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FREE hot drink in our Planet Cafe for National Lottery Players!

National Lottery Open Week
Saturday 5th – Sunday 13th June

It’s that time of year again, where we get to say #ThanksToYou as a national lottery player! From 5th – 13th June, we will be taking part in National Lottery Open Week by offering a FREE hot drink in our Planet Café at Jodrell Bank to all of our visitors who play the National Lottery. Simply show a recent Lottery ticket or scratch card when placing your order, sit back and enjoy on the café terrace with views of the mighty Lovell Telescope.

We were awarded £12.2m from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to develop our ambitious new First Light Project. We’re really proud of the fantastic work that’s been done so far and so this is our chance to say thank you to National Lottery players that helped to raise the funds to make it happen. You can see how the project is coming along, and see the latest images of the new building here; we’re sure you’ll be as excited about its progress as we are!

How to claim your free hot drink…

Visit Jodrell Bank any day between Saturday 5th – Sunday 13th June, and bring along proof of having played the National Lottery -this can include a recent lottery ticket or a scratch card and it can be either a digital or paper copy, the date of purchase is not relevant. You can claim up to one free drink per person.

You can turn up on the day to visit our Planet Café and Gift Shop, but we advise booking your tickets in advance for full access to Jodrell Bank (remember, you still need to bring your lottery ticket with you). To book tickets, simply click here and choose your visiting date. You will also be asked to select a timed arrival slot to let us know what time you’ll be arriving, but once checked in you can stay for as long as you like! (up until we close of course 🙂 )


PLUS we have currently suspended all car parking charges, so FREE parking is available for your visit.

Book your admission tickets here

Click here for terms and conditions 

Events and Activities

To get the most out of your visit to Jodrell Bank take part in our popular events and activities that we’ll also be running during the week including:

Alien Hunt
24th April – 20th June
Included in your admission

Astronomy Photographer of the Year
24th April – 30th October
Included in your admission

Daily Telescope Talks
24th April – 20th June
Talk Times: various times throughout the day.
Included in your admission

Construction Talks
Thursdays, 20th May – 18th June
Talk Times: 11:30am and 3pm
Included in your admission

Space Craft Activities
29 May – 6th June
Included in your admission

See you soon!

Sustainability at Jodrell Bank: A long view

We have a long history of recycling and sustainable construction here at Jodrell Bank. Although in the early days this wasn’t a conscious ethical choice as it is today, but the only way of getting anything built. A post-war necessity to make do and mend.

Above: ‘Friday September 30th: The rack was lifted yesterday morning to the top of the northern tower! It’s a splendid sight and still looks big even at that height.’ From Lovell’s construction diary, 1955. Image copyright University of Manchester

In the late 1940s and 50s much of the scientific equipment on site was built by the scientists themselves, endlessly repurposing existing bits of kit with the help of mallet, soldering iron and chicken wire. Today we might call this ‘upcycling’ or ‘circular economy’, but Jodrell scientist Barrie Rowson, in an oral history interview with us, described it more practically:

‘The Green Huts were something of an institution because when you got some equipment that wouldn’t work and you decided to rebuild it again you’d dump it in the Green Huts. And the Green Huts were therefore a source of spare parts – we were a bit short of money, of course, and you couldn’t buy the components you wanted – so you’d fish around in the Green Hut and see if you could find somebody else’s chassis which you could strip down…’

Radio astronomy was a brand-new science, so there weren’t yet any purpose-built instruments, however, a huge amount of radar equipment built during the war was now surplus to requirement.  Aerials, transmitters and receivers were literally lying around in airfields and cluttering up army bases. So when Bernard Lovell enquired about borrowing some for his new venture at Jodrell Bank his old army bosses were more than happy to oblige.

Above: A folder of photographs and papers about surplus radar apparatus, sent from the RAF and Ministry of Supply to Jodrell Bank in the late 1940s, is held in the Jodrell Bank Archive at the University of Manchester Library (JBM/11/2/radar)

This apparatus was technically on loan, but Lovell and his colleagues quickly got to work disassembling and reassembling it into new forms, so in the end little could be returned in one piece. The ‘searchlight aerial’, so called because it was built on top of a searchlight base and therefore could be tilted in all directions (perfect for studying meteor showers), is a case in point. The RAF wrote to Lovell asking for it to be returned, but Lovell politely deterred them, citing the ground-breaking science that the equipment was involved in. The military never did get their searchlight back and the remains of the base are still on site today.

