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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!

Lovell’s first career: Wartime radar and the development of H2S

Letter from AP Rowe to Lovell, February 1945. University of Manchester Library (JBA/CS7/19/4/1945)

In February 1945, 10 months before Bernard Lovell would arrive at Jodrell Bank for the first time, A. P. Rowe, Chief Superintendent of the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) writes to Lovell to assure him:

‘You must have nothing whatever on your conscience. If you never did a stroke of work for the rest of your life you would have justified your existence.’

It’s an extraordinary thought that even without Jodrell Bank Lovell’s name would have gone down in history. His wartime distinction is less well known that his work in radio astronomy, but as the UK celebrates VE Day, we’re highlighting Lovell’s work developing the H2S airborne radar system, which greatly improved the Royal Air Force’s bombing accuracy and proved decisive in the outcome of the second world war.

When war broke out in the summer of 1939 Bernard Lovell was an idealistic young physicist at the University of Manchester, researching cosmic rays under his illustrious head of department, Patrick Blackett.  He knew little about radar, and when Blackett told him to abandon his cloud chambers and report to A. P. Rowe at the Air Ministry, he had no idea what the next six years would hold for him.

Like many university scientists he became a research physicist, applying his expertise to the rapid development of war technologies, in this case, radar. After two years working on interceptors and detection systems for night fighters, Lovell was ordered to take charge of the development of a new device for night bombing. In 1941 it had become apparent that the RAF’s bombing offenses in Germany were largely unsuccessful because pilots couldn’t find their targets. The longer wavelength systems used for navigation were not precise enough to lock onto specific landmarks, so a narrower radar system, on centimetric wavelengths, was required. And fast.

Lovell was apprehensive about this new responsibility, which would see him to apply his expertise to offensive technologies for destroying rather than saving lives. But this was war and as he describes in his autobiography Astronomer By Chance: ‘those last shreds of misplaced idealism were soon to be blown out of my being by a whirlwind of activities that made the previous two years of my wartime work seem like a rest cure’.

Notably, this whirlwind involved the invention of the cavity magnetron (a high-powered vacuum tube that generates microwaves and is used now in microwave ovens); the crash of a Halifax bomber during a test flight, which tragically killed members of his team; an ultimatum from Prime Minister Winston Churchill; and many iterations of what became known as the H2S.

This precision bombing device used a rotating antenna within a cupola attached to the underside of a bomber, to build up a map of the terrain below that pilots could see on the cathode ray tube inside the cockpit. It was the first ground mapping technology ever to be used in combat. When in February 1943 the first, 10cm radar version of the H2S was brought into operation for the bombing of Hamburg, pilots marvelled at how could clearly they could see the city’s docks as ‘fingers of bright light sticking out into the dark of the Elbe’.

Lovell received many congratulations following the Hamburg offensive, but as he wrote in his diary ‘I can’t feel a bit elated, only weighed down with the vastness of things in hand and in the future’.

In 1945 as the war drew to close and this intense pressure lifted, Lovell was exhausted. The toll it had taken on him is evident in this 1945 photograph of the H2S group; he looks thin and pale and can’t seem to muster a smile. Rowe’s letter of the same month is a kind but firm order to take some time off. In July he was released and gratefully returned to the university, cosmic rays and his cloud chambers. But of course nothing was the same, war had transformed the pursuit of science and Lovell set to work applying the new radar technology to the study of the sky.

Lovell remained modest about his wartime work, with some ambivalence about being the man who led the development of the system that, according to Air Marshal Victor Tait, ‘was one of the main factors in making the Air Force so effective in the destruction of the German armed forces’. However, the work earned him an OBE in 1946, and throughout his life he received letters from the public thanking him for what he gave to wartime science, turning the fortunes of the Allied Forces and leading to the national celebrations on VE day. For some, the H2S, and not the Lovell telescope, is his greatest achievement.

