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Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

a list of digital archives for history of twentieth-century science

Jon Agar5 August 2020

(Many thanks to all the suggestions I received following my request on Mersenne and via Twitter, including: Brian Balmer, Anna Marie Loos, Benjamin Weil, Richard Conniff, Jim Bennett, Aileen Fyfe, Michael Barany, Christine Aicardi, Brigitte Van Tiggelen, Alex Aylward, Juliana Adelman, Alexandra Franklin, Bruce J. Hunt, Boris Jardine, Dominic Berry, Mark Solovey, Katherine McAlpine, Mat Paskins, Doug Millard, Emily Hayes, Mary Morgan, Joshua Nall, Ross MacFarlane, J.V. Field, Louise Devoy, Madelin Evans, Alice Bell, Sam Robinson, Jonathan Swinton, Matthew Cobb, Jason W. Dean, Alexandra Rose, Robin Wolfe Scheffler, Moritz Mähr, HealthHumanitiesUc, Hanna Lucia Worliczek, Asif Siddiqi, Michael Hutter, Jon Røyne Kyllingstad, Dorothea Zimmermann, Martina Schiavon, Kamiel Mobach, Cristiano Turbil, Jack Kirby, Rebecca Martin, Lucas Mueller, and Robert Smith)

Compiled by Jon Agar. Send me more and I’ll add them.


Digitised History of Science Collections

American Philosophical Society digital collection

Biodiversity Heritage Library

British Library Oral History of British Science, see also the guide Voices of Science

Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge

CERN archives

Churchill Archives Centre online resources, see also the subject guide for collections not yet online, as well as an online exhibition on Rosalind Franklin

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives Repository

George Francis Fitzgerald papers at the RDS Library and Archive

History of Science in Latin America and the Caribbean (HOSLAC) database of primary sources

Joseph Needham papers, University of Cambridge

Le Bureau des longitudes (1795-1932) un patrimoine numérisé

Linda Hall Library digital collections

LUCERNA Magic Lantern Web Resource, includes 20th century slides, including Royal Geographical Society

Marconi collection at the History of Science Museum, Oxford

Marine Biological Laboratory digital collection at ASU

McMaster University, History of Medicine Digital Exhibits

Medical Heritage Library

Met Office Digital Archive and Library

Montreal Neurological Institute Archives

National Institutes of Health (NIH) for NIH Library and National Library of Medicine’s Profiles in Science and Office of NIH History

NASA Technical Reports Server

Princeton Mathematics Oral History Project

R.A Fisher digital archive at University of Melbourne

Robert Goddard papers at Clark University

Rockefeller Archive Center (see under Digital Materials)

Royal Geographical Society-IBG films at the BFI

Royal Observatory Greenwich, observatory memories and recollections of working at ROG

Royal Society

Science History Institute, digital collections

Science Museum Group Collection, lots of things including Babbage papers

Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich collection of scientific instruments and learning materials

UCSD Library Digital Collections including the papers of Leo Szilard

University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection

University of Washington links to lots of primary sources for science and medicine

Wellcome Library Digital Collections, plus others at Wellcome not in the main site including Melanie Klein,  George Mc’gonigle, Sir James Cantlie, Eileen Palmer, Morrison and Hobson Families, Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, Henry Wellcome papers, Abortion Law Reform Association, Widow Welches Pills, Helena Rosa Wright, National Abortion Campaign, Population Investigative CommitteePopulation Concern, Pregnancy Advisory Service, Robert Hetherington, Helene Grahame, Birth Control Campaign, All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health, Pioneer Health Campaign


Digitised Collections with Science Aspects

ACT UP Oral History Project

Asif Siddiqi’s collection of translated documents relating to Soviet space projects

Cambridge University Digital Library

Caltech Oral History

Charles Babbage Institute

Charles Booth’s London, at LSE (19th C social science)

Imperial War Museum’s Collection including films

Internet Archive

Institute for Historical Research’s guide to open and free access materials for research

League of Nations Archives

MIT ArchivesSpace digital objects

Moritz Mähr’s list of Awesome Digital History

Museum of University History at University of Oslo

National Archives, UK, select search within National Archives and then select Records available to dowload

National Security Archive, US including ‘The Atomic Bomb and the end of WW2

New Scientist, 1956-1989

1900 a Balloon Spectacle from Paris to Stockholm or Diversity within an Export of Similar Cultures or Around the World in 80 Scientists featuring “A Lecture on Science and Geopolitics”

Jon Agar7 July 2020

(Author’s note: this experimental fictionalised balloon guide to the world of science in 1900 was a chapter subsequently cut from my Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond (Polity, 2012), for space reasons. It was fun to write and it ends with a good joke. Jon)



a Balloon Spectacle from Paris to Stockholm


Diversity within an Export of Similar Cultures


Around the World in 80 Scientists



“A Lecture on Science and Geopolitics”







Paris. 1900. City of spectacle, light and movement. We are in the Tuileries, the gardens of the Louvre. Earlier in the day we have followed the crowds around the Exposition Universelle, down underground on the new Metro, up again to visit the pavilions representing the nations of the world – China, Ecuador, Greece, India, Tunisia – the whole world appears here. Indeed, the world seems to have arrived: 57 million visitors, travelling by rail, steamship and foot. Technological systems brought us here, and technologies of the future are here on display: wireless telegraphy, moving sidewalks, giant telescopes, and, fittingly for revolutionary Paris, a new means of flight, and balloon ride for a new century. Evening, with the cool air and dimming skies, is the best time to catch this spectacle. We climb into a giant basket. It can fit two hundred men and women at a time. Above is a billowing gaseous bag held down by ropes. Around us is a circular, white wall. “Ladies and gentlemen”, our conductor announces, “we are about to leave the garden of the Tuileries. Cast off!” (MacGowan 1957: 217).