Above: The searchlight aerial in 1947 (left), and the remains of the searchlight base today (right), Grade II listed and part of the fabric of the Jodrell Bank World Heritage Site. Copyright University of Manchester.

But perhaps the most impressive example of this is in the Lovell telescope itself. This was the first fully purpose-built instrument on site and arguably marked the end of the make-do-and-mend era at Jodrell Bank. However, in 1951 when the telescope was being designed, raw materials were still at a premium and the cost of manufacturing so many bespoke components was prohibitive.

One such challenge was the enormous and yet high-precision gear racks required to tilt the telescope. Patrick Blackett, Lovell’s senior at the University and an ex-naval officer, pointed out that the problem was similar to controlling the gun of a battleship. Less than a month later the engineers had procured three 25ft-diameter gun turret racks from a shipbreakers yard; one from the HMS Royal Sovereign and two from the HMS Revenge. At a total cost of £1,000 this was bargain, compared to the several thousand it would have cost for them to be manufactured from scratch.  And although it would be another four years before they were finally hoisted into the streel frame of the telescope, as Lovell put it in his autobiography Astronomer by Chance; ‘they lay in and near our workshop for many years as a symbol of hope that was to be long in realisation.’    

Above: HMS Revene during the Second World War.

These components are still in the telescope today and we’re excited to be able to highlight this story in the new exhibition we’re planning for the First Light Pavilion. A section from the spare gear rack will be mounted in the exhibition hall. This huge arc of steel forged over 100 years ago, that saw service in the Battle of Jutland and played a pivotal part in the history of radio astronomy, will have another life, telling the story of sustainable construction at Jodrell Bank and providing inspiration for the challenges of today.

On This Day… 2011

On 11th April 2021, the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre celebrates its 10th birthday.

Ten years ago, we began to welcome people to Jodrell Bank, sharing the stories of its research and discovery, inspiring the scientists of the future and celebrating the creativity, hard work and determination of the people of this remarkable place.

The journey actually began back in 2006, when we embarked on the quest to understand what was needed by visitors, what was possible at the site and (last but not least) for funding to do some of these things.

Above: School pupils take part in an event for The Big Draw in our Marquee in 2008

Part of the process involved a large 200-seater marquee, which we put up in the summers of 2007-2010 and in which we tried out all sorts of things (– including talks, bouncing people’s voices off the Moon, schools programmes, exhibitions, political receptions, celebrations of a solar eclipse, inflatable planetarium shows, art and amateur astronomy….).

Some things were successful, and some were dire.

The marquee was freezing in poor weather, eventually leaked every time it rained (with puddles on the floor underneath), the sound system became an electrical risk and one night, someone stole our projector and screen…

But – we learned a lot.

We learned what people wanted to hear about and see (and what they didn’t!), what schools want from us and how to turn creative ideas into things that happen in the real world. All of this became the raw data and evidence that supported yet more ideas and proposals for our new buildings and activities.

And in 2010 – success! – we were granted £3million funding.

Just enough to create our first two buildings, the Planet Pavilion and the Space Pavilion, in which we planned to deliver Phase 1 of our programme – engagement with the world-leading scientific research Jodrell Bank.

There was a bit left for the exhibition and for a tiny bit of work in the gardens.

It took several hair-raising months to finalise the funding agreement and obtain planning permission (supported by the wonderful Sir Bernard Lovell himself, who signed a letter of support for the project that we sent in with the planning application).

Late in 2010 the work began and, in the bitterly cold temperatures of the 2010/11 winter, the last traces of the ramshackle old buildings were demolished and the new buildings took shape in the freezing fog.

Above: The Planet Pavilion under construction in early 2011. Photo credit: Ant Holloway

We finally opened on 11th April 2011, and sometimes still can’t believe it…

Now, 10 years later, Phase 2 underway – The First Light Project – which will engage people with the stories of the heritage of this amazing site.

Above: Artist’s impression of our new First Light Pavilion, due to open late 2021/ early 2022.

And at this, a staging post in the journey, we want to say thank you to everyone who has helped us, travelled alongside us, made suggestions, supported us and visited us.

We launched a new Education programme, which we have seen grow and flourish; our Events programme has matured and grown; we’ve had some amazing collaborations with broadcasters (the Stargazing Live Eclipse Special was a highlight!); wonderful Live From Jodrell Bank events; the ground-breaking bluedot festival, and of course the fantastic inscription of Jodrell Bank as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We’re looking forward to the journey with you over the next 10 years!

