Now, I want to return to the position about the debt on the telescope, and I'm talking about the period 1958-1959, in this horrendous period when we had this debt of £260,000, and this was the sum, which was finally agreed between the university and the DSIR, that we had to find £260,000 somehow to pay off the debt of the telescope. And it was also agreed that the DSIR would contribute half of this provided the university would guarantee to raise, somehow or other, the... the other half of £130,000 and I remind you that we're now talking about, on today's values, we're talking about a million or so.

In 1958 and '59, as soon as this problem with the public accounts committee was resolved, the university felt free to proceed to launch a public appeal to raise this £136,000. Sir Raymond Street, the treasurer, he made a very, very famous speech to the court of the university, and then issued this speech as a public appeal. The response was poor. The reason the response was poor is that the industrialists who might have helped, said, 'Look, here, this is not the university's responsibility, the government should pay off', and we were always in the newspapers' headlines. Questions were asked of the prime minister in the house. He was going to the Soviet Union. How dare he go to the Soviet Union when... when this instrument was... was in debt and so on.

Lord Hailsham was then the Minister for Science and he came to see me one day and he was an angry man. He said, 'Oh, so... so you're the fellow who's making my life a misery'. He said, 'Every morning my desk is piled with letters from people I don't know, saying we ought to pay off your debt', so I said, 'My lord, that agitation is not coming from me'. I said, 'We recognise that the government has done its share. It has borne half the cost of the debt. We are trying to raise the remainder'. He cooled down a bit after that and enjoyed being taken on to the telescope.

Nevertheless, we had several meetings and I found these a very tiresome diversion. Furthermore, everybody was contributing. I was getting letters from schoolboys and schoolgirls sending me their pocket money. It was really extrodinarily of touching that we had these children trying to pay off this enormous debt and sacrificing their... their chocolate money and their sweet money, and friends and kind unknown individuals, sending in cheques £50-£100. Well, we... we did in the end manage to raise about £80,000 and then everything became stuck. You know, nothing further happened. I want to tell you what... how... the glorious end to that episode.

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: Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Soviet Union, Raymond Street

Duration: 4 minutes, 4 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 05 September 2008