This is the Cinéorama. Its inventor, former magician Raoul Grimoin-Sanson, patented his idea sharply in 1897, inspired by the remarkable inventiveness in cinema technologies of his fellow Frenchmen. He took ten 70mm cameras, huge even then, and yoked their mechanisms together, so each would operate in time. Then, installed in a real balloon, he filmed the ascent. Now, projecting the ten hand-coloured images on a panorama 333 feet in circumference and 30 feet high, the travellers in their mocked-up balloon in the Tuileries will experience the spectacle of flight without leaving the ground. Grimoin-Sanson includes a descent into Brussels, and projects visits to England, the Riviera, Spain, Tunis, and the Sahara before returning to Paris – a feat achieved by running the ascent footage backwards (MacGowan 1957).


We are lucky to be here. The Cinéorama will only last three days. The gendarmes, alarmed by the collapse of a stagehand in the intense heat generated by the ten arc lights used to illuminate the film, will rush in and close Grimoin-Sanson’s simulation. Almost certainly they are recalling the tragedy three years earlier when a charity fete caught fire ‘when more than a hundred members of the French nobility and of high society had burned to death’ (MacGowan 1957: 218). The eyes of the world are on Paris, and this is no time for a repeat performance.


But the Cinéorama offers us a fantastic means of showing us the world in 1900, and, before the police have their way, let us borrow Grimoin-Sanson’s device. Let us replace his footage with some of our own and take a simulated ride through the world of science, 1900. In the spirit of science fantasy written with a serious point in mind, harking back at least to Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two World Systems, let us take with us an urbane but as yet uninformed inquirer and an experienced guide. And, since this is Paris, we could do worse than to borrow Monsieur Verne’s protagonists of Around the World in Eighty Days (1873), the English gentleman who rarely left his club, Phileas Fogg, and his valet, the much-travelled and cunning Passepartout. We join them in the Tuileries. The balloon is ready. “Cast off!”


Fogg: My word. Here we go again.

Passepartout: Monsieur forgets. We travelled by rail – remember the many days journey on the new chemin de fer spanning India and across America on the Transcontinental – how new that was! – and steamer across oceans and the Suez Canal of my countryman Vicomte de Lesseps. Truly the world is knitted together by the spread of technologies. Mondialisation, or globalisation, if you will, is here in our lifetimes. But we did not travel by balloon. I believe that that image will be the invention of Hollywood.

Fogg: What a technology of verisimilitude this cinema is!

Passepartout: Oui. And look: we can now see the metropolis spread out below us. There is Monsieur Eiffel’s tower, still good as new. Doesn’t it look sublime with the lights? And the crowds. They can see progress here, progress through science and machines.

Fogg: Where? I can see nothing but lights.

Passepartout: Don’t be distracted. The excitement is not in the merely visible but the invisible. Let me explain. Yes, you see lots of lights. Indeed the American Edison sent his incandescent lights to Paris nearly twenty years ago hoping to build a European electrical empire, but a combination of recession and gas interests did for him (Fox 1996). The electric lights celebrated down there are German, the Allgemeine-Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG) are picking up all the prizes at the Exhibition. No over there, a mile away at the École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la Ville de Paris, that’s what’s new. There’s the Pole Marie Skłodowska-Curie, working with her husband Pierre Curie, separating and purifying minute quantities of a new element, polonium – a sentimental name! – obtained in 1898. And she suspects the existence of a second, radium. These new elements were mixed in with pitchblende, uranium ore. They strongly manifest a phenomenon that seems beyond explanation, radioactivity, something that emanates from these elements, fogging photographic plates and burning hands. And they are not alone. Look over there in that laboratory at the École Normale. There’s Paul Villard, he thinks he’s found a new penetrating ray emanating from uranium. Gamma rays they are labelled. (Alpha and Beta radiation were reported by the young New Zealander, Ernest Rutherford, working at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge.) Villard thinks he will be as famous as Röntgen.

Fogg: Who’s he?

Passepartout: You’ll see.

Fogg: We’re a long way above Paris now. Anything else I should notice before the wind takes us?

Passepartout: It might seem strange with all this talk of new elements, but many of the chemists don’t believe in atoms, not real ones anyway. Attitudes are changing but even when they draw pictures, like Jacobus Henricus van ’t Hoff in Berlin, or build models of molecules that look like billiard balls connected by sticks, like August Wilhelm von Hofmann used to do, also in Berlin, many chemists say these are useful tools for classification, not naïve representations (Bensaude-Vincent 2003: 185). My fellow Parisian, Henri Poincaré, has a philosophy to explain it: he says that atoms are conventions; we agree that atoms have certain properties so that we can work together with them.

Fogg: This fellow, Poincaré. I imagine I would find him in the great philosophical schools of Paris?

