11th October 1957. Science and Power Politics.
In the 14th century, little could William Jaudrell, archer under Edward the Black Prince have thought that Jodrell Bank, would one day be at the forefront of astro-physics.(1)
Today in 1957, Jodrell Bank, Cheshire, the 250 feet radio telescope started to search for echoes. The next day it picked up the track of the Russian space vehicle Sputnik.
To cut costs some of the de-commissioned HMS Revenge’s gun-turret track, pinion-gearing was re-used in the 76m Mark 1 radio telescope.
The telescope was the inspiration of Dr Bernard Lovell who working on war-time Radar detected sporadic echoes and wondered whether these resulted from cosmic ray particles.
However in that sinister Cold War period with Russia, Lovell in 1958 was ordered by the Chief of Air Staff, to upgrade the system to act as an Early Warning System against Soviet missiles, which as Lovell explained took him over budget.
At this time he was also joined by anonymous plain-clothed RAF people, whose identity only he and the Air Ministry knew.
Not surprisingly the Ministry wouldn’t contribute to the budget and Lovell ‘carried the can’ for the expenditure and couldn’t say anything about it.
In 1963 he travelled to a Black Sea Facility at the invitation of the Soviet Academy of Science, where he was asked to defect, but when he demanded to leave, was subjected, as he later said, to treatment to eradicate any memory of his visit.(2)
On his return he was seriously ill and thought of giving up science.
Only when RAF Fylingdales in Yorkshire was functioning in 1963, were the scientists released from their top-secret military role.
Despite all this Lovell returned to Russia twice more, to track the Venus 4 probe in 1967 and again with his wife in 1976. He retired as Director of Jodrell Bank in 1981.
As Lovell once said, all he wanted was his research, but what the episode does show, is how science can be perverted in the name of national interests, important though they might be.
(1) His son Roger Jo(u)drell, was one of the four Esquires of the King’s body of Richard II. The family held land at Yeardsley cum Whaley, Disley and Kettleshulme in Cheshire.
(2) Much of this information came out through the press and interviews with Lovell in 2008/9, when he described how he was ordered to adapt the facility to provide a ‘four-minute warning’ of an impending nuclear attack in the Cold War.
He also said the full story would not be fully revealed until after his death.
Ref: Jodrell Bank Cold War History. BBC News Channel 20.5.2009. (video on line).
Ref: jb.man.ac.uk/history.Pic Image.
Ref: Daily Mail article 21.11.2008, Jay Narain. Jodrell Bank secretly upgraded to act as early warning/Pic of Sir Bernard.