You can listen to Lovell himself telling the story of his wartime work on Web of Stories here. You can also find out about our First Light Project here, which will open up more heritage stories and enable visitors to Jodrell Bank to explore the incredible stories behind the pioneering scientists that work here.

From the Archives: Food rations and self-sufficiency at Jodrell Bank

Britain queues for food in wartime London, 1945. wikicommons

For many of us, the experience of shopping for food during the coronavirus lockdown is an unsettling one. Long queues, empty shelves and the frustration of still not being able to get hold of any self-raising flour; not something we’re accustomed to in the 21st century and it is forcing us to adapt our approach to shopping and cooking.

Of course, within living memory these sorts of restrictions were a fact of everyday life. World War II rationing, which continued in some form until 1954, impacted the entire country – housewives and radio astronomers alike.

In the Jodrell Bank archive at the University of Manchester Library there is a fascinating folder titled ‘canteen dormitory, 1947-1953’, which charts Bernard Lovell’s struggle to feed the growing numbers of staff and students on site at this time. As the Jodrell Bank Experimental Station (it didn’t yet identify itself as an ‘observatory’) grew it was increasingly difficult to cope with the ‘meagre allocation’ of food, and in one letter to the Macclesfield Food Office, dated 22 January 1952, Lovell complains that he has had to stop providing meals for the students who had come down from Manchester. Hard times, especially since the students were usually the ones doing the hard, physical labour around site!

Jodrell Bank Experimental Station ration book coupon, August 1950. University of Manchester Library (JBA/JBM/1/6)

There was some good fortune though; Jodrell Bank at this time was also home to the University’s experimental botany fields, and gardeners and physicists shared the canteen facility. In a letter from May 1950 E.G. Warne, who was in charge of the botany grounds, assures Lovell that by autumn he will be able to supply the canteen with vegetables ‘at what is really a nominal price’, and until then suggests ‘the omission of a vegetable other than potatoes from lunches and dinners’, rather than reducing the overall quantity of food as ‘there might be complaints about inadequate meals’.

This chimed with the general advice at the time, to grow your own and ‘dig for victory’. Our times are of course different and we can’t easily grow our own toilet paper in our back gardens, but this spirit of self-sufficiency and generosity out at Jodrell Bank is something we can learn from.

Hannah Niblett, Heritage Officer

Jodrell and Cambridge: A shared radio astronomical heritage

18th April is World Heritage Day, and as the UK’s newest World Heritage Site, this is a good opportunity for us to reflect on our new status. This year’s theme is Shared Heritage.

Jodrell Bank became a World Heritage Site in July 2019, in part because the site is the only one in the world that retains traces of the development of radio astronomy from its earliest days to the present. This extraordinary story that is written across the landscape of Jodrell Bank, from the remains of the 1946 searchlight aerial; an instrument for the radar detection of meteors, through the majestic Lovell telescope, to the shiny new headquarters of the Square Kilometre Array.

But why is the story of radio astronomy so important? Why does it have the ‘Universal Value’ that UNESCO look for in a site of international importance? The development of radio astronomy marked a revolution in our understanding of the universe; it has been the basis of the 20th and 21st century’s great leaps forward in astronomy and cosmology, such as the cosmic microwave background, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence and the recent imaging of a black hole. And crucially it also paved the way for astronomy in other wavelengths, such as infrared and x-ray. It is in multiwavelength astronomy that we now get the most colourful and detailed picture of the universe.

These developments have had a profound impact on humanity; on how we understand our own place and our planet’s place in the universe; our ‘pale blue dot’.

But although our site tells this story, the story doesn’t belong exclusively to Jodrell. Radio astronomy emerged as a new science after the second world war. Although two notable individuals, Karl Jansky and Grote Reber, had detected galactic radiowaves earlier than this, it was war time radar research that inspired physicists, such as Lovell, to see whether radar could be used to study the sky. This happened simultaneously and most significantly at four sites: Jodrell Bank, the Cavendish Laboratories in Cambridge, the British Army Operational Research Group and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Sydney, Australia. Open a correspondence file from the Jodrell archive of this period and you will find many letters between Lovell and the leaders of these research groups; sharing data, asking questions, reporting new developments, requesting corroboration, outlining hypotheses.

