THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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32 posts categorized "Science"

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)

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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.

24 November 2017

“And we saw the thing had done a computation” - Geoff Tootill, 1922 – 2017

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Tom Lean, project interviewer for the National Life Stories collection An Oral History of British Science, remembers interviewing Geoff Tootill, electrical engineer and computer designer, who died last month.

  GCTca1950-will-be-M0002 croppedGeoff Tootill, c. 1950

Geoff Tootill was the very last survivor of the team which designed and built the world's first modern computer - the 1948 “Manchester Baby.” In 2009 he was also my very first interviewee for an Oral History of British Science, and over 18 hours of answering my novice questions with patience and dry humour, he influenced the way I've approached interviewing scientists ever since.

I'd never really thought before about just how far back into the past we can reach with oral history interviews. Yet there I was in 2009, talking to somebody about their experiences back in the 1940s. Decades years before I was born, Geoff was an electronics engineer doing secret wartime work on airborne radar at the secret Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) at Malvern.

I was impressed at Geoff's ability to recall the technical details of his work and the sophistication of the radar systems he and his colleagues developed with the primitive electronics of the day. Yet it wasn't all high pressure secret work - as a member of the TRE's Flying Rockets Concert Party, Geoff also built the electric systems for stage shows, and I realised that scientist's social lives often have an element of the technical about them.

Geoff Tootill - TRE's Flying Rockets concert party (C1379-02)

With the war over, Geoff went to the University of Manchester to help former TRE colleagues Tom Kilburn and Freddy Williams build the world's first stored program computer. The Manchester Small Scale Experimental Machine, better known today as the “Manchester Baby,” weighed a ton and was far from small. However, its fundamental architecture is still at work in the computer, tablet or smartphone you're reading this on.

021I-C1379X0002XX-0001M1Geoff Tootill, 2005 (reproduced by permission of the Manchester Evening News and Oldham Advertiser)

I spent hours talking to Geoff about building Baby, and the thing that has stuck with me most is how modestly understated he was about his involvement with this world changing development. It helped me realise that historic moments often only look that way with the benefit of hindsight. In the 1940s Geoff and his colleagues had little idea that computers would change the world, anticipating their major uses would be for weather forecasting and atomic energy calculations. The process of actually building the machine was a long process of iterative technical work before one day in early summer 1948 they, “saw the thing had done a computation.”

Geoff Tootill - building the Manchester Baby (C1379-02)

An Oral History of British Science is a national collection of interviews with over 100 leading UK scientists and engineers, telling the stories of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century as well as the personal stories of each individual. You can find out about interviewees and listen to extracts at Voices of Science and you can listen to full-length interviews at British Library Sounds.

National Life Stories is the UK's leading oral history fieldwork charity, based at the British library.

06 November 2017

Recording of the week: watching Britain's nuclear bomb tests

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

On 8th November 1957, hundreds of British military and scientific personnel gathered at Christmas Island, a remote speck of land in the Pacific Ocean. They were there for Operation Grapple X, the first successful test of a British hydrogen bomb. At 1.8 megatons, the blast was about a hundred and forty times more powerful than the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, and signified Britain's mastery of the secrets of thermonuclear power. Amongst the witnesses to the mushroom cloud rising above Christmas Island was a 35 year old technician named Frank Raynor. As he recalls, in perhaps something of an understatement, it was “quite impressive” to watch:

Frank Raynor_C1379/76

Grapple

The tests were also witnessed by Laurance Reed, a naval officer on HMS Warrior. He describes a shipboard atmosphere of excitement, anxiety and awe when the first bomb was dropped. 

Laurence Reed_C1503/37

The full interview with Frank Raynor can be found in the Oral History of British Science collection on British Library Sounds.

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

09 October 2017

Recording of the week: computer programming and motherhood in the 1960s

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

Like many women in the 1960s, Stephanie Shirley left her job in the computer industry after becoming a mother. At the time, women were expected to cut short their professional careers and stay at home to raise the family, but this was not quite what Stephanie Shirley had in mind. In 1963 she started a company named Freelance Programmers, to allow women who had left the computer industry when they had children to continue working as programmers from home. In time, Stephanie Shirley's company grew to a major business employing thousands of people. However, at the start, with sexism rife, Stephanie Shirley had to go to rather unusual lengths to create a professional image, not least calling herself "Steve", as she recalls in this interview from An Oral History of British Science.

Stephanie Shirley_Programming at home (BL ref C1379/28)

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This clip is part of Voices of Science, an online resource which uses oral history interviews with prominent British scientists and engineers to tell the stories of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century.

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

Tom Lean will speak about the related An Oral History of Electricity Supply Industry project at ‘The Life Electric’, a British Library event on Thursday 19 October. Book your tickets here https://www.bl.uk/events/the-life-electric-oral-histories-from-the-uk-electricity-supply-industry

24 July 2017

Recording of the week: ‘The BBC are coming on Friday, can we show them a prototype?’

