By Malcolm R Chalmers, on 18 January 2019
Our next JBS Haldane Lecture will take place on Wednesday 23rd January 2019, with Massimiano Bucchi giving his talk ‘Geniuses, Heroes and Saints: How the Nobel Prize has (re)invented the public image of science’. As an introduction to this topic, Prof. Bucchi has written a brief blog post for *Research, reproduced below.
The Nobel prizes embody three narratives about the role of elite scientists in society—and they came along at just the right time, says Massimiano Bucchi.
In the autumn of 1996, a UK research council committee rejected a funding application from Harry Kroto. Two hours later, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences called to say that he and two colleagues had won the Nobel prize for chemistry for their discovery of fullerenes; the same subject as the grant application.
The research council swiftly reversed its decision. The British chemist had now entered the small circle of ‘visible scientists’, the elite on whom awards such as the Nobel prize confer almost unassailable prestige and a reputation able to open every door.
This and similar dynamics were described by Robert Merton, founder of the sociology of science, as the ‘Matthew effect’, from the passage in Matthew’s Gospel that states: ‘For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.’
Those in positions of visibility and prestige get privileged access to further resources and prestige, and so on. As one Nobel prizewinner for physics put it: “The world is peculiar in this matter of how it gives credit. It tends to give the credit to [already] famous people.” Or in the words of the Abba song: “The winner takes it all.”
I first visited the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1998. Ever since, I have been studying how the Nobel prize shapes the public image of science—and scientists. The prize announcements are one occasion when science makes global headline news, reaching audiences that are quite distant and not much interested in science. ‘Nobel’ has become a metonym for scientific genius and success.
As another sociologist, Harriet Zuckerman, noted in her 1977 book Scientific Elite, “[the Nobel’s] influence on the public’s image of science probably counts for more than its function as incentive for scientific accomplishment”.
But how has the prize actually shaped how we think about science and scientists? In my 2017 book Come Vincere un Nobel, I argue that the prize underlies three popular narratives: the scientist as genius, the scientist as national hero and the scientist as saint.
The narrative of genius emphasises the scientist’s creativity and intellectual exceptionality, reflecting a solitary and romantic ideal. The narrative of the national hero allows the Nobel laureate to speak in the name of a nation, surrogating and sublimating the tensions and rivalries between nations into a more peaceful and noble competition. The narrative of saint incarnate—a focus of attention and worship, celebrated and consecrated through the elaborate ceremony ritual—is an update of the traditional ideal of the scientist as a secular ascetic.
In terms of the public image and social role of science, the Nobel was the right prize at the right time.
When the first prizes were awarded in 1901, science was already becoming more complex, organised and impersonal. The narrative of genius allowed a focus on individual contributions, figures and faces.
At the same time, the struggle and competition between nations was finding a peaceful alternative in arenas such as the Olympic games and universal exhibitions, and science was beginning to be seen as an expression of national strength. The Nobel prizes offered an opportunity to express political rivalry by other means, especially as they were based in neutral Sweden.
And as the moral exceptionality of scientists began to be questioned, and research was increasingly defined as a profession rather than as a vocation, the prize gave a new language to scientific virtues such as modesty, humility and dedication to the scientific enterprise.
For the general public, science largely remains abstract and inscrutable. The Nobel prize contributed to giving science a face, creating a rich and fascinating repertoire of stories. Alfred Nobel held 355 patents, but the prize founded in his name was his greatest invention.
To quote John Polanyi, speaking at the Nobel banquet after winning the 1986 chemistry prize: “We applaud you, therefore, for your discovery, which has made a memorable contribution to civilisation—I refer, Your Majesties and our Swedish hosts, to the institution of this unique prize.”
By Paul F Ranford, on 11 December 2018
Letters of a teenage astronomer provide a story worth telling, and insight into the charm and generosity of the great Victorian scientist, Sir George Gabriel Stokes, Bart., FRS
Not all historical stories are grand, or important in the history of ideas. Not all will appear in the major textbooks, nor in PhD theses. This story will not appear in my thesis, which concerns itself with the development of Victorian science through the biographical lens of Sir George Gabriel Stokes, Bart., FRS, Lucasian Professor, Secretary of the Royal Society, etc etc. Yet, in the course of research, small tales can be discovered and be worth telling, nevertheless.
This little story interests me because it provides evidence that Stokes’ character was unchanging over time and over social strata. It tells us something of his broader, mostly unacclaimed, influence on scientists and thus on the history of Victorian science. But just for once in my researches, Stokes is not the focus. This is, instead, about a boy and young man of whom you have (more than likely) never heard. A boy and young man possessed with a passion for science, and a longing to belong and contribute to an intellectual community far removed from his personal circumstances. It is a story of success and tragedy, closely aligned. That is why this is a story that might be interesting to all, and I feel compelled to tell it.
Let me introduce you to Benjamin John Hopkins. He was born in Haggerston, a suburb in the East End of London, in October 1862. His family circumstances were not comfortable – his mother disabled, his father a carpenter and joiner of no great repute, and later an innkeeper in Hornsey and then Canning Town. The young boy – he had no siblings – was required to work from the age of about 10 in minor jobs around the pub, and in his teenage years, increasingly, as a bartender.
Education was not a universal privilege when Hopkins was young, and he took such teaching as was available to the family (and for which his parents must take credit). His limited schooling kindled in Hopkins a passion for science, and he gained school certificates in science and art. At the age of about 13 his interest in science became a passion for astronomy, and he spent such pennies as he could glean from money provided for food on second-hand books, and (eventually) an old astronomical quadrant. His parents contributed a pocket telescope, and Hopkins spent quiet periods in the pub reading and nights observing. As far as we can tell, he was entirely self-taught in the subject. In late 1876 – so at barely 14 years of age – Hopkins took the extraordinary step of writing directly to Sir Joseph Hooker (then President of the Royal Society) with a theory concerning interactions between light from the sun and a comet’s tail. Hooker passed the letter to Stokes (then longstanding Physical Sciences Secretary of the RS) who replied to Hopkins at length in early November.
There is a constant theme through Stokes’ life. If he saw a scientist who needed help with some work, he provided that help. It is more than interesting to note that this help was afforded as generously to the young “astronomer behind the bar” as to the grandees of Victorian science. But I must not digress to Stokes…
An extended correspondence began. In the 17 years between November 1876 and June 1893, Hopkins wrote 21 letters – some in brief staccato flurries, some after long intervals – to Stokes. (We only have the Hopkins end of the correspondence. The letters from Stokes almost certainly no longer exist, but we can infer much of their content from Hopkins’ enthusiastic responses.)
Hopkins’ writing – a neat cursive script, carefully phrased, a gift to historians that would shame many of the scientists whose wretched handwriting tarnishes the Stokes’ collection – shows few hints of his tender years and lacks nothing in boldness and ambition. With his first response to Stokes (6 November 1876) he encloses his “Hypothesis to account for the tails of comets keeping in a direction from the sun”.
“Please write me an answer, & let me know you have received it alright, also if you think it worth while, reading at the coming meeting of the Royal Society.”
Stokes’ response was immediate (as usual) and clearly encouraging, for Hopkins’ next letter is dated 8th November – only two days after his first. Stokes must have included some detail of John Herschel’s theory of cometary tails, for Hopkins immediately engages with the argument:
“I see by your letter that Sir J. Herschel says, the reason that the tail keeps in a direction from the sun is because [of] the repulsion of similarly charged bodies. What bodies? – Does he mean the small bodies of which the tail is composed (if composed of such)?; or does he mean tail and nucleus? If he means the first question, [it’s] just as likely for the bodies of which the tail is composed, to repel one another towards the sun, as from it, the same with the second question.”
We must, I think, remind ourselves that this is a 14-year-old boy. Yet he challenges assumptions, guards against preconceptions, points out the possible flaws in a theory based upon his own interpretation of the observable consequences. He went on to supply an alternative theory:
“The pressure of sunlight on the earth is (according to Mr Crookes) about 3,000 million of tons, all this power acting in opposition to the force of attraction; therefore, as Comets are of such extreme rarity, light might be the cause (as light has pressure), of the tail keeping in a direction from the sun.”
The radiometer, as an instrument providing evidence of the so-called “repulsion effect” of sunlight, was first demonstrated at the Royal Society by William Crookes in April 1875. Hopkins was up-to-date in his reading.
He admitted to mathematical shortcomings however:
“I have studied Mathematics a little, but not much. I can find the Latitude and Longitude of a place, also find R.A. [right ascension], Declination, & Refraction [caused by the Earth’s atmosphere] in practical astronomy.
Perhaps his mathematics was in fact somewhat in advance of normal for his teenage years. So was his continued boldness – he asked again if his hypothesis:
“…is worth reading before the R.S.”
Clearly Stokes responded immediately and encouragingly enough, for Hopkins next letter is dated 9th November, only the day after his previous. The postal service was better in those days. For the first time he asks Stokes for assistance:
“I should like to know (if you will be so kind as to inform me) if you could get me a situation (if possible) either in the Cambridge or any other Observatory. The reason I ask is, because I have my living to get & I am going to follow Astronomy for it.”
This is ambitious indeed. Astronomy in England in the 1870s was not a highly professionalised calling. The Astronomer Royal and several university and private observatories provided some opportunities for employment. But Hopkins did not have the customary wherewithal – an inherited fortune, a university education and a network of scientific contacts, and preferably all three – to follow his vocation as a paid employee or as a gentleman amateur. He had nevertheless already started to write a book on the subject, reporting to Stokes that:
“…the first bit I wrote was on the ‘Moon’ while the first chapter was entitled ‘Astronomical Phenomena’ and explained the cause of an ‘eclipse of the Moon’…”
While Stokes was absorbing all this at some greater leisure – perhaps he realised that immediate responses would initiate correspondence requiring significant amounts of time when it was possible he had other work to do – Hopkins could not bear to be patient. A week later he chased Stokes for a response.