There was a particularly strong relationship between Jodrell and Cambridge. Lovell and Cambridge’s Martin Ryle were similar in many respects. Both had worked for the Telecommunications Research Establishment during the war, developing radar systems, before returning to their respective universities where they applied their wartime expertise to their research.

The 1949 letters below are part of a series between the two men from the exciting early days of radio astronomy. They had turned their radio receivers to the skies and found that the universe was indeed transmitting in radio frequencies; the possibilities of seeing what had previously been invisible was starting to unfold. The areas of interest were in the constellations of Cassiopeia and Cygnus, and Lovell speculates about the cause of fluctuations in the signal and asks his peer ‘Is there any fallacy in this reasoning?’.  Ryle responds three weeks later with his own speculation and encloses their own tracings of Cygnus and Cassiopeia plus their ‘activity charts’ so Lovell can make the comparison for himself.

The ongoing dialogue between scientists was critical in the rapid development of radio astronomy, that went from bouncing radar signals off meteors in 1946 to the first mapping of an extragalactic radio source – the Andromeda Galaxy – just four years later.

Radio astronomers in these early years had no real contact with optical astronomers; the phenomena they were discovering didn’t correspond to anything before seen in optical astronomy, and their processes were entirely different. Each research site had different equipment and approach; Cambridge for instance had a number of small aerials and concentrated on the technique of combining them to obtain a sharper view. Jodrell focused on the use of larger, single dishes, allowing them to detect much fainter and more distant radio sources. Neither could get a complete picture but by working together, along with the team in Sydney and, in the next few years an increasing number of sites around the world, they mapped the entire radio sky and created a revolutionary new window into the universe.

From the Archives…

A key part of our First Light Project is about bringing the story of Jodrell Bank to life through our archives. Visitors to the new heritage exhibition will be able to explore a wealth of historic material: photos of the site in the early days (what the local community named ‘the Fairground’), logbooks from big discoveries in radio astronomy, correspondence covering the critical years of telescope construction, recently released material revealing Jodrell’s role in the cold war, and audio and video clips that take you right into the control room at key moments of the space race.

Jodrell Bank ephemera is held in archive collections around the country, but our official archive is in the Special Collections at the University of Manchester Library. This is a vast collection, some 2000 files, many of which contain hundreds of documents. Our Heritage Officer Hannah has the daunting task of researching it: ‘I think I know the history of Jodrell Bank quite well, but every time I open a file from the archive I discover something new – a new perspective, an unexpected connection, or an intriguing segue in the story. I really hope that we can give visitors to the exhibition this same thrill of discovery’.

For example, when the Jodrell Engagement Team visited the John Rylands Library earlier this year to look through the collection for themselves, they discovered that at school Bernard Lovell wasn’t the star physics pupil they had imagined him to be…

Kingswood Grammar School report, Autumn term, 1925: young Bernard achieves 78 in Chemistry, 78 in Botany, but just 38 in Physics: ‘Capable of doing much better’.

His grades did improve as his school years went on, but the Headmaster’s comment in the Spring term of 1931 seems to summarise Lovell’s approach to his schooling: ‘Should do well, but must definitely decide not to think of cricket when he is doing mathematics and science’.

As it happens, Lovell never did stop thinking about cricket whilst doing maths and science, but that’s a story for another day…

Engaging with heritage at the John Rylands Library

With the diggers on site for the construction of our First Light Pavilion, our future as a major new heritage attraction is starting to feel very real and the Discovery Centre teams are embracing this exciting new development. The combination of ground-breaking science and world-class heritage on one visitor site is unusual; there aren’t many examples out there that we can emulate. So this is an exciting time for us as we reshape our identity and pilot new ways of working.

