THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

39 posts categorized "Science"

20 July 2018

Mrs Boulton and the woodland warbler

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Have you ever noticed how some animals are named after people? Hume's Partridge. Lady Amherst's Pheasant. Waller's Starling. I come across this quite a lot when cataloguing new collections and have often wondered who these people were.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that these species were named after the naturalists who discovered them. Now, there are no rules that say you can't name a new species after yourself, however it's generally regarded as bad form in most taxonomic circles. Helps keep the egos in check etc.  It's perfectly acceptable to name a species after somebody else though. Most names are given as a declaration of admiration or love, however a few have been chosen out of spite. What better way to insult a critic or a rival than by naming a disagreeable specimen after them? Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, was the king of the nomenclature slap down. Mess with Linnaeus and you could be sure that a smelly weed or a boring nettle would soon bear your name.

In this particular example we're going to look at Mrs Boulton's Woodland Warbler, Seicercus laurae. Now more commonly referred to as Laura's Woodland Warbler, this little songbird can be found in the dry forests and swamps of central Africa. The species was discovered in 1931 by the American ornithologist W. Rudyerd Boulton (1901-1983) who specialised in the avifauna of Africa. While assistant curator of birds at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Boulton made several research trips to Africa accompanied by his first wife, the ethnomusicologist Laura Crayton Boulton (1899-1980). It was with Laura that he discovered this previously unknown warbler which he named in her honour.

Laura's Woodland Warbler, recorded at Mount Namba, Angola by Michael Mills (BL ref 163291) 

The Boultons continued to explore the ornithological and musical treasures of Africa until the mid 1930s when their marriage began to fall apart. The couple finally divorced in 1938 and, though Laura continued in the field of ethnomusicology, Rudyerd's professional life took an entirely different turn. In 1942 he joined the African branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the US intelligence agency formed during World War Two, where his knowledge of the landscape, people and politics of central African countries was put to good use. In the same year he married his second wife, the socialite, poet and psychic Inez Cunningham Stark. Though mainly based out of Washington DC, Boulton was heavily involved with operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, most notably the procurement of uranium ore for the Manhattan Project.

At the end of WWII, Boulton continued working in intelligence for several years, including a stint with the CIA, until, apparently at least, turning his back on espionage in 1958. A year later he created the charitable Atlantica Foundation with his third wife, the wealthy widow Louise Rehm. The remit of this foundation was broad but ambitious, aiming to establish and support research into zoology, ecology, fine arts and parapsychology. The couple based their operation out of Zimbabwe and were by all accounts generous supporters of research and education in the area until their deaths in 1974 (Louise) and 1983 (Rudyerd).

But what of the woman who inspired the name of our woodland warbler? Laura Boulton became a renowned field recordist, filmmaker and collector of traditional musical instruments from around the world. During her life she embarked on almost 30 recording expeditions throughout Africa, Europe, Asia and North America, amassing tens of thousands of sound recordings, photos, films, books and instruments. She experienced first hand advancements in recording technology, beginning her career with an Edison phonograph before progressing to a disc cutting machine and eventually a portable reel to reel recorder. Her legacy can be found in various institutions across the United States, from the Center for Ethnomusicology at Columbia University to the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University. 

Boulton LP  One of Boulton's published collections of ethnographic field recordings (BL Shelfmark 1LP0247765)

When beginning my research I never imagined that two such colourful characters would be behind the name of this rather inconspicuous little warbler. Two years after the discovery of Laura's Woodland Warbler, Rudyerd was himself taxonomically immortalised by the American herpetologist Karl Patterson Schmidt, who named a new species of Namib day gecko, Rhoptropus boultoni, in his honour. And in case you're wondering, Schmidt must have liked Rudyerd. Rhoptropus boultoni is a pretty cute gecko.

Follow @CherylTipp for all the latest wildlife news. 

26 June 2018

Fulton at 50: how civil service reform affected government scientists

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On 26 June 1968 Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced to the Commons the publication of the Fulton Report, the outcome of the first major inquiry into the civil service for more than 100 years.

Fulton front page

Fulton committeePhoto credit: Contemporary Record, 2 (2) 1988, p.49

The committee, appointed in 1966 to examine the service’s structure, recruitment, training and management, were a mixture of senior civil servants, MPs, academics and representatives from industry and the trade unions. Their task, according to Wilson, was to “ensure that the service is properly equipped for its role in the modern state”. One of the criticisms of its scope was that it did not look at the relationship between Ministers and their civil servants, the focus of a recent report from the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee.