Passepartout: Well, yes, you will find him some days at the Sorbonne. But it is more likely he will be at work at the Bureau des Longitudes. Time, as well as atoms, is conventional for him, and only recently have we agreed among ourselves what time should be. (Don’t you remember how the day saved when crossing the International Date Line saved your bet?) Synchronising watches turns out to be much more difficult, and much more interesting, than first glance suggests.

Fogg: Hmm. I’m sure I can read about that later. All this talk of technologies and conventions, any connection, my French friend?

Passepartout: It is an age of means rather than ends, perhaps. We think deeply about means.


The balloon travels on.


Fogg: My, what a view. How far up we are. The air is chill. I can see the snow on mountains to the south, the lights of many small towns and cities, most dim as gaslight but some electric bright, and far to the north the darkness suggests a sea. Fine rivers, tamed and straightened, and put to productive work. Germany, if I’m not mistaken. I remember when it was such a sleepy country. But now I can see order, energy and the bustle of industry below. Some fellows at the club say we must watch out – here’s a new beast, wants our imperial markets, wants its place in the sun. I say Pshaw! Kaiser Bill is the old Queen’s nephew (grandson??). And blood is thicker than water. No trouble there.

Passepartout: You have not seen Prussians speeding through villages and wheat fields. I have.

Fogg: Oh that was a long time ago. Now they have their Germany it’s all settled down. We may tussle abroad, but Europe is at peace.

Passepartout: Maybe, Monsieur, maybe. Certainly if the future is built on science and technology then what riches we see below. Look there. That city is Berlin. See the electric lights, and the huge power stations – quite a contrast to your little dynamos scattered through London (Hughes 1983). There in the smart new suburbs at the Physikalisch-Technische Reichenstalt measurement of electromagnetic radiation is conducted to a precision unequalled in the world. You can hear the director, Friedrich Hohlrausch now: “without [the measuring of nature], the progress made during the last century in the natural sciences and technology would have been impossible” (Buchwald and Hong 2003: 187). What an idea! The more you measure, the more your science, your nation perhaps, progresses.

Fogg: Accurate measurement is an English science, too, you know (Schaffer 1995).

Passepartout: Non. It is French (Schabas 1997). But let’s not be chauvinistic. Rather, look below how precise measurement is part of the working world. There’s the city. There’s the electric light and power. There’s the laboratory with its precision instruments and standards. And there is Max Planck, professor of physics at the university. He is thinking about thermodynamics and electrodynamics. But he is also thinking about data – data from the PTR, data the PTR is generating because it matters for light bulbs. At first glance you see a theorist, an inhabitant of an ivory tower. But now you can see him in his place – everyone’s place – in the working world.

Fogg (looking momentarily uncomfortable): I say, a gentleman such as I doesn’t need to work, you know. Let’s move on.

Passepartout: Do you see that small college town two hundred miles to the west? That’s Göttingen, where the David Hilbert, the last of a line of great mathematicians going back to old Gauss, has published two textbooks, the Zahlbericht of 1897 and the Grundlagen der Geometrie of last year that will shape the modern style of mathematics as it will be taught in the new century. He has high hopes. There’s nothing we must be ignorant about if we work hard enough in mathematics, he says. In August he is coming to the Sorbonne to list the greatest puzzles in mathematics. He thinks answers can be given to all of them. Will he be right, I wonder?

Fogg: Certainly I can’t decide. I’m completely the wrong fellow to ask. But tell me, we’ve heard of physics and mathematics, what of chemistry and biology?

Passepartout: You can smell the chemistry even from here. There’s the coal tar chemical companies. AGFA in Berlin, BASF in Mannheim, Bayer in Barmen and Leverkusen and Hoechst on the Rhine near Frankfurt. Some are dyestuffs factories, and you see that some of them are now making pharmaceuticals. Bayer has a splendid new headache cure called ‘Aspirin’. There’s a cluster more on the horizon, at the foot of the mountains in Basel. I can just read their names: Sandoz, Geigy and CIBA, I think.

Fogg: What sharp eyes you have.

Passepartout: Remember it’s a simulation. The corporations like their names writ large.

Fogg: It seems a mixture of the novel and the routine. There’s new drugs for fevers, aches and pains, but the research seems devoid of spark. New chemicals seem to be turned out with the speed and regularity of Mr Ford’s automobiles. Is there nothing new in chemistry? I can hear a voice from the city of Munich.

Passepartout: That’s the old professor of chemistry, Adolf von Baeyer. You could say he put the last nail in the coffin of the natural dye trade when he showed how to do a complete synthesis of indigo. What’s he saying?

Adolf von Baeyer (despairing, from a great distance): “The field of organic chemistry is exhausted…and then all that remains is the chemistry of grease” (Furukawa 2003: 432).

Fogg: Is the old professor right to despair?

Passepartout: Depends what you think of grease. But no I don’t think he is. What bonds atoms together? (If they exist at all.) How big can a molecule get? Is the chemistry of large molecules different from that of small molecules? Those are good questions. I think the despair is mere fashionable fin-de-siècle despondency. Some of the physicists have the same glum outlook: they say that the advance of physics will just be the measurement of physical quantities to one more decimal point of accuracy. It will be, but thinking about such measurement will bring surprises. Remember Planck!

Fogg. I will.

Passepartout: And look who’s Baeyer’s colleague: few scientists have had such a meteoric rise as the new chair in physics. Wilhelm Röntgen was a professor at old Würzburg university when five years ago he found the mysterious X-rays. A quick published paper, read around the world in a hundred laboratories, and it was clear that physics was not at an end. Since then we’ve seen radioactive elements, and more kinds of rays and radiations are on their way, I am sure.