As part of this process, our Heritage Officer Hannah Niblett took members of the Engagement Team to spend a day with staff at the John Rylands Library, another of the University of Manchester’s Cultural Institutions. The aim for the day was to immerse themselves in a heritage site, see heritage engagement in practice and connect with colleagues doing similar work.

Within the stunning gothic architecture of the Library, so different from our own environment (compare their towering fluted ceilings with our contemporary exposed pipework and ceiling girders) the John Rylands team explained and demonstrated their education, public and exhibition programmes. Our group then had a tour, explored the exhibitions and took part in a fascinating archive-based education session.

To experienced science communicators, heritage approaches such as object-based learning can seem like a different world, but seeing it in practice was extremely valuable and reassuring. The team came away with lots of ideas about how to incorporate heritage engagement into events and exhibitions at Jodrell Bank.

They finished the day with a deep dive into the Jodrell Bank archive that is held at the Library, including Bernard Lovell’s school reports (‘could do better’!), staff notices from the early days of Jodrell Bank (‘No gum boots in the library’), observation log books and fascinating letters revealing Jodrell Bank’s role in the cold war.

We’re extremely grateful to Yvette Jeal, John Hodgson and the team at the John Rylands Library for such a useful and inspiring day. Hopefully we can welcome them at Jodrell Bank for a reciprocal visit very soon!

And We’re Off!

First Steps to First Light…

After almost 11 years work, it has been emotional, this week, to see the construction team arriving here on site at Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre, to begin work on our new First Light Pavilion.

Cabins for the construction workers are going up, and diggers are being unloaded – and there is a real air of excitement around the place (or is that just us….?).

In the new building, we will tell the story of the founding of Jodrell Bank Observatory, by Sir Bernard Lovell and many (many) others; the emergence of the new science of Radio Astronomy, and the creation of the iconic Lovell Telescope, the jewel in the crown of the Cheshire countryside.

The timing (deliberately, of course….) is perfect, as Jodrell Bank Observatory was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2019, in recognition of the importance of the heritage this site to future generations of people – and to date, we haven’t had a gallery in which people can find out about this and how it all happened.

Our new gallery will sit in the Jodrell Bank Gardens, just outside the boundary of the World Heritage Site itself, and will house a new permanent exhibition, a new immersive projection space, a temporary exhibition space and a new Café.

Designed to look like a ‘hill’, which has the same diameter as the dish of the Lovell Telescope itself (76metres), it will have a green roof and lots of environmentally sustainable features. It will be surrounded by trees and landscaping created by Sir Bernard (who was a keen ‘tree person’) in the 1970s and will really blend into the countryside around it.

One of the most exciting things about the building itself is located in the front façade of the building, which is a curved vertical wall, cut into the ‘hill’ shape.

In the centre of the wall, facing due south, is a narrow vertical window that runs the height of the structure, aligned (after many careful calculations by Tim…) so that the midday sun on midsummer’s day streams through the window (weather permitting) to fall precisely on a line set in the floor of the welcome foyer inside.

This idea (known as a ‘meridian line’) was common across Europe from medieval times, and examples of this can be found in places like the ‘noonline’ in the cloisters of Durham Cathedral, the Basilica of Saint Mary and the Angels in Rome and the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. The idea also echoes some earlier structures, such as the neolithic winter solstice alignments at Newgrange and Maeshowe.

We had wanted the building to include this idea and be ‘connected to the sky’ right from the start of the project. (Tim wrote a blog about the ideas for this here and it was a core part of the original funding bid for the project to the National Lottery Heritage Fund…), so are looking forward very much to seeing how it is going to work in practice.

In the meantime, there will be lots of digging, lots of mud, lots of construction work, and the building will slowly appear in the gardens. And our team here at the Discovery Centre will be working on the new exhibition, our new education programme, new volunteer activities and a whole new way of looking at the stories we tell of how the site came to be and how it contributed to world events and scientific revolutions. It’s an opportunity to think about the new stories we will all create together in the future – we hope you will join us on the journey!