Here Fulton committee member Norman Hunt describes the work of his team 1:

Norman Hunt (M5929)

Out of this intense scrutiny exercise came a list of 158 recommendations, the sheer volume of which hindered the report’s implementation. Some were promptly put into effect, such as the creation of a Civil Service Department and enhanced training provision through a Civil Service College, while others, for example the hiving-off of public services, took decades to filter through.

One of the report’s conclusions was that “many scientists, engineers and members of other specialist classes get neither the full responsibilities and corresponding authority, or the opportunities they ought to have.”2 The civil service was built around a framework of vertical classes which inhibited the movement of specialists into the upper tiers. Consequently, management of the civil service was concentrated in the hands of generalists who rose up through the administrative class.3

Lord Fulton (T5341)

One of the more immediate changes post-Fulton came with the introduction of a unified grading system aimed at bringing coherence across the classes. This created resentment among some civil servants who felt they had been downgraded. Anthony Kelly, a materials scientist working at that time at the National Physical Laboratory, is one example.

Fulton person 1Photo credit: The British Library

Anthony Kelly (C1379/54/12)

Nevertheless opportunities for career progression opened up as a result of the report. Roger Courtney, who was to become director of the Building Research Establishment, appreciated the changes that came out of it.

Fulton person 2Photo credit: The Building Research Establishment

Roger Courtney (C1802/01/09)

For him, the new Senior Professional Administrative Training Scheme (with its memorable acronym SPATS) led to a job at the heart of government in Cabinet Office.

However while the report’s aim of getting more specialists into management positions looked good on paper, in reality it was not so straightforward.

Sir John Charnley, an aeronautical engineer at the Royal Aircraft Establishment who went on to manage Ministry of Defence research programmes, explains the issue:

Fulton person 3Photo credit: The British Library

John Charnley (C1379/30/16)

This tallies with Roger Courtney’s assessment:

Roger Courntey (C1802/01/09)

Fifty years later, the challenge of getting more scientific expertise into the policy-making environment remains a question debated at a national level, while historians continue to evaluate the Fulton report's long-term impact on today's civil service.

Blogpost by Emmeline Ledgerwood (@EmmeLedgerwood), AHRC collaborative doctoral student with the University of Leicester and the British Library Oral History department. Her PhD research is looking at governments’ attitudes to the management and funding of scientific research, 1970-2005.


1  Crowther-Hunt, Norman, Government and the Civil Service [1], 16 October 1976. British Library catalogue reference M5929. Copyright BBC.

2 The Civil Service [Fulton report], (1968), Volume 1, para. 17, p. 12.

3 Fulton, John, Fulton Report on the Civil Service, 28 June 1968. British Library catalogue reference T5341. Copyright BBC.

22 June 2018

Women, Engineering and British Politics

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June 23rd is International Women in Engineering Day 2018. To mark this and the 100th anniversary of (partial) women’s suffrage in the UK I decided to see what the British Library oral history collections could tell us about women whose careers involved both engineering and parliamentary politics. Neither of these areas was part of systematic oral history fieldwork until the 21st century, when An Oral History of British Science (2009) and The History of Parliament’s Oral History Project (2011) started to gather interviews.

Both projects began by targeting older interviewees and so have not yet captured the increase in participation of women in both fields since the 1970s. The History of Parliament collection concentrates on those who have left office, excluding current MPs such as Margaret Beckett (Labour, Lincoln 1974-79, South Derby 1983 – present), who worked as a metallurgist before moving into politics. She does appear in the recollections of others, including Kenneth Carlisle, interviewed in 2015 by John Barry. Carlisle recalls winning Lincoln for the Conservatives from Beckett in the 1979 general election.

In her interview Emma Nicholson, (Conservative then Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon, 1987-97,) suggests some of the difficulties of combining political ambitions with a technical career. She explains to Emme Ledgerwood why it was only after she stopped working as a computer programmer and systems analyst that she was able to start fulfilling her early political ambitions.

Emma Nicholson on early political ambition (C1503/62/02}

Nicholson joined the industry in 1962, and like other women programmers of her generation benefitted from its willingness to consider entrants from a range of educational backgrounds, in her case one in music.

Emma Nicholson (2)     Emma Nicholson   

Here she describes how she came to take the ‘entrance test’ for International Computers Ltd (ICL).

Emma Nicholson on ICL 'entrance  test' (C1503/62/01)

Once she had completed her training her gender proved decisive in selection for an assignment in Zambia involving setting up key IT infrastructure in the run up to independence in 1964.