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

To anyone who grew up in the 1980s the Acorn BBC Microcomputer was the computer they used at school, a machine that gave countless Britons their first experience of computing and sold over 1.5 million units. Yet this iconic piece of computer hardware came about almost accidentally. With the world on the verge of a computer revolution in the early 1980s, the BBC were desperately searching the British electronic industry for a computer to accompany a new educational television series about computing. To a small company in Cambridge called Acorn Computers, having the BBC adopt their new computer as the BBC Computer was a deal that could transform the company into a major player. However, as Acorn designer Steve Furber recalls, there was one problem: they didn't actually have a new computer yet, and they had just a week to develop one...

Designing the Acorn BBC Microcomputer (C1379/078)

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This clip is part of Voices of Science, an online resource which uses oral history interviews with prominent British scientists and engineers to tell the stories of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century.

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

23 June 2017

Women in the Electricity Supply Industry

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23rd June is International Women in Engineering Day. To mark this we look at the role of women in the electricity supply industry, recently documented by National Life Stories in the project An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK.

In the 1920s and 1930s  the electricity supply industry was thought to offer opportunities for women engineers that were absent in other sectors and some of Britain’s pioneering women engineers including Caroline Haslett, Margaret Partridge and Beatrice Shilling worked in the sector. 

Despite this optimism the electricity supply industry documented in An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK was one that employed few women engineers, even after the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975.  Mike Kay, who started his apprenticeship at NORWEB, the regional electricity supplier to north west England in 1978, observed:

Mike Kay on the lack of women engineers in 1970s Britain

Being the first to appoint a woman engineer was something senior managers remembered with pride.  Glyn England recalled doing so during his time at SWEB, the regional supplier for the south west:

Glyn England on the appointment of a woman engineer as a chief officer

So what was it like for these women engineers entering a largely male working environment?  Alison Simpson studied electrical engineering at Queen’s University Belfast, secured work experience in a power station and participated in the Scottish Engineering Training Scheme before joining the South of Scotland Electricity Board in 1979 as a trainee in commercial engineering, which involved working with domestic and commercial customers to design and install electrical systems. The lack of women’s toilets at the company’s engineering training facility was an early sign of the discrimination she later faced.

Alison Simpson on sexual discrimination in the workplace

Eventually Alison managed to secure the job as a distribution engineer that she had sought at the outset. This involved working on the high-voltage distribution network and gave her access to a wide range of training courses. These including training in climbing poles and transmission towers that allowed her to appreciate the work of the line staff who kept the system running.

Alison Simpson on climbing electricity poles

Changes to the industry from the later 1980s, especially privatisation and the development of renewable energy sources, challenged its structures, leading to new opportunities for women with a range of expertise.  Lawyer Fiona Woolf developed an understanding of how power systems operated as a legal advisor to the Northern Ireland Electricity Service. This led to an appointment working for National Grid. She and her team wrote hundreds of agreements designed to ensure that a privatised industry really would keep the lights on, learning how to combine market rules with the laws of physics. (Listen to Fiona Woolf's interview on BL Sounds).

Fiona_Woolf_(cropped)Fiona Woolf (2014). Courtesy of  the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

More recently renewable energy companies have provided new opportunities for women, including in leadership positions. Juliet Davenport studied physics and environmental economics before working on energy policy. She worked as commercial director of the UK subsidiary of German energy company Unit(e) and was part of a management buy-out of the firm that later became Good Energy, of which she is currently chief executive. In her interview she suggests that her background in physics was important in establishing her credibility in an industry where some of the existing operators were struggling to adjust to the new ways of doing things that renewable energy represents.

Juliet Davenport on establishing her credibility in the renewable energy industry

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.

05 April 2017

Politics, jump jets and the world's first hovercraft

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It has been sixty years since the British aircraft industry was devastated by defence minister Duncan Sandys' White Paper on Defence of 1957, which cancelled almost all new aeroplane projects in favour of guided rockets and forced the demise of many famous companies.

The late 1940s and 1950s was a time of daring new aircraft design concepts, as aeronautical engineers began to explore the potential of the newly developed jet engine. Britain was at the forefront of this experimental age of aircraft design, but much of the effort was directed at military aircraft. The same jet engine designs that whisked tourists in speedy luxury on the De Havilland Comet, the world's first jet airliner, would also power supersonic fighters and mighty nuclear bombers to deter the Soviet Union.

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SR177 single seat fighter – a development of SR53 in 1958

The problem was that this innovation race was expensive and Britain was broke after the Second World War. There was also a belief that the new guided rockets that were beginning to appear, would soon make piloted military aircraft obsolete, and be a lot cheaper too. Sandys' White Paper abruptly cancelled almost all the new military aircraft projects under development, and forced the aircraft companies to merge with each other.