Fogg: So physics is alive and chemistry is as industrious as ever. What of life?

Passepartout: It seems that as we pass from the nineteenth into the twentieth century, inheritance and remembrance are the themes. On the far horizon to the east is the monastery of Brno, where Gregor Mendel lies in his grave. He’s not forgotten however. Because look north in the flat lands of Amsterdam, where the director of the botanical gardens is growing evening primrose – can you see those tall but floppy yellow flowers? – that’s Hugo de Vries. And look below us to south west, there’s Carl Correns. He’s growing some of Mendel’s old plants, not the peas but the hawkweeds, like tiny dandelions. And over there in the south east in Austria, there’s Erich von Tschermak-Seysenegg. All three are hurriedly reading Mendel’s old paper from forty years ago. But who’s discovered what? I think there’s going to be an almighty row.

Fogg: I hope it’s not too unseemly. But does it matter? Is this a dry dust-up over an old monk’s theories?

Passepartout: If you could breed better corn, or a better cow, or a better human, might it make you influential or rich? Might it protect classes of people such as yours?

Fogg: I’m not sure I follow you. Good breeding will out, I say.

Passepartout: But what if you could control what good breeding was? I mean really control, not the guesswork of our husbandmen. Future races would be guided by whoever held the reins.

Fogg: Can a line of inheritance ever be kept so pure to allow such control. It seems a fantasy. By golly, Passepartout, I think the gas has gone to your head. Tell me: who’s that bearded professor?

Passepartout: They all have beards.

Fogg: That one in Freiburg, in the south west near the border with France, on the edge of the Black Forest.

Passepartout: That’s the man who can answer you question about purity of inheritance. He’s August Weismann. He summed it up eight years ago in The Germ-Plasm: a Theory of Heredity. I quote him from memory (he is in the midst of a summary of his earlier work): “In this essay I assumed the existence in the germ-cell of a reproductive substance, the germ-plasm, which cannot be formed spontaneously, but is always passed on from the germ-cell in which an organism originates in direct continuity to the germ-cells of the succeeding generations. The difference between the ‘body’ in the narrower sense (soma) and the reproductive cells was also emphasized” (Weismann 1893: 9). There you have it: the stream of inheritance, which flows through every living creature, never touches the banks of the body, only mingles with other streams. Purity is assured. Control is possible.

Fogg: This germ-plasm sounds like me an institution imagined in Germany. Carrying values over time.

Passepartout: Professor Weismann thinks he is merely a footnote to your countryman, Charles Darwin.

Fogg: Now that was some funeral. And those are some mountains. The wind is taking us past Freiburg, south and round the Alps. Over Lake Geneva.

Passepartout: If you look carefully you will see more sciences of life. There’s François-Alphonse Forel. He’s been hard at work for a decade, designing instruments that measure the physical characteristics of the lake, and collecting and identifying the living creatures, even the unknown fauna in the lake’s dark depths (Acot 2009). He’s coined a name for his new science that brings it altogether, limnology, but in its emphasis on how organic matter circulates, how everything balances, it reminds me of economy or ecology, if you will.

Fogg: The wind is gathering speed as it rushes past the mountains. I think I can glipse Italy to the south. Anything I should notice?

Passepartout: Not far away in Pavia, he’s on the staff at that psychiatric institution, you can see Camillo Golgi. He’s taking German science even further than the Germans. He’s using the best microscopes, and his own staining techniques to examine the nerve cells. Using his “black reaction” he says he can see that axons, dendrites and fibres – form a single network. But there’s a Spaniard over in Madrid, Santiago Ramón y Cajal who says that Golgi is wrong, that the fundamental structure of the nervous system are individual neurons, not the network as a whole.

Fogg: This controversy is getting on my nerves.

Passepartout: Very droll, Monsieur.

Fogg: Nevertheless, this science of brain intrigues me. I wonder if it is ambitious or narrow-minded? Can the mind be understood by analysis, by finding the smallest units and seeing how they connect? Or is this just what a science led by technique is driven to do?

Passepartout: It depends if there exists an alternative. Look ahead now, sir. We are past the Alps and into the great Austro-Hungarian empire. The lights of Vienna approach. On Berggasse, that street running north of the centre, you will find Sigmund Freud, whose The Interpretations of Dreams was published last year. He might be a product of German science – he studied under that great scientist of energy Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke, and he wrote a rather poor dissertation on the physiology of eels – but he now feels he’s on the track of a new science of the mind.

Fogg: That’s all talk.

Passepartout: Quite so. But it shows there are alternatives.

Fogg: What else is going on in Vienna?

Passepartout: There’s an argument in geology. Eduard Suess is summarising all of geology in his compendium, The Face of the Earth. There’ll be four volumes altogether. But other geologists are not convinced by his theory that sedimentary basins rise and fall gradually tending to an earth that is just ocean – “Panthalassa” he calls it (Greene 2009).

Fogg: I’ve only just got used to the idea that one day all below us was ice. Now this Suess of yours has forecast a water age.