Emma Nicholson on setting up Zambian IT infrastructure 1/2 (C1503/62/02)

Emma Nicholson on setting up Zambian IT infrastructure 2/2 (C1503/62/02)

After her election she found herself bombarded by requests from former colleagues eager for her to intervene on proposed legislation concerning software copyright.

Emma Nicholson on copyright legislation (C1503/62/02)

Nicholson now sits in the House of Lords, a chamber that only admitted women in 1958. Here her interests focus on human rights, education, international development and trade.

Perhaps the most vociferous voice for women in engineering to sit in the Lords was Beryl Platt, Baroness Platt of Writtle.

A wartime engineering graduate she joined Hawker Aircraft in 1943 and worked as an aeronautical engineer until her marriage in 1949. Her route into politics was at a local level and she served on Essex County Council for many years. Created a life peer in 1981, she became chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission in 1983, an appointment recalled in her interview by her predecessor Betty Lockwood, interviewed by Margaret Faull in 2014 (C1727/01).

In this role she did much to champion opportunities for women in engineering. This included collaborating with the Engineering Council to launch 1984 as Women into Science and Engineering year and acting as a mentor for a new generation of women engineers, including Joanna Kennedy, interviewed in 2017 by Tom Lean (C1379/126).

Joanna Kennedy on Beryl Platt (C1379/126/04)

A more recent addition to the House of Lords is Julia King, Baroness Brown of Cambridge, created a life peer in 2015. Interviewed by An Oral History of British Science in 2011, when she was vice-chancellor of Aston University, she described herself as ‘not a very political animal’. ) (track 2 31:14, transcript p. 60) Perhaps unsurprisingly she sits on the cross benches from where her contributions have been primarily on issues relating to technology, the environment and higher education.

Here I have concentrated on the relatively few women who made the transition from engineering to parliamentary politics, but a broader definition of engagement with the political sphere and the processes of government would have allowed me to include many more women who have provided advice to government, worked in government research establishments and been involved in campaigning in different ways. As the Oral History collections at the British Library continue to expand we can expect significant new insights into how women have combined engineering and politics to emerge.

Dr Sally Horrocks, Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Leicester, and Senior Academic Advisor to the National Life Stories's project, An Oral History of British Science.

21 June 2018

“And we saw the thing had done a computation” - The modern computer turns 70

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It's been 70 years since the first successful run of the Manchester Baby, arguably the worlds first modern computer. Built in a dreary laboratory at Manchester University, to designs by electronic engineers Freddy Williams, Tom Kilburn and Geoff Tootill, the Baby was built primarily to test the world's first computer memory. At its heart was a Cathode Ray Tube (CRT), the same component used in an old style television set to show a picture, but used in the Baby to store data and programs. Unlike any computing machine before it, Baby could be used for different purposes by simply changing the electronic instructions of its program, making it the first machine to share the basic architecture used most computers since.

In 2009-2010, Geoff Tootill, the last survivor of the original Baby team, was interviewed for An Oral History of British Science, and recounted the construction and first run of the machine in 1948:

Geoff Tootill: Building the Manchester Baby (C1379/02)

GCTca1950-will-be-M0002 croppedGeoff Tootill, circa 1950

For all its electronic complexity, logically Baby was a basic machine. Its circuitry could only do subtraction and its memory held a paltry 1 kilobit of data, about 1/32,000,000th of the memory of the computer I'm writing this on. However, “Baby demonstrated the fact that you could now make a programmable computer,” as Professor Dai Edwards, who joined the computing group a few months after Baby's first run, explains in this video.

This blog is by Tom Lean, National Life Stories Project Interviewer. Tom interviewed Geoff Tootill for An Oral History of British Science (reference C1379/02) in 2010.

03 April 2018

National Life Stories Podcast Episode 6: Science and Religion

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“As soon as you say that you’re working on a project on Science and Religion everyone listening to that will have certain assumptions of what that could mean… you’re probably not thinking about something as unconventional or as imaginative as these examples seem to suggest”

Episode 6 of National Life Stories podcast features Paul Merchant talking to Charlie Morgan about his work on the project Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum. The oral histories conducted by Paul were part of a much larger project run out of Newman University, York University and the University of Kent and led by Dr Fern Elsdon Baker and Professor Bernard Lightman. You find out more information on their website.

Episode 6 image

All the interviews conducted by Paul are available on British Library Sounds. Clips in the episode are taken from the following interviews:

If you’d like to learn more check out our collection guide on Oral histories of religion and belief.