His call was heard and answered. In December 1876 George Gabriel Stokes, Fellow and Secretary of the Royal Society, Lucasian Professor, etc etc went to visit the astronomer Benjamin John Hopkins (14) at the Dog and Gun pub in Burnham Street, Canning Town.
We don’t know what occurred there. Stokes met Hopkins and his parents (some subsequent letters include a note of their good wishes to Stokes), and presumably the conversation inspired the young astronomer to greater endeavours. On 5th February 1877 he reported:
“…I have erected a Transit Circle, with which I intend to form a catalogue of the stars, and to observe the ☍ [opposition] of ♂︎[ Mars]. I should very much like you to see it… it is made of wood…”
Hopkins also reported on his observations of the sun, on an idea to: “photograph Jupiter’s belts every hour with a view to finding whether there is any law observed by them”, on his calculations of the likely return dates of the two comets, Biela and Encke, and his desire to prove the existence of a “resisting medium”. This last point would certainly have attracted Stokes’ attention, as his theoretical and experimental work on the “luminiferous ether” which – most contemporaries were convinced – permeated all space, had occupied him for several years. Perhaps this had been discussed in the Dog and Gun. Then, in March, Hopkins tells Stokes he is:
“…constructing a polariscope, the case for glasses, as well as the stand, I am making of wood, which will be ornamented.”
This is all rather serious astronomical work for a teenage boy armed with a pocket telescope, an old quadrant and a few second-hand books.
At some stage in 1877, Stokes introduced Hopkins to Lord Lindsay (James Ludovic Lindsay, 26th Earl of Crawford and 9th Earl of Balcarres, FRS, FRAS (1847-1913)), and Lord Lindsay, too, visited the Dog and Gun pub in the August of that year. He must have been impressed; Hopkins was invited to spend a month at the Earl’s estate (and its well-equipped observatory) in Dunecht, near Aberdeen. Hopkins’ joy at such an experience – and his unquenchable passion for astronomy – was reported to Stokes in an undated letter:
“…I have seen, what I never saw before, and I have learnt what I never knew before.
His Lordship is extremely kind, for he not only sent the money for me to go there with, but he also gave me £1 a week while I was there, and [a] 1½-inch Equatorial [telescope] when I left. My mind is still for Astronomy more fervently than before.
I do not know how I shall repay the kindness which you have shown me”
In October 1877 the first discordant note was sounded – Hopkins reported receiving less than encouraging advice from Lord Lindsay’s paid astronomer, who was clearly not possessed of the same magnanimous nature as the two FRS dignitaries. It seems that Hopkins had been recommended to:
“do something else, and only follow Astronomy as an amateur”.
Hopkins asked Stokes:
“…if you would be so kind as to get me another situation in an observatory… I have not given up Astronomy… I do not care what it is I have to do in an Observatory as long as I am in one.
I am 15 years old this month, and I have to do something, but I shall never, never give up Astronomy.”
Even in this slightly unsettled state, Hopkins reported his astronomical work – studying variable stars, particularly Algol [β Persei] and proposed an idea for original research on how the spectra of variable stars change over time. He also suggested a joint venture between the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society to study various unanswered astronomical questions.
Over the subsequent few years, the pace of this extraordinary correspondence lessened. Hopkins attempted to gain paid work, first with a clothmaker (whose business failed) and then with a brass engraver. Stokes was asked to supply references, which presumably was done. In October 1880 (so Hopkins was 18 years old and seemingly more independent) he travelled to Cambridge to visit Stokes, who was unfortunately away from home. The subsequent letter is plaintive:
“…I could not help feeling greatly disappointed, and I really was.”
By this time, Hopkins sought the honour of joining a learned society of astronomers:
“Is any special qualification necessary to become a FRAS… if not, could a person of my position in Society become such?”
Can non-Fellows attend the meetings [of the RAS]?”
But the social cost of Hopkins’ passion was high:
“…none of my friends are of a scientific turn of mind, so that I am only laughed at by them, they [look] on my stargazing as a waste of time.”
At last, in early 1881, Hopkins gained the access to the learned world he craved. An acquaintanceship with the well-known astronomer Cowper Ranyard FRAS (possibly gained in the same way in which Hopkins had forged a long relationship with Stokes) had resulted in an invitation to a meeting of the Astronomical Society, at which:
“…I enjoyed myself immensely… Mr Ranyard has invited me to again attend a meeting…”
Hopkins progressed with the RAS – in January 1883 he had a paper read at the RAS, and on 13th April he was elected a Fellow – the achievement of his dreams. He had several other articles and letters published by the English Mechanic, had papers accepted by the RAS, and was an enthusiastic and frequent contributor of published items in a variety of learned journals, including Nature.
Not all stories end with achievement and success, and it is a shame that this story does not reach its fitting end here.
Apart from another letter in May 1883 – Hopkins sent Stokes a gift of a brass engraving of the grand lunar crater “Archimedes” – there is no further contact known until August 1886, by which time Stokes was now President of the Royal Society. Hopkins’ personal finances were never better than unsound. He had married in 1884, and with two young daughters, Hopkins was close to the end of his tether. His employer had gone bankrupt, and in trying to set up a new business on his own account:
“…I had the misfortune to have my wife lose her reason through the worry and anxiety of making both ends meet…”
Looking for work “however humble”, Hopkins still took the opportunity to enclose a paper on “A remarkable sunspot”.
By October, later in the year of 1886, the situation seems dire:
“…as near the workhouse as I ever hope to be… There being no immediate prospect of getting work in my own line, and dreading the hardship I shall experience, makes me write this letter to you; trusting you will pardon me, and hoping you may know of something suitable.
P.S. I do not want to give up the systematic pursuit of science, but if something permanent does not come up I am afraid I shall have to. I did think when I had learnt a trade, I should have been able to have devoted the few leisure hours I get to it, but such is not my fate. I have never allowed my scientific tastes to interfere with the means by which I get my living, and yet it seems as though I am doomed to be crushed beneath the iron heel of poverty.”
We do not know what Stokes made of this, nor if he was able to offer any substantial assistance at all. We do not know if there was any response whatsoever but, if so, there is no reply from Hopkins in the collection. His next letter – November 1887 – merely congratulates Stokes on his election as a Member of Parliament representing Cambridge University.
There was then a substantial hiatus in the correspondence. The next letter is dated 6 June 1893, so nearly five years after the last. Hopkins was by then 30 years old. But it seems that contact of some form was maintained, as Hopkins noted a meeting with Stokes in Greenwich Observatory “last Saturday”, and (as apparently promised), sent Stokes a copy of his book Astronomy for the Every-Day Reader. This, astonishingly, is the work first mentioned by the 14-year-old Hopkins in 1876, now completed and published. And at last the sad tale seems to be at an end, for:
“It has met with unexpected success, the 2nd edition (4th thousand) having been called within three months of the publication of the first.”
Hopkins “little book” was a blockbuster. And once again, this would be the perfect place to end, and indeed I wished the story did end here, with success and fortune and surely more sound astronomical work and scientific achievements and perhaps honours to follow.
This was Hopkins’ last letter to Stokes. And with this letter, and the tale of success, comes the sting in the tail, for in the attempt to have his work published:
“I sold the M.S. to Messrs Philips for the nominal sum of £5… Unfortunately I do not benefit by its large sale.
Kindly let me know that you receive it all right.”
£5 in 1893, carefully administered, was probably enough to pay the family bills for a few weeks. Not for very long however, and certainly not the several months that Hopkins had left to him.
For Benjamin John Hopkins FRAS died on 16 January 1894 at the desperately early age of 31, leaving (according to his RAS obituary) “an invalid widow and two little girls in very poor circumstances”.
And so, I’ve written this tragic tale for no reason other than to place on a record – somewhere, anywhere – a remembrance of Benjamin John Hopkins, the “astronomer behind the bar”, a young man with a constant, undiminished, searing passion for science and who was true to his promise to never, never give up Astronomy. Some people are not important, but deserve to be remembered, nevertheless.
Hopkins’ letters in the Stokes collection, Cambridge University Library, Collection: GBR/0012/MS, Add 7656, Reel CM04952
Hopkins B.J. (1893), Astronomy for the Every Day Reader, London, George Philip & Son
By Jon Agar, on 2 August 2017
One of the most secret and inaccessible sites in England is the island of Foulness in Essex. An outstation of atomic research, as well as a cluster of other scientific projects that needed space and seclusion, Foulness is also good agricultural land, with a village featuring a steepled church and a pub (both now closed). Once a month during the summer the single access road is opened to allow visitors – tourists, the curious, relatives of islanders, and the odd historian – to explore some of island. I’ve wanted to go for years, and I finally made the trip in May 2017 with friends and family. It was a jolly day out, with a look around the village and volunteer-run Heritage Centre, and a gentle tractor tour around the less sensitive parts of the island. We saw some of the social history of the community, but there was plenty that we did nor or could not see. So I have been digging into the archives and the literature to explore the history of Foulness.
I’ll start with the history of the Foulness community, largely inspired by the story told in the museum. Scroll down for the secret history of science and technology.
(1) Foulness island and community
Before 1922, foot access to Foulness was via one of the oddest and most dangerous paths in Britain: the Broomway, a track exposed on sand at low tide of the North Sea. There’s a description of walking the Broomway in Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways (2012). Otherwise boats ferried people, animals and indeed fresh water back and forth. The community was oriented around the manor house. Artillery practice and research began a few miles south of Foulness at Shoeburyness in the mid-19th century. During the First World War the War Office secured land rights, but only after the recalcitrant lord of the manor died in 1915. In 1922, a military road was built, connecting the mainland near Great Wakering, crossing the dykes and ditches in a more or less straight line into Foulness, across Havengore and New England creeks and finishing at Churchend. A military rail line was built on the island, but it did not connect to the mainland.