Teresa Anderson

10 Days of Science: British Science Week 2021

5th – 14th March is British Science Week and we’re celebrating with 10 days of Science!

From stargazing and climate science to the inspirational stories of Jodrell Bank, here are 10 great ways to celebrate with a new activity for every day…

Friday 5th March:

Check out coverage of NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi undertaking a 6.5-hour spacewalk outside the International Space Station today. See them in action here…

Above: NASA astronaut Christina Koch works while tethered near the Port 6 truss segment of the International Space Station to replace older hydrogen-nickel batteries with newer, more powerful lithium-ion batteries. Fellow NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan (out of frame) assisted Koch during the six-hour and 45-minute spacewalk. (Image credit: NASA) Above: In training – Astronaut Jeanette Epps, left, Soyuz MS-09 commander Sergey Prokopyev, centre, and European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst during space station flight training at Star City near Moscow. (Image credit: NASA)

Fancy becoming an astronaut? Find out what it takes here…..

Saturday 6th March:

See the smallest planet, Mercury and largest planet, Jupiter  very close together in the sky, an hour before dawn. Planets appear close every now and again as they move in their orbits – this is known as a ‘conjunction’ which for these two planets actually occurs on the morning of 5th March.

6th March is the best opportunity to spot Mercury, as this is the day it appears furthest from the Sun. Be especially careful when you’re trying to see it and don’t look for it once the Sun is up – looking directly at the Sun can seriously damage your eyes. Jupiter is the largest planet in the Solar System and will appear the brighter of the two.

Above: Looking South- South East at sunrise, between 6.20 am and 6.30 am (image from Stellarium)

Above: The planet Mercury. (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington – NASA/JPL.) Above: The planet Jupiter (Image credit: NASA / JPL / Björn Jónsson) During a conjunction two planets look close together in the sky but in reality are millions of miles apart.

Sunday 7th March:

From the building of the iconic Lovell Telescope to the construction of our new First Light Pavilion; engineering innovation has always played a critical role in advancements on the Jodrell Bank site.

Find out more about the world of engineering in Kier Construction’s Virtual Interactive Built Environment…

Monday 8th March:

Today is International Women’s day so we’ve adapted a special quiz about the inspiring women of Jodrell Bank, first created for our biannnual Girls Night Out events.

Take part here and be in with a chance of winning a copy of Libby Jackson’s A Galaxy of Her Own!

You can also explore this fantastic citizen science project helping to transcribe the ground breaking work of early women astronomers.

Above: Women computers at the Harvard College Observatory, USA circa 1890. Image credit: Harvard College Observatory, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday 9th March:

The red planet Mars has always held a fascination for astronomers – easily visible when it’s in our night sky, we have sent numerous spacecraft to explore it and look for signs of life. Find out about the latest Mars missions by following the links below:

Above: Take a look for yourself if the sky is clear. Mars will be visible in the south western sky after 7.30pm (don’t forget, stars twinkle but planets don’t!)

Wednesday 10th March: 

Download your British science week activity pack and have a go at some fun and interesting activities.

Suitable for a variety of ages and all can be done from home.

Thursday 11th March:

Understanding how human activities can impact our environment has never been more important.

Try these climate science activities and learn what you can do to look after our planet.

Friday 12th March:

Find out how innovation at Jodrell Bank since the 1940s brought a new science – ‘radio astronomy’ –  into existence, revealing a universe that until then was completely invisible: A most extraordinary coincidence: The first experiment at Jodrell Bank – Jodrell Bank

The first experiments led to the building of telescopes that could see radio waves – energetic radiation from the same ‘family’ as visible light, but invisible to our eyes. Telescopes at Jodrell Bank continue to probe the invisible universe today.

Learn about the history of the Jodrell Bank Observatory from Professor of Astrophysics Tim O’Brien in this talk about how the telescopes of Jodrell Bank work and the things that they are used to study, from massive blackholes to flashing pulsars.

What can we learn from invisible light? Find out more in this article here: Science Concepts: Multiwavelength Astronomy – Jodrell Bank

Saturday 13th March:

Today’s new Moon means it’s a perfect time for stargazing as there’s less light to ruin your night vision. The Moon takes around 28 days to orbit the Earth and as it moves we see different amounts of its lit up side -the “phases” of the Moon. At new Moon we can’t see the Moon at all, its lit up side is facing away from us and it appears in the daytime sky. A moonless night means it’s easier to pick out the fainter stars so great for astronomers!

