Jodrell Bank Observatory: 20th Century Industrial Archaeology

JodrellBankJune1967The Jodrell Bank space telescope in Cheshire loomed large in my childhood. In the late 60s’ and early ‘70s family drives out to the area, school visits, and reports on the local news firmly embedded this huge white dish supported by towers with what looked like faces in my imagination. I remember receiving a ‘moonwalker’ toy one Christmas whilst my elder brother glued and painted plastic models of the Saturn V rocket, the lunar module and lunar lander. Of course being my older brother he was allowed to stay up past midnight to witness the moon landing on TV on the 20th July 1969, which in UK time was early in the morning of the 21st July. I watched a news programme at school later that day (Monday 21st), the flickering news pictures shown on a portable plastic white TV brought into our classroom.

The Jodrell Bank Observatory represents an internationally important piece of mid-20th century space technology, still in active scientific use. Research here began in 1945 when the physicist Sir Bernard Lovell came to the University of Manchester, and the site remains in the ownership and use of that university. Lovell helped to pioneer the new science of radio astronomy, using radio waves to explore the cosmos. The radio telescope was completed in 1957, just in time to track the first human-made satellite in orbit (Sputnik) and later tracked the space race to the moon between the USA and USSR of the 1960s. At the time the largest radio telescope in the world (and it’s still the third largest) it has been involved in cutting edge research ever since, and is the oldest radio astronomy observatory in existence. It hosts the UK’s national array of seven radio telescopes and University of Manchester scientists based there collaborate with international scientific programmes of space research.

This is why the Lovell Telescope, as it is properly known, was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO on 7th July 2019, Britain’s 32nd such site. To quote the nomination document ‘Jodrell Bank Observatory is an outstanding example of supreme scientific and technical achievement, which revolutionised our understanding of the universe’. From my point of view this is also a stupendous piece of 20th century industrial archaeology, the physical expression of new scientific approaches and equipment for exploring the universe. It now joins eight other UK industrial archaeology sites designated as World Heritage Sites.

The observatory and its radio telescope lie close to the flight paths for Manchester Airport, which means that passengers travelling into and out of the site at Ringway get a stupendous view of the telescope from above. There is an irony here, because Lovell chose the site for its relative distance from radio interference. In the 1960s the airport was less busy and it was easier to take a light aircraft across the surrounding landscape. Thus, in amongst the collection of aerial photographs I inherited from my late professor of archaeology, Barri Jones, are several images of Jodrell Bank from a flight in the summer of 1967 (see above). Though the telescope is over 60 years old, to me it still looks futuristic, holding a promise of new discoveries.

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