National Life Stories Podcast Episode 6: Science and Religion

14 March 2018

Memories of Stephen Hawking in An Oral History of British Science

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Stephen HawkingStephen Hawking, Unknown Date, Source: NASA

A number of interviews recorded for An Oral History of British Science at the British Library speak of Stephen Hawking in their interviews. Tim Palmer was in the audience for his paper on the emission of particles by black holes at the first ‘Oxford Quantum Gravity Conference’ in 1974 [Track one 1:36:14-1:42:55]. Others remember reading his popular science books. In Sir Harry Bhadeshia’s case, A Brief History of Time (in spite of its famous last sentence) inspired thoughts that led to atheism:

Harry Bhadeshia on A Brief History of Time 1988 (C1379/100)

The most charming memories of Hawking are contained in Nicholas Humphery’s interview, part of a wonderful description of Humphrey’s childhood home in Mill Hill. A teenage Hawking is beautifully recalled in the roles of Scottish dancing instructor and drill sergeant:

Nicholas Humphrey remembers a teenage Stephen Hawking (C1672/21)

This blog is by Dr Paul Merchant, Oral History Interviewer, National Life Stories, the British Library. Paul interviewed Tim Palmer, Harry Bhadeshia and Nicholas Humphrey for An Oral History of British Science. The complete interviews can be listened to on BL Sounds.

19 January 2018

Mary Lee Berners-Lee: the joy of programming and equal pay

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This blog is by Tom Lean, National Life Stories Project Interviewer. Tom interviewed Mary Lee Berners-Lee and her husband Conway for An Oral History of British Science (reference C1379/23) in 2010-2011.

Mary Lee Berners-Lee, originally Mary Lee Woods, is probably best known as the mother of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, but she had a considerable career in science and technology in her own right. After studying mathematics at the University of Birmingham, she spent the latter part of the Second World War working at the Telecommunications Research Establish (TRE), the secret centre of Britain’s radar development effort. With the war over she returned to her studies, before leaving Britain for the Mount Stromlo observatory in Australia in 1947, where she worked classifying the spectra of stars. In 1951 she returned to Britain and chanced across an advert for a job at Ferranti in Manchester that would change her life: “I was reading Nature and saw an advertisement one day for – saying, ‘Mathematicians wanted to work on a digital computer.’”

021I-C1379X0023XX-0001A1Mary Lee and Conway Berners-Lee in 1954

Mary Lee spent three days in a reference library learning what a computer was, “the most profitable three days I think I’ve ever had because when I went for the interview for the job I could ask intelligent questions and nobody else they’d interviewed had, so it put up my salary quite a bit!” Subsequently she joined the team working on the Ferranti Mark 1, the world’s first general purpose electronic computer to be commercially available – the first machine built to be sold to customers not just an experimental electronic brain developed by scientists. At Ferranti she discovered not only her future husband, Conway Berners-Lee, but also the joy of programming, as she recounts in this extract from her interview for An Oral History of British Science.

Mary Lee Berners-Lee on the joy of programming

Mary Lee left Ferranti to raise a family, but later worked in various computing related jobs. She was not only a pioneer of computer programming, but also for women in science and technology. Mary  fought against Ferranti’s concerns that it would be improper of women programmers to work on the computer overnight with male engineers, and demanded equal pay for women programmers.

Mary Lee Berners-Lee on equal pay for women programmers

You can read more about Mary Lee and listen to more extracts at Voices of Science; parts of her life story interview are available in the Library Reading Rooms.

04 December 2017

Recording of the week: Britain's first supercomputer

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This week's selection comes from Tom Lean, Project Interviewer for An Oral History of British Science.

It has been 55 years since the commissioning of Atlas at the University of Manchester in 1962, one of the world's very first supercomputers. Developed largely by the University of Manchester and Ferranti, the enormous machine was probably the second most powerful computer at the time and pioneered a number of innovations in hardware and software. Capable of processing about a million instructions a second and with over 670 kilobytes of memory, Atlas had as much computing power as several smaller machines, albeit far less than the simplest desktop machine today. It was said that when Atlas went offline, Britain lost half its computing power. Yet despite this awesome potential, only three Atlas computers were ever built. As Atlas's lead hardware designer Professor David Edwards recalled for An Oral History Of British Science, it was rather difficult convincing the sceptics that Britain even needed a machine that was so powerful:

We only need one computer for the country_Dai Edwards (C1379/11)

University_of_Manchester_Atlas _January_1963

The Atlas computer at the University of Manchester, 1963 (Iain MacCallum)

Visit the library's Voices of Science web resource to explore 100 life stories about environmental science, British technology and engineering from 1940 to the present.

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.