The effects of the Sandys cuts loom large in the memories of aircraft designers interviewed for An Oral History of British Science, a time of redundancies, confusion, sadness and cancellations. “To us it didn’t make sense at all, it was just silly, stupid, and if Duncan Sandys was sitting in front of me now I’d tell him just that,” recalled Saunders-Roe designer Ray Wheeler.

At the time Saunders-Roe were working on a radical new fighter powered by both a jet and a rocket engine, but as Ray recalls in this interview clip Sandys' White Paper brought an end to the project.

Ray Wheeler on rocket powered fighters

Although the British aircraft industry probably never recovered, the Sandys defence review had a number of unforeseen consequences. Saunders-Roe, for example, turned their attention to building the world's first hovercraft, which took flight in 1959.

021I-C1379X0035XX-0002A1The 1959 Saunders-Roe SRN1, the first hovercraft

Meanwhile at Hawker's factory in Kingston a young designer named Ralph Hooper found himself at a loose end after the cancellation the project he was working on. As Ralph recounts in this video, “in the middle of 1957 I was in the project office really looking for something to do after the expected cancellation of the 1121.”

What he found to do was to sketch out the first design for an incredible new aeroplane that wouldn't need runways – the P.1127, better known today as the Harrier jump jet, one of the few projects to escape the aftermath of the Sandys cuts.

021I-C1379X0027XX-0004A1

Ralph Hooper after his flight in the Harrier c.1972 © BAE SYSTEMS

Blog by Dr Thomas Lean (@reggitsti), Oral History of British Science project interviewer.

Over 1000 hours of unedited interviews from An Oral History of British Science are available in full on BL Sounds, while the Voices of Science web resource offers curated access to audio and video highlights from the interviews organised by theme, discipline and interviewee.

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

31 January 2017

When politics meets science: Tam Dalyell, Labour MP (1932-2017)

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The many tributes to Tam Dalyell, who died last Thursday, paid little attention to his unswerving interest in scientific affairs throughout a 43-year career as an MP.

Tam

Tam Dalvell, Labour MP (1932-2017), courtesy of Douglas Robertson and the University of Edinburgh

Dalyell read history and economics at Cambridge in the 1950s, yet acknowledged in his 2012 interview for the History of Parliament oral history project “it’s important that there were particularly others from the sciences that I got to know very well”.

While at university he was friends with Ron Peierls, son of nuclear physicist Sir Rudolf Peierls, and attended lectures given by physicists Sir James Chadwick and Otto Frisch.

Dalyell on attending lectures given by Otto Frisch (British Library Reference: C1503/38)

Dalyell knew many world-famous scientists through his friendship with David Schoenberg, head of the Mond Laboratory in Cambridge. In 1964 he was the only MP on a high-level science/political delegation to the Soviet Union, witnessing how personal relationships within the international science community could transcend Cold War politics.

However it was through writing a weekly column for New Scientist for 37 years that Dalyell “provided a conduit for researchers to speak to Parliament and vice versa”.

Dalyell’s support for the public understanding of science demonstrates that parliamentarians who are actively involved in debates about science do not necessarily come to Westminster with a scientific background, as interviews with other former MPs confirm.

Patrick Jenkin (MP for Wanstead and Woodford, 1964-1987), who died in December 2016, spoke about having never been taught science at school, yet he became president of both the Foundation for Science and Technology and the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee. He was chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee during its 2000 inquiry into Science and Society.

David Price (MP for Eastleigh, 1955-92) read history at university but in Parliament became a vigorous campaigner for British industry and space research.

David Price on his involvement in space research (British Library Reference: C1503/19)

The interviews also reveal that MPs with a technical or scientific background were not always comfortable adopting a visible position on science. “I really didn’t feel sufficiently technically qualified in order to become, as it were, a technical guru in Parliament, so in the end I concentrated on foreign affairs,” said Ben Ford (MP for Bradford North, 1964-83), despite a thorough knowledge of aviation electronics and experience of lecturing on productivity at INSEAD and the University of Cambridge.

From accounts such as these, it seems that there was little correlation between these MPs’ scientific credentials and an inclination to be actively involved in Westminster’s consideration of science.

The interview clips featured in this blog are sourced from the ongoing  History of Parliament Oral History Project (deposited at the British Library). For further interviews in this collection, search 'C1503' in the Sound and Moving Image catalogue. Further oral history interviews relating to Science and British Scientist can be found via the Sound and Moving Image, online via BL Sounds and the Voices of Science webpage, the website of the Oral History of British Science programme, led by National Life Stories in association with the Science Museum, and with support from the Arcadia Fund.

Emmeline Ledgerwood, AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Student, University of Leicester and The British Library