Foulness was good for growing crops, making salt (indeed the island grew as saltings were filled), and catching wild fowl – the last activity is the origin of the name. The human population was never much more than 500, and now hovers around 150.
Foulness is rarely in the news, except for rare occasions of the monstrous and the threatening. In the 1930s, the public milling through the Essex Show (and on tour to the Bath & West Show, the Islington Fatstock Show and the Kent Show) marvelled at the “Foulness Ox”. Purchased at Chelmsford cattle market and fattened on the island, this animal was over 6 feet tall and weighed 1.625 metric tons. The Ox’s slaughter was reported by newspapers. Its former owner, Mr. H. Belton, told the Sunday Express that “There never was such an ox in the world”.
Foulness is low-lying land, with sea walls encircling. In 1953 the great flood overwhelmed the defences. While much of the population was evacuated, two people and many sheep and pigs were drowned. In the museum there are aerial photographs, which show the waters surrounding all but the higher land around the church, and a display of toys (Figure 5) sent from America for the children of Foulness as families rebuilt their lives.
In the late 1960s, Foulness was threatened again, this time by the proposal that Maplin Sands, east of the island, could be the location of the third London airport (after Heathrow and Gatwick). A campaign group, the Defenders of Essex, argued that the rural character of the area would be destroyed. The arguments lasted from 1968 to 1974, when the returning administration of Harold Wilson abandoned the idea.
Despite the emphasis on the historical, and indeed the presence of the monstrous and the threatening, there is no representation, understandable perhaps in the context of extreme secrecy, at the Foulness Heritage Centre, of the extraordinary nuclear work of the island.
(2) Atomic Foulness
There are two main secondary sources on military research at Foulness: Wayne Cocroft and Sarah Newsome’s archeological survey for English Heritage, published online (1), and B.G. Eunson’s incompletely declassified draft history (2). Cocroft and Newsome draw on primary sources as well as Brian Cathcart’s Test of Greatness (1994). Eunson’s partial history was not available when Cocroft and Newsome were writing their report.
In the mid-19th century, the Board of Ordnance tested rockets from Shoeburyness onto the Maplin Sands (some have been recovered and can be seen in the Smithsonian, here is probably an example). Testing larger artillery required more space, and ranges to the immediate south-east of Foulness (Havengore and New England islands) began to be used. It was part of a network of sites coordinated from the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich’s Research Department (later moved to Fort Halstead in Kent, and renamed the Armament Research Department). From 1923, Eunson records that when Havengore island began to be used, part of the set up was a ‘mobile laboratory – a converted railway wagon, painted white – which was taken by rail to Shoeburyness and thence to Havengore … for trials that could not be accommodated in the small bomb chambers at Woolwich’ (2). In the Second World War, the War Office’s Armament Research Department used Havengore alongside another site at Millersford in the New Forest in Hampshire. Millersford had a restriction of 500 lb for a bomb or 1,000 lb for a bare charge, and so Havengore (where there were no restrictions) was used for larger explosive charges. The scientist in charge of Millersford was Roy Pilgrim.
Post-war, Millersford had to be returned to the commissioners of the New Forest. The Ministry of Supply, responsible for the Armament Research Department, decided that work would be concentrated at Foulness, and acquired land.
In January 1947, Attlee’s secret cabinet committee took the decision to build a British nuclear bomb. Willam Penney, who had been involved with the Manhattan Project and was Chief Superintendent Armaments Research at Fort Halstead, led the team. Like the wartime British ‘Tube Alloys’ and American ‘Manhattan’ projects, it had a misleading title: Basic High Explosives Research (HER). Foulness from 1948 became an integral part to the new network of UK atomic weapon sites: Risley in Cheshire produced the fissile metals plutonium and uranium as well as polonium for the initiator; necessary research was conducted at Harwell in Oxfordshire; the high explosive lenses were machined at Woolwich; other parts came from Royal Ordnance Factory at Chorley, Lancashire, and the Percival Aircraft Company of Luton, Bedfordshire, the whole would be co-ordinated first from Fort Halstead and then from the bespoke headquarters at Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) Aldermaston in Berkshire.
Foulness would be where the whole came together. In early summer 1952, in the Explosives Preparation Laboratory, after practising with a concrete mock-up Alfred, the first three British atomic bombs, Hero, Hengist and Horsa, were assembled, with the high explosive lenses being placed around Aldermaston’s plutonium core, completing the devices. Transported by lorry, barge and frigate to the Monte Bello islands, located off the north-west coast of Australia, one of these devices was detonated on 3 October 1952, the Hurricane test.
The British atomic bomb project had been announced in 1948, over a year after it had begun in secret. Foulness’s nuclear role was publicly admitted (probably inadvertently, say Cocroft and Newsome) in 1954 when a job advertisement mentioning AWRE Foulness appeared in Nature (3). The recruitment was part of a large expansion of nuclear work at Foulness in response to the decision, taken in 1954, to build a British hydrogen bomb. Only a year after the Great Flood, £500,000 was spent on new buildings, and an increase in staff was planned, from 297 in 1954 to 408 by March 1955 (4). Even so, Foulness began to run out of space for safe testing, and this realisation prompted the decision to build further facilities at Orfordness on the Suffolk coast.
Work at AWRE Foulness was varied, and widely distributed across different ranges. In addition to the assembling of the first British nuclear bombs, scientists developed monitoring instruments, tested to destruction Magnox reactor vessels for civil nuclear power, investigated the effects of nuclear blasts and shock waves using scaled down models (of buildings and of organisms, see Figure 7), including work on the planned silos for the Blue Streak missile, and tested components of the nuclear weapons that were in fact deployed: Polaris, Chevaline and Trident. Major experimental instruments include a large Air Blast Simulator – 206m in length, built in the 1960s, probably because the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 had prohibited atmospheric nuclear explosions – an Underwater Range, built around a 38 foot square concrete pond, a Compressed Air Launcher, a Thermal Radiation Facility, a Spigot Intrusion Test Facility (essentially a large gantry arm from which explosives were dropped on to a steel plate), Shock Tubes (including one 44m in length), as well as numerous laboratories, casting shops, and test buildings (5). One shock tube, planned in 1957, was justified as follows:
The shock tube will be used to make three dimensional studies of the diffraction of blast on structures and models, the blast being a scaled equivalent of that produced by the explosion of a megaton weapon. (6)
The research on the effects of nuclear blasts was particularly important in a diplomatic context, since, the results were ‘a crucial intellectual commodity’, one of the few areas where following the US 1946 McMahon Act, atomic knowledge ‘could be exchanged with the United States, and thereby maintaining links with its nuclear science community’ (8). Toys were not the only gifts passing across the Atlantic in the 1950s. Indeed the thermonuclear work can be understood in similar terms; the British H-bomb project was largely pursued with the aim of reopening full US-UK nuclear relations in the event of a successful test.
While atomic work ended at Foulness in 1997, the AWRE site is closed to the public, for reasons of contamination (not least from toxic beryllium, foul-ness of a different kind) and stray munitions as much as continued secrecy. A visitor to the island travels along the main road, passing the entrance of AWRE Foulness on the left. Following the route on the map below, which dates from the time of thermonuclear expansion after 1954, the visitor starts at the bottom left, crossing Havengore and New England islands, and passes the entrance, where what is now called Pilgrim Way leads into the AWRE site. If you were to drive along Pilgrim Way, you would pass side roads on the left that lead to Range 1, Ranges 4, 3 and 6, Ranges 2 and 7 and then Ranges 8 and 9. A side road to the right leads to Ranges 5, 10 and 11. The next road on the right takes you to the Magazine Area, which contains the Explosives Preparation Laboratory where the Hurricane test bomb was assembled. Finally one reaches the Headquarters, safely at a distance from the ranges, where there were offices, a canteen, a computer centre, as well as laboratories and workshops.
Some of the larger experimental structures can be glimpsed from the road, including the gantry of the Spigot Intrusion Facility near Range 11 and (probably) one of the blast simulators or shock tubes.
All this work required infrastructure in addition to buildings and facilities. The 1954 expansion needed a new electricity supply, which in turn called for pylons or underground cables (9). Drinkable water was always a problem. An artesian well, present by the 1830s, had to reach down 460 feet to reach fresh water, the deepest in Essex (10). In 1958, AWRE Foulness’s water needs were described as ‘beyond question’:
Our current consumption of water is up to 28,000 gallons daily and we expect shortly a 25% increase. The bore-holes which serve our enclave as well as the Ministry of Supply establishments … have capacity of 34,000 gallons per day. We have managed only by the use of storage tanks which fill up at night and at weekends but, despite the most rigid economy in the use of water, the tanks run very low by the end of each week, and the medical authorities are already concerned at the quality of the water. (11)
The Ministry of Supply establishment mentioned here included the outpost of the Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment at Potton Island, to the west, as well as continuing trials on the eastern half of Foulness adjoining Maplin Sands and the North Sea. One of the few structures a public visitor can examine closely is an aerial tower with radar ball, which naval ships in the North Sea would target during artillery tests (see Figure 10)
Elsewhere on the island (to the far north of the AWRE site and closer to the civilian population at Churchend) an Environmental Test Centre opened in the 1960s, part of the (now) Ministry of Defence’s Proof and Experimental Establishment, the main site of which was at Shoeburyness.