Above: The Moon as a thin crescent, just past ‘new’. Image credit: W.carter, CC BY-SA 4.0

Check out our monthly stargazing guide to find out what you can see this month and take a look at our Guide to Stargazing Apps to help get you started.

Sunday 14th March:

As British Science Week comes to a close for another year, we look forward to the beginning of spring (astronomically speaking!) on the Vernal Equinox which falls on 20th March this year. This is one of two days of the year when the lengths of day and night are equal. After the Spring Equinox and for the next six months, there will be more hours of daylight than darkness.

But why does the equinox happen? The Earth is tilted, and keeps the same tilt as it moves in its orbit around the Sun. We get an Equinox when the Earth is in a position where it is not tilted towards the Sun or away from it. This is what gives us days and nights of the same length.

You can explore more activities, stories and film in our Science Learning at Home online resource hub here…

First Look inside First Light!

We’ve seen incredible progress on the construction of our National Lottery Heritage Fund supported First Light Pavilion over the last few months.

Since the momentous concrete pour to create the domed roof took place in October last year, the building has really started to take shape and we’re delighted to be able to share some of the first images from inside.

Images: Andrew Brooks

The First Light Pavilion will dramatically transform the visitor experience at Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre. Designed by HASSELL and constructed by Kier, the stunning new building will house a gallery dedicated to telling the story of Jodrell Bank, an immersive auditorium, and a new education hub and cafe.

You can view progress of the construction since it began in December 2019, here…

The First Light Pavilion is expected to open to visitors later this year. You can find out more about the project here…

A most extraordinary coincidence: The first experiment at Jodrell Bank

The first scientific experiment at Jodrell Bank took place 75 years ago; from an army radar trailer, on a damp and icy Friday afternoon on the 14th December 1945.

Although crude by today’s standards, it is the foundation on which the ground-breaking research at Jodrell Bank has been built. However, the story is not as simple as it sounds. The outcome of this first experiment was something of a happy accident; a coincidence of timing and human error.

Above: Setting up the first radar experiment at the University of Manchester’s Experimental Botany Grounds Jodrell Bank, 14th December 1945. Copyright University of Manchester

In 1945 Bernard Lovell was a physicist at the University of Manchester and he was looking for cosmic ray showers – high-energy particles entering the earth’s atmosphere. Whilst developing wartime radar systems Lovell had speculated about this new technology; if radar could be used to detect aircraft at night, could it be used to detect other invisible things, like the cosmic rays he had been studying before the war?

When the war ended Lovell acquired some surplus equipment from the army and drove it out to the University of Manchester’s experimental botany grounds at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire. It was isolated with no electricity, but this was perfect for his purposes. No electricity meant no interference to confuse his readings.

Above: Jodrell Bank farmland, c.1945. Copyright University of Manchester

But he had more terrestrial issues to deal with first. His trailers got stuck in the mud, the diesel generator kept icing up, and it was only with the help of the two friendly gardeners and a local farmer that Lovell got the equipment working at all. Late in the day on the 14th December he switched on the transmitter and the receiver and directed the aerial to the sky. It was a success! But, as he describes in his oral history interview for Web of Stories…

‘I switched on in mid-December in a most extraordinary coincidence. I anxiously looked at the cathode ray tube. It was free of this interference, but full of transient echoes, and I thought, marvellous. These must be the radar echoes from huge cosmic ray air showers. Then I had a few moments of doubt and I thought, no it can’t be. There can’t be as many huge air showers as that…’

The coincidence he refers to is the date: 14th December. Lovell knew nothing of astronomy at this time, so was not aware that he did his first observations at the peak of the annual Geminids meteor shower. The large number of transient echoes he detected were in fact from meteor trails.

Meteor. Source: Alan Newman (CC BY-NC 2.0) Artist’s conception of a cosmic ray shower. Source: Chantelauze / Staffi / Bret (CC BY-NC 4.0)

What followed were months of recalculation, adjustment and correspondence with fellow scientists as Lovell tried to make sense of his results. It turned out that he hadn’t considered the effects of damping in his calculations (i.e., that the electrons from cosmic ray showers would collide with other atmospheric particles, decreasing the amount of energy scattered back to earth); a critical oversight that meant it would have been almost impossible for his equipment to detect energy from cosmic ray showers. But he had found something more interesting; Lovell quickly realised the potential of meteor research and was drawn into the world of astronomy.