Passepartout: No time to explain. We have left Vienna behind and are approaching Budapest, where if you are quick you can see Baron Loránd von Eötvös at the university performing some of the most delicate and precise measurements – forgive me for being repetitive, but it is a feature of our times. He is comparing the inertial mass (that’s the ‘m’ in F=ma) with gravitational mass (that’s the ‘m’ in the inverse square law of gravitational force) – did Monsieur think they were the same? – and he finds they are the same as one part in two million. He’s planning to make that one part in one hundred million. What accuracy! But why is inertial mass and gravitational mass as good as the same? Perhaps the new century will guess answers.

Fogg: It’s dawn. Where are we now?

Passepartout: The horizon is filled with the fields of the Ukraine.

Fogg: There’s less to see.

Passepartout: It’s hard to see potential. That newborn baby down there has the name Theodosius Grygorovych Dobzhansky. The world of science doesn’t know him yet, and his famous work will be done thousands of miles away. Yet he’ll take some of the culture of Russia with him.

Fogg: I think the sun is rising. What a glorious view.


(Jump cut)


Fogg. A new reel. That saved some time. The air is warm, the sea sparkles, and thousands of islands lie beneath us. But where’s the science, Passepartout?

Passepartout: Do you see on this big island – it’s called Java. This is where a skullcap and a few bones of an early man were found by Eugene Dubois between 1891 and 1893. He’s claiming his Pithecanthropus erectus is a Huxleyan “missing link”, although now he’s in retreat, with his fossils, back in Amsterdam. But it’s not bones I want you to see, but the vegetation. See the change in colour and form as we pass over the forests of the centre to the monotonous colour of the plantations? Those are the rubber tree plantations of the Dutch East Indies, and there are the beautiful botanical gardens of Buitenzorg. Under its vigorous director, Melchior Treub, Buitenzorg is a site of science of international renown. But the products of science here are constantly on the move: being from or back to the Netherlands, or being sent from this Javan centre out to and back from little replica colonies in the archipelago. Treub is unusual for staying here so long. Others have to leave to the European cities to make a career. That newborn there in Jakarta – his name is George Uhlenbeck – he’ll move to The Hague, Leiden, Copenhagen and eventually to America.

Fogg: It’s all movement.

Passepartout: And some of the science is done on the move. Look down there, do you see a ship sailing the Banda Sea between Timor and Celebes?

Fogg: Yes.

Passepartout: That’s the Siboga. A converted gun-boat, now a research vessel. Bigger than the Beagle, but not quite the size of Challenger (Pieters and Visser 1993). It was launched in Amsterdam in 1898, and sailed on this expedition from Surabaya a year later. On board is a crew including Max Weber.

Fogg: The Max Weber?

Passepartout: If you are in the field of marine biology then yes. If you mean the sociologist, then no. This Max Weber is a colleague of Hugo de Vries’s at the University of Amsterdam, and is one of six scientists on board (including Anna Weber, Max’s wife). The rest are Dutch naval officers, servants, and Javanese sailors. They are measuring the depths and trawling the seas for life. The collections will be sent back to the centres of empire.

Fogg: Is everything collected?

Passepartout: Of course not. A selection is made. But there are some ethnological artefacts too.

Fogg: I can surprise you there. Because even though very little disturbs me from the Reform Club I find I can stay in London yet the whole world comes to me. Recently, for example, I happened to see a film of the natives of islands – south of here I believe, just north of Australia. And I heard a phonograph recording too. It was as the ethnologists had raided Edison’s workshop and taken away his inventions. But the sights and sounds! It was as if those strange people had been transported alive across half the globe.

Passepartout: That film would have been created on the Torres Straits expedition from Cambridge University in 1898. Yes, it is remarkable to hear phonographs or see photographs and even film of far away places and the artefacts of different cultures. But the more profound point is that only some places can be sites of comparison – think how strange it is to have the fish-hooks of Melanesia ending up alongside those of the Carib Indians or the Eskimo! Or the skulls of different races, for that matter. And when you can compare, or better still measure and compare, new descriptive and comparative sciences – whether marine biology or anthropology – can be built.

Fogg: Well, it sounds like one more blessing of the Empire to me.

Passepartout: That is in the eye of the beholder. It depends on whether you are doing the comparing. Or are being compared.

Fogg: Is this pattern of transportation the case everywhere outside Europe and America?

Passepartout: Crudely put, yes. But everywhere is different in its own way. Look we are being blown north, across the South China Sea to the island of Japan. The institutions of the West are being copied here, but on Japanese terms. Young scientists are travelling to Europe to train but they are also returning. Or at least some are. Let me tell you about the career of Jokichi Takamine to illustrate how complex this story of movement and the copying of models can be. Takamine was born in 1854, only a few months after Commander Perry’s warships opened up trade with the West; his father encouraged the young Jokichi to study “foreign science”, but his mother, whose family owned a sake brewery will have just as much influence (Bennett and Yamomoto 2008). Takamine studied medicine at Osaka, chemistry at the College of Science and Engineering at Tokyo, before the Japanese government selected him to travel to Glasgow to study industrial technology. He takes copious notes on fertilizer manufacturing. Back in Japan some of this knowledge is transferred, but almost immediately he is sent abroad again, this time to New Orleans in 1884 to a Cotton Exposition. There he proposes to the landlord’s daughter, and they marry in 1887; the honeymoon is a tour of fertilizer manufacturing plants in South Carolina (Bennett and Yamomoto 2008). Sailing home, Takamine sets up the Tokyo Artificial Fertilizer Company, selling super-phosphates to Japanese farmers. The couple have two kids, but life is not idyllic: the air around the factory smells, and Takamine’s mother is not keen on the blue-eyed bride (Bennett and Yamomoto 2008).