Not much is known about the feelings of Foulness residents – mostly farmers, their family and employees – to the expanding military activity on their island. Essex residents on the mainland certainly did complain. Unsightly pylons were opposed in the 1950s (not least because there was already one set marching across the land towards the Bradwell nuclear power station being built on the Dengie peninsula, north of Foulness) (9). But a more serious problem was noise. Detonations rocked houses and even broke windows many miles away. Following the admission that Foulness was undertaking atomic work, complaints increased. The Southend-on-Sea and District Trades Council wrote en masse, saying they were ‘extremely concerned at the danger to Southend and district of the Atomic Experimental station’. One resident of Burnham-on-Crouch wrote to his MP, Tom Driberg, asking
for an explanation of the recent explosions which have at times shaken this town recently. For instance last evening at 8.0 pm and 8.25 pm there were two huge “bangs” which shook this house. Surely my wife and children can expect a normal nights sleep and my wife not be expected to comfort them for a time after each bang! Cannot these experiments as such be carried out in the day time? (12)
It’s telling that this correspondent clearly considered the detonations justified, merely inappropriately timed. (Tom Driberg, on the other hand, would soon become a prominent campaigner against thermonuclear weapons.) A resident of Rochford, Essex, cunningly dressed up his complaint as a suggestion about security:
Since the government has seen fit to build a research station on Foulness, will it also recompense us for any damage sustained to houses as a result of blast, etc…?
I am not a person to question the opinion of Sir William Penney but there are far more secluded areas on the coast of Scotland where such a station could be built.
There may only be a few people on the island but I do not think it is so secluded as the Government thinks.
There are many waterways including the Crouch and the Roach by which the island can be reached, to say nothing of foreign vessels calling at Canewdon.
Also what is to prevent aircraft sighting the station[?].
One has only to live in this road to know that traffic is still leaving the coast at 3 o’clock in the morning
There are no coastguards in the area and I still say that, under cover of darkness, Foulness island is still open. (13)
All such complaints were met with fairly frank replies, saying that the work was necessary, only involved high explosives (‘no nuclear explosions have been or will be made’), and any proven damage recompensed. (14)
Finally, a more conciliatory interest – spanning residents, and civil and military government agencies – was found in nature. The remoteness of Foulness was as attractive to wildlife as it was to military researchers. Birds flocked to island, especially in winter, despite the occasional bangs. In the mid 1970s, the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) co-ordinated a Conservation Group, which reached out to residents of Foulness to help record species, maintain ponds, plant trees, and negotiate rabbit control. (15). The RSPB had been impressed by the response of AWRE staff to an archeology display, and wondered whether something similar could be produced ‘for the birds’: it ‘would be lovely to get Sandwich terns back, especially as they are probably doing worse than little terns at the moment’. There may have been disputes – for example over whether parts of New England island should be returned to arable use or conserved for wildlife – but it was also noted that ‘the farmers have a greater knowledge of the land and its wildlife than the members of the NCC’. (16) As the military authority wrote, even though Foulness was ‘engaged on work of a classified nature, and at the same time being a closed firing range’, ‘we do have a common ground of interest regarding conservation’ (17). As a 1990s valedictory article in the AWE (Atomic Weapons Establishment) News-Link began:
With the end of the Cold War another chapter closes… Boundaries can be mysterious and challenging places, and nowhere is this more true than at an estuary where a tired rive mingles slowly with the sea amid marsh and salt flat. Often surrounded in mist or scoured by biting winds, haunted by sea birds and open to immense skies, an estuary might seem to be one of the last strongholds of nature. … Yet here there is evidence of human occupation over many hundreds of years, from Roman settlements to the facilities constructed as part of Britain’s campaign to develop an independent nuclear deterrent. (18)
The title of the article: the ‘Fascination of Foulness’.
(1) Wayne Cocroft and Sarah Newsome, Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Foulness, Essex. Cold War Research & Development Site. Survey Report. Portsmouth: English Heritage, 2009.
(2) B.G. Eunson, ‘AWRE Foulness: a unique establishment’, second draft, 1986. Parts are available in National Archives (NA) ES 17/27 (opened February 2017) and probably earlier draft chapters and appendices ES 17/13 (opened May 2016).
(3) Cocroft and Newsome, p. 13. I haven’t found this advertisement. But a search uncovers a vacancy for a ‘General Experimental Physicist, Principal Scientific Officer or Senior Scientific Officer grade’ for UKAEA, contact AWRE, in Nature (12 February 1955, p. 312) and further experimental officers the same month.
(4) Cocroft and Newsome, p. 21.
(5) Cocroft and Newsome, p. 38, p. 45, p. 55, p. 82.
(6) ‘Large shock tube at Foulness’. Bundy to Hudspith, 17 October 1957. TA AB 16/1777. ‘Such tests cannot be measured by usual scale model methods as the fall of rate in pressure is too rapid. The tube will be used to assist in the dynamic calibration of pressure gauges for use in local and overseas trials’, but also for the design of shelters.
(7) NA ES 3/77. K.F. Mead and J.E. Uppard, ‘UKAEA. AWRE. AWRE Report no. E7/64/ Preliminary shock tube work performed at Foulness for 500 TNT at Suffield 1964’, January 1965.
(8) Cocroft and Newsome, p. 16.
(9) NA AB 16/1777. AWRE to Wheldon (Finance Branch, UKAEA), 4 July 1957.
(10) ‘Science news a century ago. Wells in the London Clay in Essex’, Nature (20 May 1939), p. 866. The news item recalled a paper presented by Dr Mitchell to the Geological Society on 22 May 1839.
(11) NA AB 16/1777. Hudspith to Thompson, 2 September 1958.
(12) NA AB 16/1313. Nicholls to Driberg, 8 July 1954.
(13) NA AB 16/1313. Ramsey to McAdden, 29 March 1954. McAdden was another local MP.
(14) NA AB 16/1313. Lord Salisbury to McAdden, 28 April 1954. In another letter, Peirson to Tourtoulon, 24 April 1954, the Southend-and-District Trades Council were read an extract from Hansard: ‘The Foulness Range has been used over some years by the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, for experimental work with conventional high explosives. The work is an essential step in the development of atomic weapons. The explosions are also used to study the effects on model structures and so provide valuable data for those forms of Civil Defence. I can definitely say that no nuclear explosions have been or will be made, nor will experiments be made with fission products or any other hazardous radioactive material’.
(15) NA DEFE 72/207. ‘Foulness Conservation Group’, meeting 9 September 1975.
(16) NA DEFE 72/207. Griffiths, ‘Notes of a meeting held in the Parish Hall on Foulness Island on 18 November 1975’, November 1975.
(17) NA DEFE 72/207. Colonel G.B.R. Horridge to J.M. Johnston, December 1976.
(18) NA ES 17/27. ‘Fascination of Foulness’, AWE News-Link, undated (1990s).
By Jon Agar, on 26 July 2017
When we think of the anti-communism of the early Cold War, we tend to picture the McCarthyism of the United States and the hunt for red influence in Hollywood. But science was under suspicion too. The most infamous case of a scientist becoming entangled with anti-communism, J. Robert Oppenheimer’s “trial” in 1954, which led to the atomic scientist’s security clearance being revoked, is also American. In Britain, Alan Nunn May, the King’s College London physicist, who had worked on the wartime atomic bomb project, was arrested and convicted of espionage in 1946. Likewise, Klaus Fuchs, a German who had come to Britain in 1933 and who had worked at Los Alamos, where he leaked atomic secrets to the Soviets, was exposed in 1950. In 1955 there were at least 87 scientists in Britain who were Communist Party members (1).
It was in this context, of deep concerns about communists working within British scientific institutions, that we find the security service casting its net of surveillance wide, and paying close attention to scientists, including some at University College London. With the opening of the MI5 files at the National Archives, the extent and character of surveillance of university staff can be explored in detail. In this post I will open the files on three UCL scientists, each of whom was kept under surveillance because of their communist beliefs and activities. One is ordinary, one was a scientific superstar, and the last a reluctant controversialist.
(1) The Ordinary Communist
O/C call from ALAN to JOHN. ALAN asks when the Meeting is. JOHN says it has fallen through so he doesn’t know. ALAN wants to get the phone numbers and addresses of these people for letter writing. JOHN sounds as if he will be at University College tomorrow dissecting something. ALAN will see him tomorrow. (2)
The first set of files concern Alan Robin Ness. His story is perhaps typical of low-level local communist organiser and the state’s surveillance response. Yet it is the very everyday character of the Ness case that shows how inadvertently revealing the MI5 files can be to historians.
Ness was twenty years’ old when he first drew the attention of Special Branch in 1943. He had been noticed speaking and chairing at Communist Party meetings in Putney. A police sergeant, who knew Ness by sight, wrote the first report. Using the National Register, this policeman could quickly trace the past and present residences of his charge. (3) So we know that Ness had been evacuated, while at Wandsworth Secondary School, to West Byfleet in Surrey. There he took the Higher Schools Certificate in June 1940 and awarded a London County Council Senior County Exhibition to attend the Royal Dental Hospital in Leicester Square from that Autumn. Reserved from call-up, he volunteered as an Air Raid Warden. He lived with his father, a civil servant, at 158 West Hill, Putney. The sergeant described his physical appearance: height 5 foot 9 inches, slim build, ‘hair black, long and brushed back-wavy, eyes brown, swarthy complexion, large nose, thick lips, wears horn rimmed glasses, rather untidy appearance’.
By 1950, Ness had arrived at UCL as a student, later becoming a researcher and ultimately a member of staff in the Physiology department. He took on the post of secretary of the branch of the Communist Party at UCL, and, as we can see from the following letter to Sam Aaronovitch, tried to find Marxist speakers for faculty society talks. We can also deduce, from the negative images of correspondence in these files, that Ness’s paperwork was being caught up in the comprehensive interception and copying of Communist Party headquarters mail.
