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Making a meal of the big dish: the construction of the Jodrell Bank Mark 1 radio telescope as a stable edifice, 1946–57

  • Jon Agar (a1)


From a distance the Mark 1 radio telescope at Jodrell Bank is an edifying sight. It is a steel structure of over 1000 tons, holding aloft a fully steerable dish of wire mesh which focuses incoming radio waves from astronomical objects. It is set in gently rolling Cheshire countryside. Its striking appearance can easily be recruited as a powerful symbol of progress and of science as the pursuit of pioneering spirits.



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1 Anvil Films Ltd, ‘The giant radio telescope’, script for The Inquisitive Giant, film treatment for the Central Office of Information, Beaconsfield, 12 1954.

2 Public Record Office (PRO), UGC 7 152, minute of meeting, 31 01 1955.

3 The discipline of radio astronomy has attracted above average attention from the science studies community, for good reason: it is recent and therefore open to sociological inquiry, it is an example of the supposedly novel genre of ‘big science’ with its almost inevitable mix of governmental, military and institutional components, and it is contained, both in time and (conveniently for British researchers) space. During the 1950s, sizable groups existed only at Cambridge, Manchester and Australia. It was not until the 1960s that the huge resources of the USA were turned fully onto the subject. Sociological technique was applied with success in Edge, D. O. and Mulkay, M., Astronomy Transformed: The Emergence of Radio Astronomy in Britain, New York, 1976, and continued in Woolgar, S., ‘The Emergence and Growth of Research Areas in Science with Special Reference to Research on Pulsars’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, 1979. The subject is used as a case study of science policy in Martin, B. R. and Irvine, J., ‘Assessing basic research: some partial indicators of scientific progress in radio astronomy’, Research Policy (1983), 12, 6190, and Irvine, J., Martin, B. R., Abraham, J. and Peacock, T., ‘Assessing basic research: reappraisal and update of an evaluation of four radio astronomy observatories’, Research Policy (1987), 16, 213–27. The history of British radio astronomy, in particular Jodrell Bank, is found in Lovell, A. C. B., The Story of Jodrell Bank, London, 1968, Lovell, A. C. B., Out of Zenith, New York, 1973, and contributions to The Early Years of Radio Astronomy (ed. Sullivan, W. T.), Cambridge, 1984. For radio astronomy in the USA, see Needell, A. A., ‘Berkner, Lloyd, Tuve, Merle and the federal role in radio astronomy’, Osiris (1987), 3, 261–88. The important Australian groups are covered in Robertson, P., Beyond Southern Skies: Radio Astronomy and the Parkes Telescope, Cambridge, 1992.

4 For the invention of discourses see Shapin, S., ‘Pump and circumstance: Robert Boyle's literary technology’, Social Studies of Science (1984), 14, 481520.

5 A similar concern over ‘noise’ in high energy physics has been noted by Sharon Tra week: Traweek, S., Beamtimes and Lifetimes, Cambridge, Mass., 1988, 50. For ‘impurities’ see Douglas, M., Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, London, 1966.

6 The parallels with Mary Douglas's work on pollution are clear: it is because the interference is seen as a threat to the astronomers' ordering of their data that it is labelled as polluting.

7 For ‘form of life’ applied to complex scientific organizations, see Pickering, A., ‘Big science as a form of life’, in The Restructuring of the Physical Sciences in Europe and the United States, 1945–1960 (ed. M. De Maria and M. Grilli), 1988, 4254. However, Pickering does not use ‘form of life’ in Wittgenstein's usage, his ‘form of life’ has more similarities to Bourdieu's ‘habitus’. Pickering, 's ‘Pragmatism in particle physics’, The Development of the Laboratory (ed. James, F. A. J. L.), London, 1989, 174–83 is also relevant.