Fogg: What happens next? Surely they have travelled far already.

Passepartout: Having taken a Western technology to Japan, Takamine now reverses to process (Bennett and Yamomoto 2008). Takamine’s research was born of Japanese culture and its working world. He is familiar with the powerful kojis – malts produced by Aspergillus molds, used in Japanese fermentation industries to make soy sauce and, as found in his mother’s family’s breweries, sake,. Takamine isolates one component, an enzyme which he will license as “Taka-diastase”, of the malting process, and with this he returns to the United States in 1890. It’s a cheaper way to saccharrify starch, and despite the attacks of traditionalists, he secures a patent (the first for a microbial enzyme in the United States, and Parke-Davis & Company of Detroit market it as a digestive aid (Bennett and Yamomoto 2008). Parke-Davis puts up the money for Takamine’s own research laboratory in New York, where even as we speak he is filing a patent for a pure substance he is calling “Adrenalin”.

Fogg: What’s that? Some patent drug for dicky kidneys, I surmise?

Passepartout: No mere quack medicine. Adrenalin is a hormone, a chemical messenger in the body. There’s a whole new science, endocrinology, emerging as we speak, that asks what hormones are and what they do. Adrenalin and Taka-diastase will make him rich.

Fogg: Good for him. It seems to me that Dr Takamine’s success is a rare thing in today’s America.

Passepartout: How true. Look! As I was telling his story we have crossed the immense Pacific and are approaching the Californian coast. What a place of change! Only fifty years after the gold rush, and all modern life is here. There’s San Francisco, a city of over three hundred thousand souls. Look carefully and you can see the tentacles of the Southern Pacific Railroad. And at night the coast glimmers with electric light. Now we sweep over the Sierra Nevada, and across the West. The networks of metropolitan science reach here too. Down below teams of geologists working for the United States Geological Survey are conducting a great mapping of the gravitational field of this land. The data, reduced and refined back on the East Coast, will inform the paths of prospectors and provide clues about the nature – even movement – of continental rock.

Fogg: Movement! Now I know you are joking, my friend.

Passepartout: Why not? If our balloon can be driven around the world by the gentle gusts of air, why not rock by the great volcanic forces of the earth?

Fogg: The earth is stationary.

Passepartout: And yet it moves.

Fogg: You have lost me. I don’t know even if you are speaking of the past or the future. But what can I see down there, are those prospectors scratching riches from the rocks of Wyoming?

Passepartout: Yes, but not mineral riches. They are fossil hunters, sent west by the wealthy patrons of metropolitan museums, competing to send back bigger and more terrifying dinosaurs to thrill museum visitors. Indeed, from their endeavours an extraordinary story of the movement of models will unfold. Dinosaurs are a sure crowd pleaser. But when Adam Heismann, a ‘young artisan under Henry Fairfield Osborn at the American Museum of Natural History devised a technique for “boring through the extremely fragile center of fossil bones”, he “made it possible to mount, for the first time, free standing skeletons of fossil animals” (Winsor 2009, quoting John Michael Kennedy). A free-standing diplodocus, a huge dinosaur with long neck and tail, extracted from those Wyoming rocks, will be the centrepiece of the new Carnegie Museum of Natural History when it opens in Pittsburgh in 1905. And to show old Europe the wealth of the West, and at the request of the King, Andrew Carnegie will spend some of his steel fortune creating a duplicate cast, shipping the copy across the Atlantic, and reassembling it in the British Museum (Natural History). This “gift”, Nature will record “is not only of immense value and interest to the man of science, but will likewise prove a great attraction to the ordinary visitor to the Museum. It is almost an appalling thought that the skeleton of a creature which lived at least several million years ago should have come down in such marvellous preservation to our own day” (Anon. 1905: 83).

Fogg: I find its duplication and subsequent travel the equal in marvel of its preservation. How science moves in 1900!

Passepartout: Our journey speeds up. It is as if the creators of this picture show want to match the dynamism of the New World. We will have only glimpses of science as we travel. Look north: there outside Chicago is the giant reflecting telescope, a refractor with a main lens forty inches in diameter, built for a research university inspired by the German model, but, like the copy of the Diplodocus, funded by American wealth, in this case the tycoon Charles Tyson Yerkes.

Fogg: He maybe a tycoon but he’s no gentleman.

Passepartout. Perhaps. But American astronomers can compete with European rivals when equipped with such instruments. It’s the birth of a scientific superpower. And talking of births: there in Overpeck Ohio is the newborn Charles Richter.

Fogg: Will he shake the world of science?

Passepartout: Perhaps shake is too strong a word. But he will measure the earth’s tremors. At another Carnegie-funded institution he’ll measure earthquakes as astronomers measure starlight. And there is John Scopes, born in Paducah, Kentucky.

Fogg: A scientist?

Passepartout: A teacher. His life will be a trial.

Fogg: And far south. I can see the islands of the Caribbean.

Passepartout: The biggest is Cuba, the cause of war only two years ago that ended Spanish colonial power there. The American army almost perished from yellow fever, and now Walter Reed is re-interpreting the disease in terms of Koch’s germ theory. Reed is using human experimental subjects – who have signed a written agreement in Spanish and English in exchange for one hundred dollars of gold – to participate in a demonstration that mosquitos transmit the fever (Lederer 2009). Military medicine, germ theory and colonisation march arm in arm.

Fogg: I can see the East Coast now. We are being blown rapidly north.

Passepartout: See the research universities and institutes. There, in Baltimore, is Johns Hopkins University, closest in spirit to German models. There’s New York, glowing in later afternoon, with the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research being planned in Upper East Side, Manhattan – it will open in 1902. There’s the American Museum of Natural History to the side of Central Park. In the suburbs we can see Takamine’s laboratory. Upin New York State, in the Electric City of Schenectady, that hut is the General Electric’s corporate laboratory. Looks inconsequential, doesn’t it? Further along the coast now. Blink and you will miss it: New Haven, Connecticut, home of Yale University, and a mathematical physicist, Josiah Willard Gibbs, known to few (though praised by Maxwell) but writing an extraordinary treatise, The Elementary Principles of Statistical Mechanics that will be published in two years time (Kevles 1971: 32-33). Over Massachusetts now and across the Charles River from Boston we see Harvard and MIT – now there’s a place that takes the working world and makes sciences out of it – and on the coast the marine biology laboratory at Woods Hole.

Fogg: After that blur, we are slowing down. We are a long way North now. It seems to me a desolate rocky coastline. Surely there is little to see here?

Passepartout: We would have to return a year from now, and even then the eye could barely make anything out. Imagine thin wires, five hundred feet long, borne aloft by kites. The wires connect to a radiotelegraph designed by Guglielmo Marconi and his colleagues. His theory is that long radio waves will move a current strong enough to jump across a coherer – a tube of graphite filings – which can then be heard as a faint click. They will be hunkered down, listening in, trying to make out an artificial signal against the static and the Newfoundland wind. And On December 19, 1901, Marconi will persuade himself, and then the world, that he has heard the faint Morse code message “…”, three dots, an ‘S’. The radio waves have come from a spark transmitter at Poldhu, Cornwall, and Marconi will announce that he has sent a wireless telegraph message across the Atlantic for the first time.

Fogg: A single letter, moved from the Old World to the New? The cable companies will not panic yet.

Passepartout: Not yet. But even to achieve this movement, Marconi will have had to turn this patch of Newfoundland coastline into the controlled environment of a miniature radio telegraphy laboratory. Science works on prepared ground.

Fogg: I am ravenous. Let’s return home.

Passepartout: Our balloon is already tracking back along the path of Marconi’s signal. Look there’s Cornwall below, across southern England, and the lights of London shine out of the darkness. There is science in the suburbs – there’s the Burroughs-Wellcome Physiological Laboratories in Herne Hill. And science even in the country piles of the aristocracy – there’s Lord Rayleigh at Terling in Essex whose research will be interpreted by William Ramsay as evidence a new element, the noble gas Argon. But it is the Capital that takes the eye. Capital of many new sciences – electrical, physical, chemical, even psychical. Capital of Empire, Westminster and City gentlemen.

Fogg: Ah! To be in my old armchair at the Reform Club. Perhaps some lamb chops and a tipple. But we are not slowing down. Are we heading to Paris instead?

Passepartout: No. Further north. If I am not mistaken, the ingenious showmen have filmed a balloon ride out of Stockholm, and are now feeding the said film backwards, creating the remarkably convincing impression of a descent into the Royal Swedish capital.

Fogg: A peaceful city.

Passepartout: A city preparing to celebrate science through wealth acquired anything but peacefully. You will have read about the will of Alfred Nobel? The inventor of dynamite had been alarmed by a premature obituary that described him as a merchant of death, and in Paris in 1895, one year before his actual death, he wrote a will that gave most of his considerable fortune to a ‘the interest on which’, and I quote from memory


shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind. The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses. The prizes for physics and chemistry shall be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences; that for physiological or medical work by the Caroline Institute in Stockholm; that for literature by the Academy in Stockholm, and that for champions of peace by a committee of five persons to be elected by the Norwegian Storting. It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not.


The king of Sweden, Oscar II, is not at all happy with that last stipulation. Still he is coming round to the notion now that it is attracting plenty of positive comment and pleasant speculation. I have it on good authority that the winners will include several of those we have seen on our trip.

Fogg: Well? Let it out man.

Passepartout: Röntgen of Munich for physics, and van ’t Hoff of Berlin for chemistry. Behring of Marburg, for physiology or medicine, will complete a hat-trick for the German universities. (The poet Sully Prudhomme, whose work has handily just been collected in many volumes, will take the literature prize back to Paris.) Marie Skłodowska-Curie, Pierre Curie, Ernest Rutherford, Joseph von Baeyer, Robert Koch, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Camillo Golgi, Lord Rayleigh, William Ramsay and Guglielmo Marconi will all be feted before the decade is out.

Fogg: It is the science of metropolitan Europe that is being showered with prizes. But we have seen how it depends on the movement of material, fossils, models, evidence, scientists, even whole collections made by expeditions, extracted from across the world. Can the bigger picture be explained, Passepartout?

Passepartout: I can try, sir, if you do not mind a lecture.

Fogg: By all means. Take your time.

Passepartout (clearing throat): A Lecture on Science and Geopolitics.


At this point the lights go out.


Fogg: I do believe you are too late. Someone else, another day, will have to present your lecture. Not only have the arc lights of the Cinéorama been extinguished, but so have the many Edison bulbs that lighted our way. How fitting that the lights that have mapped for us so much of the world of science are now failing us.