Ness was a minor concern for MI5. He partook in the social and political activities of the Party: attending a World Youth Fair in Budapest, wrote letters to MPs as part of a British Peace Committee campaign, sent another letter to the US Ambassador about the Korean War, and protested at the Spanish Embassy in support of strikers in Barcelona. In the early UCL years we encounter him as he wanders into view during the surveillance of others. We overhear him complaining to the Party that he feels overworked and overtired, and that he wants to suspend being secretary of the UCL CP faculty branch so that he can get his first academic paper out. The subsequent discussion of possible replacements provides a map of communist staff at UCL in the early 1950s, including the physicist Franz Heymann and the biologist John Maynard Smith.
Ness attracted greater attention when he became a friend of Alan Nunn May. The atom spy had been released from prison (with hard labour) in 1952. Alan and his wife Christian (Hamp, whom he married in the same year) got on well with Nunn May and his partner, Hildegard. MI5 tapped the Ness’s phone and opened their mail. The surveillance net around the atom spy was intense. When Alan and Christine attended the Nunn Mays’ marriage, in Cambridge, it is clear from the report that an informant was even at the ceremony and reception.
The thorough surveillance means that intimate documents, ones which would otherwise have been guarded or destroyed, have been archived. Such documents reveal the tensions between personal, professional and political life, and make them accessible to historians. For example, in 1954 Christian’s father, Stanley Hinge Hamp (4), wrote a heartfelt plea to Alan which speaks of his paternal concern for his daughter, her potential as an architect, the stress that she was under, and, most interestingly his view that Alan had ‘already made her a fellow traveller, but sooner or later she will see through it all and tragedy may be the result’.
Christian Ness would, in fact, combine all her so-called ‘duties’ successfully: she continued as an architect (with a brief interruption), and completed some significant commissions, notably the modernist Hampden Hill estate in Beaconsfield in the early 1960s, as well as work on the Russian Shop in Holborn in 1962. Already active in Architects Society for Peace and Construction, she joined the Communist Party in 1954.
In that year, Alan, wanting to focus on his PhD, passed on the post of secretary of the UCL staff branch of the Communist Party to John Maynard Smith, at which point the telephone and postal surveillance of Alan Ness was stopped.
(2) The Science Superstar
John Burdon Sanderson Haldane – JBS Haldane – had been tracked by MI5 and Special Branch since 1928, when he was at the University of Cambridge. He arrived at University College London in the early 1930s as Professor of Genetics (later Biometry). He was a tireless speaker for left-wing causes, and wrote regular science articles for the Daily Worker, back when scientific journalism was new. He was a very prominent, public Marxist, close to the CPGB leaders.
The surveillance of JBS Haldane is full of the ironies of the spy game. A 1946 letter from a M.B. Towndrow tipping MI5 off that Haldane had been invited to an international congress on philosophy in Rome, where he ‘might possibly be asked by the British Communist Party to make contact with the Italian Communist Party’, was addressed to Kim Philby, who would be revealed as the third man of the Cambridge spy ring when he defected in 1963.
In 1948, Haldane was at the centre of a failed British pseudo-McCarthyite witch hunt. In March, the Daily Express reported Haldane as saying:
I certainly am a Communist – as good a Communist as anyone. I am working on two Government scientific sub-committees, one of which deals with under-water physiology. They don’t pay me anything, and they can throw me off if they want to. … They can go on sacking people, but the only result will be that all sorts of people will be denounced as Communists when they are not. If I got orders from Moscow, I would leave the Communist Party forthwith. But sometimes I wish we did get orders from Moscow. I would like to know what they are thinking. The only group of people in this country who get orders from foreign Powers are Roman Catholics. (5)
In April, the fabulously named Sir Waldron Smithers (6), who urged the formation of a Select Committee for Un-British Activities, lodged a PMQ to Clement Attlee asking the Prime Minister ‘if he is aware that Professor Haldane, an avowed Communist, is working on two Government scientific committees; and what action he proposed to take’? (7) When Attlee responded that he had nothing to add to previous statements of policy, Smithers replied, citing the Daily Express quotation, asking whether Attlee was ‘not aware that purges, to be effective, must apply to people like Professor Haldane?’ (8). Attlee again refused to change course. When Smithers asked a second question in May 1948, this time urging Attlee to ‘extend the purge of the Civil Service to members of Government advisory committees and the BBC’, an (unidentified) honorary member of the House of Commons, heckled: ‘And to the Tory back bench’. (9)
The immediate threat of British McCarthyism receded. But following years would be a extremely difficult for Haldane – public figure, Marxist, geneticist – because of the great set-piece of Cold War science anti-communism: the Lysenko affair. Trofim Lysenko, the agronomist who promised revolutionary new methods to grow crops to feed the Soviet people and who won Stalin’s personal support, was at the height of his baleful influence.
On 30 November 1948, Haldane appeared on a BBC Third Programme broadcast on “The Lysenko Controversy”, alongside R.A. Fisher, Cyril Darlington and Sydney Harland. (10) Haldane spoke last, after the first three eminent scientists had lambasted Lysenko. He also rejected Lysenkoism, although he ended his criticism with a compromised tone: it ‘doesn’t mean that we can neglect his work, or that of [the proto-Lysenkoist] Michurin’. The broadcast caused consternation in the offices of the Communist Party of Great Britain. We know this because the offices were bugged, and we have the transcript of what was said:
JAMES KLUGMAN was talking to BILL WAINWRIGHT. JAMES was critical of HALDANE’s speech on LYSHENKO [sic]. He said that his speech sounded liberal because it was made after three fire-eaters had had their say. He felt that there was danger of HALDANE being chased away from the Party… BILL said that he had listened to HALDANE’s speech last night and his opinion was that it was a step in advance of any previous position he had taken. JAMES did not agree, although he admitted HALDANE, knowing he was speaking to the enemies, was putting forward as much of the positive side of his attitude as he could. … JAMES said if he were in such a position he would either shut up or put forward the Party’s line with which he disagreed. Where he blamed HALDANE so much was that he had failed to do this. BILL continued to stick up for HALDANE… (11)
The problem, as most Party leaders saw it, was that Haldane was a public figure who was not following the Party line:
JAMES said that the fact that a well known Communist Scientist like HALDANE should have differed from LYSHENKO would give the reactionaries all over the world an opportunity to attack them. HALDANE must be persuaded to come and consult the Party before he took part in any future public debates or made any statements.
(The transcribed eavesdrop ends with Klugmann and Wainwright joking that perhaps they should advertise Lysenko’s book in The Times, The Listener, and the agricultural and gardening journals: ‘they could sell big enough quantities to enable them to retire on the proceeds for life!’)
For Haldane, however, the problem was one of independence. He fell out with J.D. Bernal on the question of Lysenkoism in 1949. He wrote (and withdrew) letters of resignation to the Party. Yet despite his claim that any political pressure from Moscow would prompt him to leave the Party, the Party nevertheless exerted such pressure. For example, in 1953, Haldane was called in to see Harry Pollitt, the General Secretary of CPGB and Stalinist. The record (again a report from an eavesdropper, presumably via a bug), makes uncomfortable reading:
HARRY told HALDANE that the Soviet Academy of Science had asked him officially to approach HALDANE and invite him to go for a holiday to the Soviet Union. HALDANE said hastily with a lot of stammering that he would not be able to take a holiday this summer. HARRY said “You won’t?” in surprise and added that this was very important. HALDANE stammering more than ever, said he knew it was important but he had to keep his laboratory going… HARRY said rather rudely that he saw the sort of jam that HALDANE was in but “you are a Party man, you know”. He suggested September. (12)
Haldane was routinely tracked and surveilled. He also knew this to be the case. A delightful example comes from 1951. Haldane spoke at a Science for Peace meeting at Conway Hall, Holborn, on the topic of the Korean War. The meeting was packed: there were 300 in the Hall, and 150 more in an overflow room. The MI5 file has two reports of what was said. The first came from someone at the American Embassy, London. Haldane railed against ‘the futility and stupidity of the secrecy which cloaks the scientific endeavors in the Atlantic Pact [NATO] countries today’ (13). He illustrated the point with several anecdotes, one of which was on the sex lives of fungi, that the American spy thought only ‘allegedly humorous’. Haldane then turned to the subject of atom spies. “Nunn May”, he said, “was a fool”. Moreover, he
would not be surprised at all to learn that the United Kingdom had secret agents in the USSR trying to spy out Russian scientific achievements. Conversely, it was quite possible that the USSR had a few such persons in the United Kingdom (Laughter)
Indeed (and here we have to picture the MI5 officers reading this report), the problem was not scientists but their political masters:
With respect to security generally in the United Kingdom, [Haldane] commented as to the absurdity of the efforts of MI5 (British Counterintelligence). He [Haldane] assured the audience from personal observation and experiences over a period of years of association with classified government projects that the procedures and investigative methods of government agencies such as MI5 (“in this country and elsewhere”) are not really capable of uncovering really clever people. The people who are really responsible for so-called breaches of security are people in high places who whisper things to their friends to impress the latter.
Here the ironies start rebounding. The second, more detailed report of the meeting, probably by a Special Branch or MI5 officer, has Haldane defending scientists and also making a remarkable offer, which is worth quoting at length:
Leakages of information took place, not from scientists but from other high levels. He had had three personal experiences where in one instance a high ranking Government Official had informed him, although aware of his political opinions, of the development of radar, another … [of] nuclear fission. If there was a representative of MI5 in the audience who wanted these three names and addresses, Professor Haldane would be pleased to give them after the meeting.
He knew, as everyone knew, that scientists were not spies. They weren’t clever enough, and were too absent minded. They could never remember the code word, so MI5 were wasting its time restricting the legitimate activities of research workers and would do better to screen politicians, letting those whose business it was to develop and create to get on with it. Restrictions would kill science, and when true science died, the world would also perish. (14)
MI5 was not concerned with the question of whether secrecy would kill science, and thereby end the world. The counterintelligence organisation was in a quandary, however, about whether to take up Haldane’s offer of his own intelligence. At this point crucial parts of the file are redacted, and we don’t know what happened next.
(3) The Third Scientist
If Alan Ness was the ordinary communist and J.B.S. Haldane was the Marxist scientist superstar, then Eric Burhop was the middle-ranking UCL researcher who was unfairly suspected of a serious security breach and stepped unwittingly into controversy. Burhop was Australian, who had trained at the Cavendish and whom his fellow countryman, the physicist Mark Oliphant, had brought into the Manhattan Project during the Second World War, where he had worked alongside Harrie Massey, yet another Australian. When Massey returned to UCL in 1945, he brought Burhop back with him, first in the mathematics department and then part of the team that built up UCL’s post-war physics department.
Of all the UCL scientists, Burhop’s MI5 files are by far the most numerous and fattest (15). As a communist atomic scientist this scale of surveillance is not in itself surprising. Initially, Burhop’s surveillance is low-level and routine. It was noted, for example, that he had appeared alongside J.D. Bernal at a British-Soviet Society meeting, where he spoke on the subject of atomic warfare, opposing the existence of American atom bombers being stationed on British airfields. When an Evening Standard reporter challenged Burhop, asking him whether he was a communist, Burhop declined to answer except to say “A man’s politics, like his religion, are a private matter”.(16)
But as the Fuchs case broke, so the surveillance of British atomic scientists stepped up, and permission was granted to tap Burhop’s telephone.
But in 1951, state security interest in Burhop increased dramatically. The cause was the surfacing of old FBI tittle-tattle, which said:
As late as 1945, an Australian atomic scientist who worked on an Atomic Energy project was in close touch with Communist Party members in Brooklyn, New York, and through them with the highest Communist officials in the United States. The Australian atomic scientist passed on everything he knew about our Atomic Energy Programme including ‘the setup in New Mexico’ [ie Los Alamos]. The Australian scientist is no longer in the United States. He was in this country in 1943, 1944 and 1945, and made his contacts at the Thomas Jefferson School in New York City. He may be of the Jewish faith.
Attention now focussed on the group around Oliphant, including Oliphant himself, Massey, four others, Burhop, and (given that an American could hardly be expected to distinguish the accents) the New Zealander Maurice Wilkins.
Surveillance of Burhop was now intense. Not only was his phone tapped, but he was also followed by plain-clothed Special Branch officers as he travelled from home to UCL and back again.
One report, for example, records that Burhop – “Age 40, height 6ft 1 ins, well built, round face, ruddy complexion, eyes brown, hair brown, thin on top, thick at the sides, small nose, clean shaven. He walks with a slight stoop and takes noticeably short sides. He usually carries a small brown attache case and raincoat. Wears herring-bone tweed sports coat and grey flannels, brown shoes” – had left his Surbiton home at 9am and walked to Surbiton station en route to UCL. Another report says
BURHOP was seen at 1pm making a telephone call and 55 minutes later was picked up leaving the Canteen. He walked to the Westminster Bank, Tavistock House, Upper Woburn Place. He was back at College by 2.5pm.
(Note the implication of this report that the Cold War security services were trailing Burhop within UCL itself. Another report detailed that Burhop had not left Gower Place up to 10.30pm, although there were ‘many exits and we cannot cover every one’ and there had also been a dance at the College that night, which suggests that, in this instance, plain-clothes officers were waiting at the gates.)
When Burhop decided that he wanted to travel to Moscow in 1951, the security services were sent into a flap. The Australian authorities were prevailed to cancel his Australian passport, but Burhop secured a British replacement. Herbert Morrison, the Foreign Secretary, decided to cancel the new document. The case somehow made the press, and controversy followed, with legal challenges and questions being asked in Parliament. Burhop, interviewed in the Daily Herald, described the situation as ‘awkward’.
From the authorities’ point of view, here was an atomic scientist who wanted to visit Moscow and might be ‘persuaded to stay’. Yet the resolution of this affair was remarkably mild, in contrast, say to the Oppenheimer case in the United States. Burhop was eventually issued a new passport, but he also ‘gave his word’ to let the Foreign Office know if he was planning to travel ‘to any country in the Soviet sphere’. It seems very gentlemanly. But at least one astute observer within government, the civil servant B.K. Blount, of the Directorate of Scientific Intelligence, summed it up more critically:
The maintenance of personal freedom, and particularly of the right to leave one’s own country and to travel, is one of the main points in our “cold war” position. It seems to me that in our handling of this case we have provided our opponents with some welcome ammunition.
Yet the original cause of all this anxiety, the rogue accusation of an ‘Australian’ associated with the Manhattan Project, was never resolved. Further investigation took place, notably in 1953, but neither identification nor refutation were ever made. Certainly there was no positive evidence that Burhop was the spy. Yet the suspicion alone was enough to bring the Cold War to the UCL campus.
(1) The figure for scientists who were CP members in 1955 comes from reference to a list of 87 names to which the Communist Party Science Bulletin was mailed in May 1955. National Archives (hereafter NA) KV 2/4301.
(3) For the National Register, a compilation of names and addresses of the UK population against which identity cards were issued, see: Jon Agar, ‘Modern horrors: British identity and identity cards’, in Jane Caplan and John Torpey (eds.), Documenting Individual Identity: the Development of State Practices since the French Revolution, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001
(4) Stanley Hinge Hamp had a long career, in which he was first assistant and then partner with the architect Thomas Edward Collcutt, who designed the Imperial Institute in South Kensington. Collcutt & Hamp worked on the Savoy in the early 20th century, as well as the Wigmore Hall. Alan and Christian Ness lived at 126 Wigmore Street before moving to 37 Newton Street.
(5) ‘Haldane: let them sack me’, Daily Express, 16 March 1948.
(6) No relation to Waylon Smithers, of The Simpsons fame.
(7) The two bodies were sub-sub-committees of the Medical Research Council (MRC): the Protection Sub-Committee on the Medical and Biological Applications of Nuclear Physics, and the Underwater Physiology Sub-Committee of the Royal Naval Personnel Research Committee.
(8) Hansard, House of Commons, 26 April 1948. In March 1948, following discussion in Cabinet, Attlee had introduced a “Purge Procedure” ‘excluding both Communists and Fascists from work “vital to the Security of the State”‘. Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: the Authorized History of MI5, London; Allen Lane, 2009, p. 383.
(9) Hansard, House of Commons, 4 May 1948.
(10) R. A. Fisher was Professor of Genetics, University of Cambridge. Cyril Darlington was
Director of the John Innes Horticultural Institution (a successor to Haldane), and Sydney Harland was Director of the Institute of Genetics in Lima, Peru. All were Fellows of the Royal Society.
(11) Transcript, by F1A section of MI5, 2 December 1948. NA KV 2/1832. JAMES was James Klugmann, was a member of the executive committee of CPGB and later the Party’s official historian. BILL was Bill Wainwright, who had studied chemistry, would become Assistant General Secretary of CPGB in 1956.
(12) Transcript, by FIA section of MI5, 5 July 1949. NA KV 2/1832.
(13) Letter, Unknown (American Embassy, London) to John Marriott (MI5), 3 December 1951. NA KV 2/1832. Also speaking at the Science for Peace meeting were the botanist Frederick Gugenheim Gregory, the physicist C.F. Powell, and J.D. Bernal, who spoke from the floor.
(14) Excerpt (incomplete) of report on Science for Peace meeting, 1951. NA KV 2/1832.
(15) NA KV 2/3228 – KV 2/3239.
(16) ‘Atom scientist’, Evening Standard, 10th October 1949.
By Jon Agar, on 10 May 2016
Were you studying, teaching or researching science or technology at one or the following universities in the 1960s or 1970s? Or do you know someone who did?
- University of Sussex
- University of York
- University of Kent at Canterbury
- University of East Anglia
- University of Essex
- University of Lancaster
- University of Warwick
- Brunel University
If so, I would very much like to hear about your experiences.
I am planning to conduct some research as part of a project on the expansion of the new 1960s universities and the conversion of the Colleges of Advanced Technology to university status, and am particularly interested in how these changes reshaped the teaching and research of science and technology in the UK.
If you are able to share your memories I would be very grateful if you could contact me. My email address is jonathan.agar@ ucl.ac.uk
My postal address is:
Professor Jon Agar, Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS), University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT
By Jon Agar, on 25 February 2016
Winston Churchill considered Patrick Blackett, the Nobel-winning physicist and future President of the Royal Society, to be a security risk. New evidence for this suspicion can be found in files recently released at the National Archives, having been closed to public eyes for 63 years.
Patrick Blackett was one of the stars of the Cavendish, the physics laboratory of the University of Cambridge where so many significant discoveries in sub-atomic physics were made under Ernest Rutherford’s leadership before the Second World War. Blackett’s area of research was cosmic rays, and it was for techniques he developed in the early 1930s to record automatically the passage of these particles that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1948. Before Cambridge, Blackett had served in the Navy, a fighting forces experience that would later prove significant.
Blackett was a socialist as well as one of the most accomplished experimental physicists working in mid-twentieth century Britain. His political convictions were not unusual. Indeed the late 1930s saw a considerable movement of scientists who wanted to ally science for social responsibility, left-wing politics and planning. There was, however, an equally articulate opposition, who argued that science must be autonomous, free to plan its own scientific agendas, if it was to flourish. This division was deep, and deeply important for framing debates about science and government.
Blackett’s expertise gave him a place on two crucial committees that shaped military technology, one on radar and the other on the military applications of nuclear fission. The second of these, known as the MAUD Committee, examined the consequences of the calculations of Frisch and Peierls that a relatively small quantity of uranium could be used to make a bomb of enormous destructive power. When the MAUD Committee reported positively in 1941, Blackett was the only member who dissented from the view that a British atomic bomb could be made in wartime Britain (Nye 2004, p. 74). Indeed the bomb project subsequently moved to the Manhattan Project in the United States, again against Blackett’s advice.
In 1948, Blackett made public his views about the subject in a dense but corruscating book, The Military and Political Consequences of Atomic Energy. As historian Graham Farmelo (2013) has argued, public attention to Blackett’s arguments was amplified by the fact that, quite contingently, he had been awarded the Nobel Prize that year. Its publication prompted George Orwell to include Blackett’s name in a list of 38 ‘pro-Communist writers and intellectuals’ he submitted to the Foreign Office’s Information Research Department (Farmelo 2013, Nye 2004 p. 92) in 1949.
By then Blackett had already been investigated by the Security Service because of his association with Communists. Four fat files released in 2010 (National Archives KV 2/3217-3220) contain the paper trail from the 1930s until the early 1950s. In 1941, at the time of the MAUD Committee, Winston Churchill had asked MI5 to “‘see if they had anything against’ him, but had been told that he was ‘entirely harmless'”; Churchill, unassuaged, had lobbied to keep Blackett away from Britain’s atomic bomb project, codenamed “Tube Alloys” (Farmelo 2013).
The new evidence is in keeping with this pattern of suspicion. The file released in January 2016 come from Winston Churchill’s peacetime administration. In June 1952, Peter Thorneycroft, President of the Board of Trade, had written to Churchill reporting on ‘two cases where individuals known to have close associations with Communists hold apppointments on statutory bodies’ for which Thorneycroft was responsible (National Archives PREM 11/263). One was the economist Joan Robinson, a member of the Monopolies Commission. The other was Blackett, as a member of the National Research Development Corporation, a public patent-holding body. Robinson was less of a concern – she was about to retire. Blackett’s case was therefore different. Nevertheless, Thorneycroft was satisfied that Blackett was not ‘dealing with work involving information of security value’, and possessed the confidence of his colleagues, and therefore there was no justification in taking action to remove Professor Blackett from the Corporation’s Board.
Churchill, however, again was not satisfied. ‘I should like to have the Home Sec’s opinion’, he scribbled on Thorneycroft’s note. Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, the Home Secretary, quickly responded. He discussed the matter with the Director General of MI5 and advised Churchill that Robinson should be allowed quietly to retire, but that
I think Professor Blackett must be regarded as a security risk: he seems ingenuous and has active Communists about him. But for the reasons given by the President I agree that he should remain a member of the Board of the National Research Development Corporation.
Churchill then wrote back to Thorneycroft saying:
I sent your minute of June 17 about two people known to have close associations with Communists to the Home Secretary and he and I agree with your conclusions.
The conclusions being, presumably, that Blackett was both a security risk but also someone who could be tolerated, just about, to work for the non-sensitive Corporation.
Blackett continued to have an influential career, building up physics departments at Manchester University and Imperial College, where he oversaw the beginnings of Jodrell Bank and contributed geomagnetic evidence that would be crucial to establishing the later theory of plate tectonics, respectively. He was an active supporter of science in newly independent India. And he served as President of the Royal Society from 1965 to 1970.
Blackett’s treatment during the years of anti-Communism, during which physicists such as Klaus Fuchs were revealed as atomic spies, can be compared to the fate of his American contemporary J. Robert Oppenheimer. The charismatic Oppenheimer had been the civilian scientist leader at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. But during the late 1940s and 1950s he too had been dogged by suspicions of Communist sympathy. These corrosive doubts culminated, in 1954, in the ‘Oppenheimer Trial’, in which the physicist was also declared a security risk while also being “loyal”. Oppenheimer’s judgement was made in public – indeed it was front-page news in the New York Times – while Blackett’s was kept secret.
(Incidentally, there is one other, extraordinary, point of connection between Oppenheimer and Blackett. The younger American had visited the Cavendish in 1925 and Blackett had been one of his tutors. But this period of European travel was also one of intense personal, psychological trouble for the highly-strung Oppenheimer. He felt so “miserable in Cambridge, so unhappy, that he used sometimes to get down on the floor, groaning and rolling from side to side”. At the peak of this crisis, Oppenheimer, consumed ‘by feelings of inadequacy and intense jealousy, … “poisoned” an apple with chemicals from the laboratory and left it on Blackett’s desk’ (Bird and Sherwin 2005 p. 43, p. 46))
National Archives KV 2/3217-3220. Patrick Maynard Stuart BLACKETT
National Archives PREM 11/263 Request from Prime Minister for advice on Dr Joan Robinson and Professor Blackett
Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005
Graham Farmelo, Churchill’s Bomb: A Hidden History of Science, War and Politics, London: Faber & Faber, 2013
Mary Jo Nye, Blackett: Physics, War and Politics in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004
By Jon Agar, on 21 April 2015
How British scientists pondered the “peaceful uses of nuclear explosives”
For a decade from 1969, experts in the United Kingdom researched what they called the ‘peaceful uses of nuclear explosives’. The project, based at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, was never a large one, indeed the annual resources devoted to it never exceeded three person-years, but it does reveal the outer boundaries of what was considered to be feasible and perhaps justifiable.
The investment in expertise in peaceful detonations of nuclear devices was needed, argued the project’s proponents, so that the UK Atomic Energy Authority would be able to assess other countries’ plans. The immediate need might be to analyse, in a critical and informed way, such plans, as well as offer advice on demand to industry. But the door was left open to the possibility that the UK might be involved in these jaw-dropping schemes. Expertise to understand could thus morph into expertise to carry out…
Here’s two plans watched carefully by the Aldermaston team.
The first seems to have been a French proposal originally. North sea oil, it was suggested, might be stored in a ‘seabed cavern’ formed by a nuclear detonation. ‘Although in this densely-populated country the use of PNE [Peaceful uses of Nuclear Explosions] was improbable, the technique might be proposed for use by other countries for, say, the seabed cavern storage of North Sea oils’, summarised one of the Aldermaston scientists, ‘In that event, the availability of expert UK advice or opposition could be important’. The French spent 60 million francs (about £5 million pounds) investigating such a project, many times the scale of any UK interest. But the French, via a panel meeting of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), did sound out the UK informally on the possibility of co-operation:
In discussing the use of PNE for North Sea oil storage – at the field, close inshore or on land – the French expressed the view that any project would have to be an international one, possibly involving most of the littoral States. They expressed themselves eager to co-operate in such a scheme, particularly with the UK, and are prepared to enter formal or informal discussions at any level.
The Scottish Office and the Department of Trade and Industry also asked the Aldermaston team for similar advice, and a report, “Cheap oil storage beneath the bed of the North Sea in cavities/chimneys created by contained nuclear explosions”, was written. In fact a ‘site on one of the uninhabited islands of the Shetlands’ was even identified as the ‘best immediate prospect for PNE’.
For a while momentum seemed to be gathering. PNE might not only be used to form vast spaces for storage but also be used to stimulate the flow of hydrocarbons – a form of nuclear fracking, if you like. The Russians reported that they had successfully operated a gas condensate storage unit ‘created by a 15 kton contained nuclear explosion’ in a salt dome. However, by 1973 other investigations, ironically also from within the nuclear state, poured cold water on the scheme: ‘PNE would be uneconomic in shallow, offshore waters simply due to the small size of the storage market’ – although perhaps the project might return in the 1980s as deeper waters were explored and the market had further grown.
When not studying other countries’ schemes, the Aldermaston scientists busied themselves on subsidiary research: estimating the production of radioactivity, predicting fallout patterns and investigating methods of ‘reducing eventual hazards to consumers’. They also assisted the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in thinking through the consequences of a Comprehensive Test Ban regime.
The second project examined closely by the Aldermaston team was an American one called PACER, proposed by Los Alamos and the consultants R&D Associates. A spherical cavity some 200m in diameter would be leached out of a salt dome nearly a mile underground. The giant hole would be filled with a million tons of water. Then a 50 kiloton thermonuclear device would be detonated, producing immense quantities of high pressure steam, which in turn would drive turbines powerfully enough to produce 2000 MW of electricity. And this process would be repeated 750 times a year. Read that last sentence again.
The quick appraisal of PACER produced by an Aldermaston scientist is remarkably matter of fact. The construction of the cavity presented no ‘insuperable difficulty’. Even when the scale of the detonation is discussed – 30,000 explosions over a 40 year life span, all in one hole in the ground – the ‘big technical uncertainty’ of stability only provoked a deadpan note that any ‘failure would have a catastrophic effect on the economics’. But the production of explosives was deemed eminently feasible: the ‘United States has deployed 7000 tactical nuclear weapons in Europe since the mid-fifties and so they could clearly produce 750 50 kton explosives of one type per year’.
And if the United States could do it, how about the United Kingdom? ‘The first step in ascertaining whether PACER is of interest to the United Kingdom’, concluded Parker, ‘could be to survey the salt formations which occur in and around the British Isles’. And if they did occur, why not? ‘The sponsors of this project appear to believe that public acceptance is the major obstacle’. Indeed.
Source: The National Archives, AB 48/1777, 1973-1979. Record opening date: 6 February 2015
By Jon Agar, on 24 February 2015
Here’s a list of journals within the broad STS field, including history of science, philosophy of science, sociology of science, history of mathematics, history of medicine, history of technology, science policy. It’s useful to have all the links in one place. Good for a browse to catch up on what’s new!
It’s updated from a “journal article listing” that I used to regularly do for the mersenne jiscmail list. If there are any missing journals, then let me know and I’ll add them.
- Annals of Science
- Archive for History of Exact Sciences
- Archives of Natural History
- Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte
- Biology & Philosophy
- BJHS Themes
- British Journal for the History of Science
- British Journal for Philosophy of Science
- Bulletin of the History of Medicine
- Bulletin of the Metals Museum (Sendai)
- Chinese Journal for the History of Science and Technology
- Chinese Science
- Clio Medica: Perspectives in Medical Humanities
- Engaging Science, Technology and Society
- European Journal for Philosophy of Science
- Health and History
- Historia Mathematica
- Historia Scientiarum (journal of the History of Science Society of Japan)
- Historical Metallurgy
- Historical Records of Australian Science
- Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences
- History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
- History and Technology
- History of Science (now at Sage), here is the old site too: History of Science
- History of the Human Sciences
- HoST (History of Science and Technology)
- IEEE Annals of History of Computing
- International Journal for the History of Engineering and Technology (formerly Transactions of the Newcomen Society)
- Journal for the General Philosophy of Science/Zeitschrift fur allgemaine wissenschaftstheorie
- Journal of the History of Astronomy (now also at Sage), here is the old site too
- Journal of History of the Behavioral Sciences
- Journal of the History of Biology
- Journal of the History of Ideas
- Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences
- Journal of the History of Philosophy
- Journal of Industrial History
- Journal for Medicine and Philosophy
- Llull: Revista de la Sociedad Española de las Ciencias y de las Técnicas
- Medical History
- Notes and Records of the Royal Society
- NTM – Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Wissenschaften, Technik und Medizin
- Perspectives in Biology and Medicine
- Perspectives on Science
- Philosophy of Science
- Physics in Perspective
- Public Understanding of Science
- Research Policy
- Revue d’histoire des sciences
- Rutherford Journal, The
- Science and Education
- Science and Public Policy
- Science as Culture
- Science in Context
- Science, Technology & Human Values
- Social Epistemology
- Social History of Medicine
- Social Studies of Science
- Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A
- Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics
- Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
- Studies in History of Natural Sciences (Chinese Academy of Sciences)
- Technology and Culture
- Transactions of the Newcomen Society (see International Journal for the History of Engineering and Technology above)
- Valuation Studies
By Steven Miller, on 23 November 2014
Senior scientists often (used to?) say that, when talking to their fellow citizens about matters scientific, the public need facts, certainties, and anything to do with uncertainty should be kept well away from them. More nuanced takes on science communication aver that what people really need to know about is how science really works, and that involves notions that scientists are people just like them, with their various falibilities, their doubts and their uncertainties.
I’ve felt for a long time that genuine science communication had to adopt a much more intermediate and pragmatic approach: citizens do look to scientists to give them facts and reliable information – otherwise what is the point of paying them a salary, often from the public purse; but they can cope with the ideas of uncertainty and the limits to existing knowledge and what is knowable without going into a blind panic. Until now, however, I had not really seen it work in practice quite like that.
Whilst the rest of the USA is preparing for Thanksgiving Day (Thursday, November 26, this year), the little town of Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawai’i is wondering just how many Thanksgivings they have to come – including this one.
Hawai’i is an active volcano, and the Pu’u O’O vent on the eastern flank of Mauna Loa has been steadily pouring lava downslope into the sea for decades. Normally the lava flows east or south-east. But on June 27 this year, the flow turned dangerously north-eastward, toward Pahoa. And it has been heading for the town ever since.
The lava approaching Pahoa is known as pahoehoe. It is a smooth, sticky lava that generally flows slowly downslope. This is in contrast with the explosive pyroclastic flows of the sort that engulfed Pompeii in 79AD, which move so fast no one has a chance to get out of the way.
The main flow cut through Cemetery Road on the outskirts of town some time ago, burned down its first house earlier this month, surrounded the $3 million-plus, state-of-the-art, Waste Transfer Station, and is now stalled just short of the main road through the town centre. Given the relentless approach of the lava, one might imagine the townspeople to be giving a pretty good impression of Corporal Jones and Private Frazer in “Dad’s Army”. No.
Local citizens have been getting together with scientists from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) on a weekly basis since August 24 this year. I went to the meeting on November 20 along with some 300 Pahoa inhabitants – about half of the adult population. The update from the USGS started with a quiz about the three factors controlling lava flow – what is happening at the summit of Pu’u O’o, what is happening with the lava tube that carries the lava down towards the town, and the nature of the terrain over which the lava finally pours when it emerges from the tube.
November 20’s update was that although Pu’u O’o was producing about one third more lava than it had been two weeks ago, a break-out near the crater summit had robbed the lava tube of its lava and led to surface flows far upslope from the town. The terrain there was tending to take that lava away from Pahoa. But – and here the USGS were very clear – the future was highly unpredictable. Would the lava tube refill, leading to flows resuming towards the town? Not sure. If so, how soon would the flow nearest the town restart? Not sure.
The approach of the local USGS scientists as well as public bodies such as the health and rescue services, the National Guard, and the Mayor’s office has been to let local citizens know what they know and tell them what they do not know. Locals are also encouraged to use their own eyes, ears and – given the various smells of sulphur dioxide and burning that accompany the lava wherever it goes – noses. Representatives of the various relief bodies mix freely with the Pahoans to discuss, listen to eye-witness accounts and answer the questions that their expertise is best suited to answer.
Schoolchildren who have been forced to move school because of the poor air quality are to be among the first to be taken to see the main flow itself, when the situation is deemed safe enough to do so. That way they can appreciate at first hand why their island home makes so many demands on those who live there.
The result is that the people are generally well informed and, at the same time, feel involved with, and even in control of, their situation, insofar as anyone living with an active volcano can feel in control. Any Corporal Joneses have learned that “don’t panic” means just that. Any Private Frazers have been reassured that, whilst we are all ultimately “doomed, doomed”, it is “just not quite yet”.
In the meantime, Pahoa residents are also preparing for Thanksgiving. As Mayor Billy Kenoi said: “We just want some normalcy here.”
By Jon Agar, on 20 November 2014
The Imitation Game is film about the life of Alan Turing, ‘based on real events’ and taking as its main source Andrew Hodges’s biography, The Enigma of Intelligence. It is mostly set at the Government Code and Cypher School, also known as Bletchley Park. It was there that Turing, and many others, gathered to attack German coded messages.
The cultural interest in Bletchley Park has several motivations. There is the tragic story of Turing himself. Most powerfully Turing’s life and work has become an icon and rallying point in LGBT politics. This interest has motivated the best historical work on Turing in the form of Hodges’ extraordinary biography. (Here’s my UCL LGBT history week public lecture on Turing, very much in praise of Hodges’ account.) Second, there is the attraction of the secret, compounded by the fact that a silence, partly officially but also partly self-imposed, around Bletchley Park activities lasted until the 1970s (not the ’50 years’ after 1945 claimed by the film). The subsequent rush of information, all the more emotionally-charged for having been pent up so long, has given Bletchley Park extraordinary prominence. Third, there is a narrative, inflected with nationalism, that celebrates Bletchley Park as a distinctively British contribution to the defeat of Nazism: it was by brain-power not brute production (undercutting claims that it Russian and American contributions that were decisive), it is presented as amateur (it was anything but), and it is nostalgic.
At Bletchley Park, the signals intelligence, collected by outlying stations was channelled, and made subject to cryptanalytical attack. The messages coded using the Enigma machines were subject to human and machine (‘bombe’) analysis. The messages encrypted using a cipher machine codenamed ‘Tunny’ were processed by Colossus, the extraordinary electronic valve-based symbol-manipulating machine designed and built by the General Post Office team under Thomas H. Flowers. The first Colossus was built in 1943. Ten Colossi were in operation by 1945.
We should remember that Bletchley Park was an industrial operation: large-scale, a focus on speed and flow, with innovation and mechanisation at reverse salients. I made this observation in The Government Machine (2003). Other historians agree. Aldrich writes of the wartime sigint sites: ‘All of them were symptomatic of an industrial revolution in secret intelligence: both Bletchley Park and the outstations operated like factories, with three gruelling shifts each day’. Copeland describes the ‘two vast steel-framed buildings’ that housed the Colossi as ‘a factory dedicated to breaking Tunny’.
The Imitation Game gives little sense of this scale of operations.
But most of the complaints about the film’s inaccuracies have focussed elsewhere. Alex von Tunzwelmann has written an ace (pun intended) take down of The Imitation Game in a Guardian blog piece. She says, rightly, that the film missteps in many ways: presenting the revelation of the death of schoolfriend/object of desire Christopher Morcom to Turing as cold and brutal; misrepresenting Turing’s honesty with Joan Clarke about his homosexuality; inventing that Turing called the Bombe and later machines ‘Christopher’; and, by placing the spy John Cairncross in Turing’s team, suggesting that Turing was suspected at Bletchley Park as a Soviet spy.
There are plenty of other factual errors, from the major (Turing did not build a replica Manchester Mark I computer in his home, let alone call it ‘Christopher’) to the minor (Hugh Alexander, cryptananalyst and chess champ, did not attack the Bombe with a spanner).
But, I asked on twitter, do the historical inaccuracies matter when the bigger dramatic points work?
I think ‘no’, for this reason. The Imitation Game, aside from tragedy, is a dramatisation of Hodges’ central argument, that the cause of Turing’s profound inquiry into the materialisation of mind was the trauma of Morcom’s death. The scenes with ‘Christopher’ the machine, however much invented, run with this insight and present it as a cinematic, not documentary, truth. It is present too in the final scenes – also fantasy – in which the conflicted police detective (played by Rory Kinnear) has Benedict Cumberbatch take the Turing Test, an imitation game in which the impossible bind of hiding or revealing homosexuality is equivalent to saying or not saying a mind can be a machine.
If that was the biggest point, then The Imitation Game, despite its inventions, dramatised it well.