8 My essay has close parallels with work foregrounding spatial aspects of laboratories in the history of science, particularly Forgan, S., ‘Context, image and function: a preliminary enquiry into the architecture of scientific societies’, BJHS (1986), 19, 89113; Williams, M., ‘Astronomical observations as practical space: the case of Pulkowa’, in James, F. A. J. L., op. cit. (7), 118–36; Latour, B., ‘Give me a laboratory and I will raise the world’ in Science Observed (ed. Knorr-Cetina, K. and Mulkay, M.), Beverly Hills, 1983, 141–70; Kargon, R., Leslie, S. and Shoenberger, E., ‘Far beyond big science: science regions and the organization of research and development’, in Big Science: The Growth of Large-Scale Research (ed. P. Galison and B. Hevly), 1992, 334–54; Shapin, S., ‘The house of experiment in seventeenth century England’, Isis (1988), 79, 373404; Hannaway, O.Laboratory design and the aim of science: Andreas Libavius versus Tycho Brahe’, Isis (1986), 77, 585610. Also, on a geographical tack, Hagerstrand, T., Innovation Diffusion as a Spatial Process, 1967, Massey, D. and Wield, D., ‘Science parks: a concept in science, society and “space” (a realist tale)’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (1992), 10, 411–22; the contributions to Gregory, D. and Urry, J. (eds.), Social Relations and Spatial Structures, London, 1985, and particularly Shields, R., Places on the Margin: Alternative Geographies of Modernity, London, 1991.

9 Lovell, A. C. B., The Story of Jodrell Bank, London, 1968, 72.

10 On possible ‘conservative’ implications for research strategy see Edge, and Mulkay, , op. cit. (3), 332.

11 PRO DSIR 2 497. Scientific Grants Committee, meeting 22 06 1950.

12 PRO DSIR 2 497. Lovell, , ‘A Proposal for a 250 ft Aperture Steerable Paraboloid for Use in Radio Astronomy’, 01 1950. Jodrell Bank Archive (hereafter JBA) ‘Frequencies 1952–1963’, CS7/29/1, Lovell, third draft of Royal Society memo. JBA CS1/5/8. Untitled, contains press releases.

13 PRO DSIR 2 501.

14 PRO DSIR 2 512. The mount needed to be stronger to support the heavier dish. The weight of the structure increased from 900 to 1177 tons, the total cost to £445, 046.

15 Lovell, , op. cit. (9), 84.

16 The telescope's sensitivity was not surpassed until 1963, when the Fylingdales network became operational. See Campbell, D., The Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier, London, 1986, 84–6.

17 Clark, R. W., A Biography of the Nuffield Foundation, London, 1972, 102–3, forms the base of my account of the Nuffield negotiations. The Nuffield Foundation papers relating to Jodrell Bank were destroyed in 1990.

18 Lord Nuffield was originally William Morris; money for the telescope was available from the Foundation (which was set up in 1943) owing to the rise in Morris Motors stock with the postwar automobile boom.

19 Clark, , op. cit. (17), 105.

20 PRO UGC 7 152. Letter Lockspeiser, (DSIR) to Trueman, (UGC), 4 06 1951. Lockspeiser compared it to Brookhaven in the USA.

21 JBA CS7/29/1. Minutes meeting at GPO, 20 October 1953.

22 PRO UGC 7 152. Minute of internal meeting, 31 01 1955.

23 PRO UGC 7 152. Letter Hale, to Stopford, , 4 02 1955.

24 PRO UGC 7 152. Letter Stopford, to Hale, , 10 02 1955.

25 PRO UGC 7 152. Minute sheet, on which the chairman of the UGC, Sir Edward Hale, has pencilled ‘So was I – E.H.’.

26 PRO UGC 7 152. Letter Murray, to Blount, , 29 03 1955.

27 Briggs, Asa, ‘Development in higher education in the United Kingdom’ in Higher Education: Demand and Response (ed. Niblett, W. R.), London, 1969, 95116.

28 Parl. Papers HCP (1953/1954) 67–1, para. 2512.

29 Script for The Inquisitive Giant, op. cit. (1).

30 PRO UGC 7 152. Letter Blount, (DSIR) to Murray, (UGC), 25 02 1954.

31 For the birth of Harwell (concurrent with that of Jodrell Bank), see Gowing, M., Independence and Deterrence: Britain and Atomic Energy 1945–52, 2 vols., London, 1974. Furthermore the period contained the tangled negotiations towards European organizations of science (ELDO, ESRO, EMBO and CERN), for CERN see Hermann, A., Krige, J., Mersits, U. and Pestre, D., The History of Cern, 2 vols., New York, 1990 and 1992.

32 Lovell, , op. cit. (9), 182.

33 Parl. Papers HCP (1956/1957) 75-I, para. 1839.

34 Parl. Papers HCP (1956/1957) 75-I, para. 1849.

35 Parl. Papers HCP (1956/1957) 75-I, paras. 1945–6.

36 PRO UGC 7 152. Minute by Murray, , 10 10 1956.

37 PRO UGC 7 152. Letter Murray, to Morris, , 11 10 1956.

38 PRO UGC 7 152. Minute by Murray, , op. cit. (3).

39 PRO UGC 7 152. Letter Turnbull, (Treasury) to Hale, , 8 03 1957.

40 PRO T 218 132. Internal memo, Griffiths, to Knowles, , 15 10 1958.

41 To Lovell's vexation: ‘I felt at the time and still feel today that these conditions were made by men whose first concern was the preservation of their own skins, who had no concept of the… consequences of their action, and whose horizon was limited by the walls of their offices.’ Lovell, , op. cit. (9), 150.

42 JBA CS7/29/1. Letter Ryle, to Lovell, , 19 07 1953.

43 ‘Momentum’ is used here in the sense defined by Hughes, T. P., Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society 1880–1930, Baltimore, 1982, and deployed by MacKenzie, D., Inventing Accuracy, Baltimore, 1991.

44 Codding, G. A., The International Telecommunications Union: An Experiment in International Cooperation, Leiden, 1952.

45 JBA CS7/29/1. Minutes of meeting ‘Frequencies for Radio Astronomy’, held on 20 10 1953 at GPO HQ.

46 The commodification of corn provides a parallel tale of the reificatory effects of regulation, see Cronon, W., Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, London, 1991, 118. For an example of organizational change transforming scientific (here therapeutic) locales, see Cooter, R. ‘The politics of a spatial innovation: fracture clinics in inter-war Britain’, in Medical Innovation in Historical Perspective (ed. Pickstone, J. V.), London, 1992, 146–64.

47 The Nauen radio station near Berlin was received by U-boats under the Atlantic as early as 1917. For Nauen see Headrick, D. R., The Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications and International Politics 1851–1945, Oxford, 1991, 164.

48 Other network technologies have a strong spatial side to them: transport and the utilities, for example. For electrification see Nye, D. E., Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, London, 1990; Luckin, B., Questions of Power: Electricity and Environment in Inter-War Britain, Manchester, 1990; and Hughes, T. P., op. cit. (43).

49 Street lighting in Greenwich was one of the factorsin the move of the Royal Observatory to Herstmonceaux. See Meadows, A. J., Greenwich Observatory, 3 vols., London, 1975, in ii, 20. My thanks to Mari Williams for this example. Interestingly, the possible vibrations from projected train lines were also worrisome to Airy at Greenwich, for which there is a direct parallel with Jodrell Bank. It is the concern for accurate measurement (shared amongst others by metrology and astronomy) that makes the scientist intensely aware of environment.

50 Lovell, , op. cit. (9), 2.

51 JBA CS7/29/1. Letter Lovell, to G/C Passmore, 21 04 1956.

52 Another source of the astronomer's spatial concerns was its genealogy. Radar was explicitly concerned with distance, direction and topography. For example Robert Watson-Watt, a key figure in the development of British RDF, comments: ‘The Radio Research Board had trained a team of young research workers encouraged to see and explore the wide open spaces between the Morse Key and the loudspeaker.’ Watson-Watt, R., ‘Radar in war and peace’, in Industrial Research in Britain (ed. Andrade, E. N. da C.), 1st edn, London, 1946, 5565.

53 JBA CS1/4/6, contains licences.

54 JBA CS7/29/1. Letter Lovell, to Sharpe, , 22 12 1953.

55 JBA CS7/29/1. Letter Lovell, to Vernon, , 11 03 1952.

56 JBA CS7/29/1. Minutes of ad hoc meeting, 16 05 1952.

57 JBA CS7/29/1. Letter Vernon, to Fryer, , 22 10 1952.

58 JBA CS7/29/1. Letter Lovell, to Martin, , 23 04 1953.

59 JBA CS7/29/1. Letter Greenall, (DSIR) to Lovell, , 14 05 1953, enclosing letter Mead, (GPO) to Greenall, , 8 05 1953.

60 JBA CS7/29/1. Letter Lovell, to Martin, , 15 05 1953.

61 JBA CS7/29/1. Letter Lovell, to Greenall, , 15 05 1953.

62 JBA CS7/29/1. Letter Lovell, to Ratcliffe, , 19 05 1953.

63 Edge, and Mulkay, , op. cit. (3), 58.

64 JBA CS7/29/1. Letter Lovell, to Ratcliffe, , 11 06 1953.

65 JBA CS7/29/1. Letter Marquess of Salisbury to SirBrunt, David, 29 01 1954.

66 JBA CS7/29/1. Covering letter Greenall, to Lovell, , 8 07 1953, for letter Mead, to Greenall, , 4 07 1953.

67 JBA CS7/29/1. Letter Lovell, to Ryle, , 16 07 1953.

68 JBA CS7/29/1. Letter Ryle, to Lovell, , 19 07 1953.

69 JBA CS7/29/1. Letter Ryle, to Lovell, , 29 10 1953.

70 JBA CS7/29/1. Minutes of meeting at GPO, 20 10 1953.

71 JBA CS7/29/1. Letter Lovell, to Ryle, , 21 10 1953.

72 JBA CS7/29/1. Letter Ryle, to Lovell, , 18 03 1954.

73 JBA CS7/29/1. Letter Lovell, to Sharpe, , 22 03 1954.

74 JBA CS7/29/1. Letter Lovell, to Sharpe, , 13 05 1954.

75 JBA CS7/29/1. Letter Smith-Rose, to Lovell, , 6 08 1954.

76 An intriguing parallel in the history of science of territorial ambitions in an abstract space is the nineteenth-century conflict over ‘stratigraphical geology’, see Secord, J. A., Controversy in Victorian Geology: The Cambrian–Silurian Dispute, Princeton and Guildford, 1986, and Rudwick, M. J., The Great Devonian Controversy, London, 1985.

77 See Latour, B., ‘Drawing things together’, in Representation in Scientific Practice (ed. Lynch, M. and Woolgar, S.), London, 1990, 1968, for the advantages given by the use of ‘immutable mobiles’.

78 JBA CS7/29/1. Photograph composed for meeting at GPO, 20 10 1953.

79 For the use of ‘pleasant’ pictures in optical astronomy see Lynch, M. and Edgerton, S. Y. Jr, ‘Aesthetics and digital image processing: representational craft in contemporary astronomy’, in Picturing Power: Visual Depiction and Social Relations, Sociological Review Monograph 35 (ed. Fyfe, G. and Law, J.), London, 1988, 184220.

80 For a discussion of the emergence of a ‘mechanical objectivity’ see Daston, L. and Galison, P.The image of objectivity’, Representations (1992), 40, 81.

81 JBA CS7/29/2. Document ‘Allocation of Frequencies for Radio Astronomy’ drawn by Smith-Rose for Cabinet Radio Committee.

82 JBA CS7/29/1. Letter Smith-Rose, to Lovell, , 30 03 1955.

83 JBA CS7/29/1. Letter Golothan, to Lovell, , 18 11 1957, notes services in Bebington, St Helens, Leeds, Hollinwood, Shrewsbury, Driffield and Northwich, around 183 Mc/s alone.

84 JBA CS7/29/1. Minutes of Cabinet Frequency Committee, 23 07 1954.

85 JBA CS7/29/1. Second Report by the Joint Frequency Planning Panel on the Allocation of Frequencies for Radio Astronomy, 8 01 1955.

86 JBA CS7/29/1. Letter Lovell, to Ryle, , 2 11 1953.

87 Lovell, , op. cit. (9), 170.

88 Ibid., 168.

89 Other urban activities, such as the use of microwave ovens, could cause controversy and interference. During the 1960s and 1970s, Jodrell Bank astronomers, to keep their inscription devices clear at the observatory's centre, had to seek to control the activities within the kitchens of Cheshire.

90 Anvil Films Ltd., op. cit. (1) (my emphasis).

91 Schaffer, S., ‘The Leviathan of Parsontown: Literary Technology and Scientific Representation’, unpublished paper, is a parallel discussion of the slipperiness of astronomical authority, when different actors within a telescope's context conflict.

92 Cahan, D. in ‘The geopolitics and architectural design of a metrological laboratory: the Physikalish-Technische-Reichsanstalt in Imperial Germany’, in James, F. A. J. L., op. cit. (7), 137154, says ‘The key concern in planning and designing metrological laboratories is the environmental control of both external and internal sources of disturbances.’ I suggest that such concerns are more widespread.

93 For such ‘internalist’ study of science see, for example, Hillier, B. and Penn, A., ‘Visible colleges: structure and randomness in the place of knowledge’, in Science in Context, the Place of Knowledge: The Spatial Setting and its Relation to the Production of Knowledge (ed. S. Shapin, A. Ophir and S. Schaffer) (1991), 4, (1), 2349.

Editor's note. This essay was the prize-winning entry in the Society's Singer Prize Competition 1992/3.


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