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: