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.