History shows that many of the great leaps forward in science have come about through mistake and serendipity: Newton’s apple, and Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in some unwashed petri dishes. If Lovell had arrived at Jodrell Bank in January he would have missed the spectacular echoes from the Geminids, or if he had checked his calculations he may never have attempted the observations in the first place. The happy accident of Lovell’s first experiment is just one of the many twists and turns in the story of Jodrell Bank and we are uncovering many more of these stories and telling them as part of the First Light at Jodrell Bank project.

You can read more about the important role that meteors have in the early history of Jodrell Bank Observatory here. And listen to Bernard Lovell explaining his first days at Jodrell Bank here.

Jodrell Bank receives financial boost from Culture Recovery Fund

We’re thrilled to announce today that we have received £125,600 from the Culture Recovery Fund for heritage to support us through the impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The grant will help us to develop our online offer and engage with visitors unable to attend the site during this time. It will also enable us to install essential safety measures when visitors can return.

Teresa Anderson, Director, Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre said: “Along with many of our fellow heritage and culture sites, the COVID19 crisis opened a huge chasm beneath our feet. This funding will bridge that gap, supporting us as we move through the current challenges towards the opening of our new gallery later in 2021. We’re incredibly grateful to the Culture Recovery Fund for Heritage for being there for us at this difficult time.”

Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre is one of 80 heritage organisations in England that are benefitting from this wave of funding. The investment is allocated by the National Lottery Heritage Fund on behalf of DCMS and forms part of the government’s £1.57billion Culture Recovery Fund.

Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, said: “These grants will help the organisations that shape our skylines and preserve our history, from the dome of St Paul’s to railway lines that can help us experience a time gone by. We are protecting our rich heritage across the country and the jobs they support.

Jodrell Bank is the UK’s latest UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the famous Grade 1 listed Lovell Telescope. Its popular Discovery Centre welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, including 25,000 school children engaged in an award-winning education programme, and over 32,000 festival-goers at its annual celebration of science, music and culture, bluedot. Its National Lottery Heritage Fund supported First Light Project, which will open up heritage engagement with the site, will open in late 2021.


First Light Pavilion reaches major construction milestone

A major construction milestone was reached last week as our new First Light Pavilion saw its impressive concrete dome roof installed.

The installation was a unique accomplishment of construction and engineering as 381m3 of concrete was poured into a mould spanning 50m to create the single structure domed roof. The continuous concrete pour was the first of its kind in over 25 years and took 10 hours and 15 minutes to complete, assisted by 59 covid-compliant operatives on site.

Ryan Southern, of Kier Construction who are leading the ambitious build, said of the moment:  ‘The concrete pour for the dome structure represented a big moment in the project and took a lot of careful planning to ensure its success. It involved a complex methodology, so we’re delighted to see this important stage of the construction come together so well. We must also thank our supply chain, Mayo Civil’s, for their efforts.’

The Pavilion, designed by HASSELL and set to open to the public next year, forms part of a major new project that will share and celebrate the pioneering heritage of Jodrell Bank, the UK’s latest UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Once fully complete, the new building will house an exhibition and immersive auditorium dedicated to telling the stories of Jodrell Bank. A new gallery will innovatively re-use sections of the original 1957 observation dish from the Lovell Telescope as a backdrop for displays and projections covering periods in the site’s rich history from its early beginnings, through the Space Race and the Cold War, to the present day. Meanwhile, an auditorium will provide space for planetarium shows, evening lectures, film projections and cultural events.

Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre Director, Professor Teresa Anderson has said “We’re thrilled to have reached this milestone and are delighted to be able to see the new building take shape. The progress symbolises a new hope for the future and we can’t wait to be able to welcome visitors to this beautiful new building, and share with them the stories of Jodrell Bank and its pioneering scientists”

The round, dome-like structure of the building cleverly mirrors the circumference of the iconic Lovell Telescope. Within the dome are a number of cutaways including the Pavilion’s entrance built into a curved concrete wall designed to reflect the arc of the sun. Two separate walls then guide visitors in, with a single glass slot cut out at the centre, illuminating a meridian line cast onto the floor at the entrance, echoing a history of astronomy in architecture.