Prof Teresa Anderson
Prof Tim O’Brien

25 years of The National Lottery

A new piece of modern art, featuring Jodrell Bank and created by world-renowned artist, David Mach RA, has been unveiled to celebrate the start of six weeks of celebrations for The National Lottery’s 25th birthday.

The artwork features a mix of national treasures including people, places, projects and icons that have been part of extraordinary things made possible by The National Lottery. They have been brought together in one iconic image to represent The National Lottery’s incredible impact on life in the UK over the last 25 years – across sports, film, heritage, the arts, and community projects, and the giant Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank has pride of place in the backdrop.

You can view an interactive version of the image here…

We were recently awarded £12.2m from the National Lottery Heritage Fund for our ambitious new First Light Project which will open up Jodrell Bank’s pioneering heritage and engage people with the science and stories of this internationally significant site.

Over the next six-weeks (14 October – 6 December), The National Lottery is hosting a range of activities, including free events for the whole of the UK to enjoy and we’ll be taking part by joining in with their #ThanksToYou campaign. From 25th November – 1st December, visitors to Jodrell Bank will be welcome to enter for FREE with a National Lottery ticket!

Find out more here and plan your free visit…

FREE Admission for National Lottery Players!

Thank You Week is back! From 25 November – 1 December, we will be taking part in the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s #ThanksToYou campaign by offering FREE ADMISSION* to all our visitors who play the National Lottery.

We were awarded £12.2m from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to develop our ambitious new First Light Project and so this is our chance to say thank you to the National Lottery players that helped to raise those funds.

How to claim your free admission ticket…

Visit Jodrell Bank any day between Monday 25th November – Sunday 1st December, 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 bring as many people as you like with one lottery ticket.

You can turn up on the day but we advise booking your free tickets in advance (remember, you still need to bring your lottery ticket with you). To book, simply click here and choose your visiting date. *Please note that car parking charges still apply.

UPDATE: Please note that we have now sold out of free tickets for Saturday 31st November and Sunday 1st December

Book your FREE admission tickets here.

Click here for terms and conditions.

Events and Activities

To continue the celebrations, we’ll also be running some of our most popular activities during the week including:

Telescope Walking Tours
(Weekdays) 3.15pm (Weekends) 11.45am and 3.15pm
Included in your free admission

Live Science Show: The Science of a World Heritage Site
30th November – 1st December, 11am, 12noon, 2pm
Included in your free admission

Tree Dressing Festival 
Sunday 1st December, 10am-5pm
Included in your free admission

See you soon!

Lovell Telescope back in Action!

After a long period of maintenance work, the Lovell Telescope is back in action!

Since the spring of 2018, a number of tasks have been undertaken on the Telescope including painting, steelwork repairs, and a major project to fully replace the original 1957 Telescope surface.

The first major upgrade to the Telescope took place in 1970-71 when a new reflecting surface with a shallower curve was added above the original. The original surface was left in place underneath as an integral part of the structure. It is this original surface that you can see from beneath the Telescope and which has been recently replaced.

The work involved to replace the original surface was significant and took place over the last two consecutive summers -when the days are longer and the weather is (usually!) better. Throughout the work, the Telescope has been out of action and parked in the zenith, pointing directly upward.

While the project is not quite complete, last Friday, the giant Lovell Telescope was nevertheless back in action and staff and visitors all came out to watch it move again. The last ring of panels are still to be replaced however, and if you look closely, you’ll be able to spot a slight gap between the original surface underneath and the 1970-71 surface on top.

Parts of the original surface have been carefully kept for use in our National Lottery Heritage Funded project, First Light, celebrating the history of the Observatory. At the heart of the project will be a new exhibition using these carefully preserved sections of the surface.

What’s the Lovell Telescope doing right now?

Read live observing information here

See a live stream of the Lovell Telescope here