The ghost of Marx: You philosophers have only interpreted the light bulb; the point is to change it.


Massimiano Bucchi: Geniuses, heroes and saints – JBS Haldane Lecture 2019

Malcolm R Chalmers18 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.”

Massimiano Bucchi is a sociologist of science at the University of Trento, Italy. He is giving the UCL Haldane lecture on Wednesday 23 January in London. You can book a place here.

The Astronomer behind the Bar

Paul F Ranford11 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[1].

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.

Astonomy for Every-Day Readers by B.J. Hopkins FRAS

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.



[1] See https://www.nature.com/search?q=B.J.Hopkins&order=relevance&date_range=1882-1883


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

Royal Astronomical Society, Report of the Council to the Seventy-fifth Annual General Meeting, pp193-4, Obituary of Benjamin John Hopkins


Jon Agar2 August 2017

radar ball Foulness

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


Foulness and London google map

Figure 1. Foulness is on the Essex coast, east of Southend-on-Sea

Foulness google map

Figure 2. A more detailed view of Foulness. The two centres of civilian population are Churchend (where the Foulness Heritage Centre is marked) and Courtsend. The two large creeks at the south-eastern end of Foulness delimit Havengore and New England “islands”. The Broomway runs parallel to the Eastern edge. The upside-down tear-drop to the west is Potton Island.


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 Ox

Figure 3. The “Foulness Ox” (d.1939). Photograph on display at the Foulness Heritage Centre.


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.



Figure 4. Churchend, Foulness, during the Great Flood of 1953. Photograph on display at Foulness Heritage Centre.



Figure 5. Toys sent from the United States after the Great Flood of 1953. On display at the Foulness Heritage Centre.


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.



Figure 6. The Defenders of Essex opposed the Maplin Sands airport proposal, 1968-1974. On display at Foulness Heritage Centre.


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)



Figure 7. A model sheep in the Foulness Shock Tube, 1964. From NA ES 3/77. AWRE Report no. E7/63 (7). This was preliminary work in advance of a 500 ton TNT test at Suffield, Canada.


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.


Foulness AWRE map

Figure 8. Map of AWRE Foulness, showing ranges, the Magazine Area and Headquarters. NA AB 16/1777.


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.



Figure 9. The distant gantry of the Spigot Intrusion Facility, Foulness.


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)



Figure 10. A naval firing range mast, with radar ball, Foulness, overlooking the sea.


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.


The model sheep in its cage.

(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).


Science and the Cold War at UCL. 1. Surveillance

Jon Agar26 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 to Aaronovitch

Letter from Ness to Sam Aaronovitch, 20 August 1950.

Ness CP member form

Alan Ness’s Communist Party registration form, 1952. He is listed as a ‘research scientist’. In addition to being a Party member he has joined the Association of Scientific Workers trade union.


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.


Ness and Nunn May wedding

The surveillance of Alan Nunn May extended to spying on his wedding. Here the informant reports that Alan and “Christine” (Christian) Ness attended the wedding and sparse gathering that followed. The informant clearly pumped the Nesses for information, such as where they lived and what they did (in fact, only Christian was an architect)


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’.


Chistine father letter 1

Christian’s father’s letter to Alan Ness (page 1). “Dear Alan, Thanks for your letter. I am glad that Christian is willing to fall in with the suggestions we discussed together last Sunday. I am certain that in the interests of your married life and her usefulness in the profession it will be found to be worthwhile and she will be happier within herself. The last 3 years have produced very little progress. She has been wandering from one thing to another without a definite purpose – unless she has a definite object and stocks to it there can be no satisfactory result, as I told you she has the making of a creative architect if she will not waste her energy – Remember she [is] trying to do architecture, domestic duties, as well as social engagements also trying to understand politics. Far too much for any man or woman. My advice to you is to leave her to develop her own personality. You can influence her which ever way you wish for she believes everything you say to her. You have already made her a fellow traveller, but sooner or later she will see through it all and in the end tragedy may be the result. Hers is a trusting nature but she will not do anything that has a doubtful and ulterior motives. If her eyes are opened she will and can be …”

Chrsitine father letter 2

Christian’s father’s letter to Alan Ness (page 2) “… very determined, and she may be made to become very unhappy. My only wish is that as you become more of a so called Capitalist you may change your own outlook – you can’t have it both ways. I have arranged a Partners meeting and I hope we may succeed in making a start towards better results, if all work towards the same end this should happen, all my interest is that Christian should be happy in her life and work. Nothing else really matters. Love to you both. Stanley Hamp”


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.


Haldane MI5 file

A page from JBS Haldane’s MI5 file. Note the portrait photographs cut and pasted from newspapers.


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.


Burhop wire tap

Request for permission to tap Burhop’s telephone. Note the ‘temporary and special purpose’ has been asterisked as the ‘Fuchs case’. 3 February 1950.


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’.


Burhop in Daily Herald

Burhop: “It’s very awkward. Suppose I want a holiday abroad”. Daily Herald, 23 July 1951.


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.

(2) The Ness files are in NA KV 2/4300 and 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.

Did you study at a new university in the 1960s or 1970s?

Jon Agar10 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



Britain’s Oppenheimer?

Jon Agar25 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


Seabed caverns and nuclear fracking

Jon Agar21 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

a List of STS Journals

Jon Agar24 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.