Diana Hampson, Director of Estates at The University of Manchester said “It is testament to the teamwork of all of those involved on the project that we have achieved this significant milestone in the delivery of the Pavillion.  The team have faced many challenges and adopted new ways of working owing to the pandemic and it is wonderful to see major progress when many other projects have been paused across the UK.”

The £20.5m project has been made possible with £12.1m of funding from The National Lottery Heritage Fund and a further £4m from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

David Renwick, Director, England, North at The National Lottery Heritage Fund, said: “At its core, First Light is about connecting the widest range of people with the science and heritage of this important site by providing new opportunities to engage through activities, involvement and learning. We’re delighted to see that the project has reached a major milestone in its construction and is a step closer to opening its doors, and that we are able to support the project thanks to money raised by National Lottery players. We’re excited to see the project progress and how it will enrich the stories of the site and invoke a greater sense of curiosity and empowerment in Jodrell Bank’s many visitors and communities.”

You can find out more about the project, including updates on the building’s progress here…

Meteors, deckchairs and the beginnings of astronomy at Jodrell Bank

Meteor showers, and in particular the August Perseids, have a special place in the history of Jodrell Bank. The 1946 shower marked the start of Jodrell Bank becoming an astronomical observatory, and Bernard Lovell becoming an astronomer.

Right: Meteor radar echoes from Jodrell Bank, c. 1950. Copyright University of Manchester.

When Lovell first set up his radar equipment at Jodrell Bank in December 1945 he was hoping to observe cosmic ray showers (cascades of ionised particles entering the earth’s atmosphere). However, by spring 1946, and having shared his preliminary observations with others, he suspected that some of the echoes he saw on the cathode ray tube attached to his radar aerials were from meteor trails. But Lovell wasn’t an astronomer, he was a  physicist and knew nothing about meteors.

And so he was introduced to J P Manning Prentice; a solicitor by day, but by night a highly accomplished amateur astronomer, with a passion for meteors. He was director of the Meteor Section of the British Astronomical Association – the UK’s amateur astronomy body. He offered to come to Jodrell in August for a combined radar and visual observation of the Perseid meteor shower.

Lovell was astonished that when Prentice arrived in Cheshire at the end of July, rather than unloading high tech observing equipment from his car he brought out a deckchair, a flying suit, a large celestial globe, a flash light, notebook and some string. Prentice had developed a unique and highly effective observation technique: lying almost flat in the deckchair, wearing the flying suit if it was cold, he would watch the skies and when a meteor appeared he would align a piece of string along the trail. The trail would vanish in a fraction of a second, but he could use the string to read off the start and end points in relation to the nearest stars. He’d jot the observation down in a notebook strapped to his knee, using a dimmed flashlight so as not to impact his night vision.

So they observed the shower; Prentice watching the skies, Lovell and his colleagues John Clegg and C J Banwell watching the cathode ray tube inside one their army trailers.

Lovell recalls in his autobiography Astronomer By Chance:

‘If we saw an echo we would shout, if he saw a visible meteor so would he. In this fashion we were able to establish immediately and without any ambiguity whether there was a connection between the radar echoes and visible trail’  

This was the beginnings of astronomy, or rather, radio astronomy, at Jodrell Bank. And although Jodrell scientists quickly began using these new techniques to look deep into the universe, meteor radar research continued to be an important stream of work throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s.

Manning Prentice and the Perseids also has a profound impact on Lovell himself:

‘Soon I found myself another chair and stayed by [Prentice’s] side through those warm summer nights. He knew every star down to the fifth magnitude, which was the limit of our vision during those nights. I learned to recognise, as midnight approached, the stars of the Perseus constellation rising in the east, marvelled that it was the rotation of the earth that moved the stars across the heavens, and suffered nostalgia as dawn broke and the stars slowly disappeared in the light of the morning sky. Prentice had learned his astronomy the hard way – by watching the skies – and that is how I learned mine during those August nights.’

You can listen to Bernard Lovell talking about meeting Manning Prentice and the importance of meteor research here, on Web of Stories:

Mud, steel and an unshakeable vision: The construction of the Lovell Telescope

Sir Bernard Lovell’s ‘giant paraboloid’ was originally proposed in 1951 and complete by 1957. Why did it take so long to build? The short answer is that no-one had ever built anything like this before. The new radio telescope was to be 250ft diameter, 290ft high and fully steerable to focus on any area of the sky with pin-point accuracy. There were plenty of small steerable dishes around at this time, but Lovell understood that something significantly larger was needed to advance the new science of radio astronomy.

Although the scientific community supported him, Lovell initially struggled to find an engineer to take on the challenge. Many simply did not think it was possible to build such an instrument.  But in 1949 he met Charles Husband, a Sheffield-based engineer who considered the proposition and concluded it was achievable; ‘about the same problem as throwing a swing bridge across the Thames at Westminster…’.  But as they were to discover together, the requirements of enormous size and absolute precision, to be executed in a muddy Cheshire field, would be an engineering challenge like no other.

Above: Charles Husband and Bernard Lovell in front of the almost-complete telescope in 1957 (Copyright University of Manchester)

In this clip from Lovell’s oral history interview on Web of Stories, he explains just one such problem. In 1954 when the construction work began there weren’t any cranes large enough to handle the mass of steel that was involved, so Husband built a series of cranes and gantries until they had something that could work at the enormous height of the telescope. This is typical of Husband’s innovation; at every stage of this often fraught construction project he was prepared to find new approaches and original solutions, refusing to be limited by existing technologies. He understood that Lovell was breaking new grounds in science, and the telescope could break new grounds in engineering. In many ways, and despite difficult moments in their relationship, Lovell and Husband represented the perfect partnership of science and engineering.

Lovell’s construction diary, held at The Royal Society, gives an almost day by day account of the telescope’s construction. Reading the entries, you experience the saga through Lovell’s eyes. You feel his frustration at steel price rises and worker strikes, anxiety at the constant negotiations, despair as weather halts progress at crucial moments, dismay at the increasing doubts of those around him, and jubilation at small victories.  All the while the costs involved are becoming higher and higher.

Particularly poignant are his Christmas Eve entries, in which he reflects on the last year:

1953: ‘A year ago today Cementation were struggling around the hundredth pile. Today in brilliant sunshine only Wades are on site putting in the drain pipes […] There has certainly been some progress between these two Christmasses, but there will have to be a good deal more by Christmas Eve 1954 if the instrument is to be ready for use in 1955.’ [MS_870_0251]

1954: ’Since the diary note on the eve of Christmas a year ago the site of the telescope has been transformed […]  Above all, and in spite of the 1000 tonnes of steel on the site, the future is dark with financial anxiety. But surely now it will be finished, perhaps even in 1955.’ [MS_870_0350]

1955: ‘Another Christmas without the telescope – but surely not next year! […] Still, we have a good deal more than a year ago, including the control building, although the control room is still empty.’ [MS_870_1_3_0032]

The delays were not entirely out of Lovell’s hands. During construction he requested a number of design changes for scientific reasons, the most significant of which was replacing the original wire mesh dish with a solid surface, to enable the telescope to work at shorter wavelengths. This was in response to the 1951 discovery of the 21cm hydrogen line; a hugely significant development in radio astronomy. It was part of a suite of design changes in 1955 that necessitated an additional 440 tonnes of steel and brought the telescope £250,000 over budget.

What becomes apparent throughout this story is Lovell’s unshakable commitment and vision. At all points of the project he was encouraged to abandon. At the beginning of 1954 Lovell wrote to Husband to ask him to ‘obtain some big erection on site as soon as possible. Many people are still taking every opportunity of saying the project must be cancelled‘. As early as 1953 Patrick Blackett, Lovell’s lifelong mentor, expressed extreme annoyance at Lovell’s ‘blind ambition’ and the delays it was to cause, stating that the cream of the research would be skimmed off by places with ‘less ambitious apparatus’.

Above: The telescope rises out of the mud, c. 1955 (Jodrell Bank collection, copyright University of Manchester)

But Lovell was single-minded, and the giant telescope slowly rose up out of the Cheshire mud. On the 2nd of August 1957 the telescope made its first recordings of the sky, the moment that is referred to as ‘first light’. As Lovell recalls in his autobiography Astronomer By Chance: ‘The recording was of no particular scientific importance, but for us it was an inked trace on a paper chart symbolizing an end to five years of massive engineering and a beginning to the researches that we had planned and dreamed of for many years.’  

The telescope wasn’t fully operational until 1958, and the debt remained until 1960, by which time the telescope had become wrapped up in the space race and matters of international defence… And that’s another story!