Sound and vision blog

3 posts from December 2015

15 December 2015

The British space story

Today UK astronaut Tim Peake will head for the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, the first British member of the European Space Agency’s astronaut corps.  In the twenty-first century British ambitions in space are firmly concentrated on collaborative projects and commercial satellites, and a new National Space Policy  has been launched with the goal of ‘firmly placing the UK on the global stage for future space programmes.’ Such statements seem to ignore the long history of British involvement in space reflected in interviews collected by An Oral History of British Science


Black Arrow R4 rocket in the Space Gallery, Science Museum. © Science Museum/SSPL



When the first satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched in the Cold War days of 1957 the world watched in fascination and some fear at this 'Red Moon' launched by the Soviet Union. Amongst them were British scientists who were tracking its orbit and that of the carrier rocket that put into space, essentially a giant intercontinental ballistic missile. Here Desmond King-Hele recalls how he helped Bernard Lovell secure finance for the Jodrell Bank radio-telescope by providing predictions that allowed him to claim that his instrument was able to track the satellite and its rocket, and was therefore of strategic importance.

Later British scientists and engineers developed their own satellite launch vehicle, Black Arrow, that successfully placed the Prospero satellite in low Earth orbit in 1971. Amongst those who contributed to its design was John Scott-Scott who here discusses the design of the rocket and the disappointment felt by its creators when what they saw as a successful project was cancelled by the government.

A key figure behind the decision to cancel this project was Alan Cottrell, Government Chief Scientific Advisor.  He was convinced that the nation’s resources could be better invested in communication satellites that would yield an economic return rather than ‘glamorous projects’ of dubious economic benefit. Here, Cottrell discusses why Britain's space launcher programme was cancelled in the 1970s.

With the decline of Britain's independent space programme, international collaborations became more important. By the time Roy Gibson was appointed as the first Director General of the European Space Agency in 1975 the British had lost interest in launchers and their concerns needed to be carefully balanced with those of the other member states. Here, Roy Gibson talks about the beginning of the European Space Agency.

With British rockets and astronauts off the table, commercial and scientific satellites became the emphasis of Britain in space. Bob Graham spent his career working for companies whose success reflected Cottrell’s vision.  In 1982 he joined British Aerospace’s Space Division at Stevenage where he worked on projects including the highly successful Eurostar series of telecommunications satellites, used for everything from Satellite television to secure military communications.  In early 2013, not long before he retired, he witnessed the incredible spectacle of his first satellite launch

British scientists and engineers have also been active in designing instruments carried on satellites launched by other nations.  Chris Rapley recounts how the bent crystal spectrometer, which travelled on NASA’s Solar Maximum Mission, was designed at the Mullard Space Science Laboratories in London in the 1970s. Here, Chris Rapley tells the story of designing the bent crystal spectrometer.

More recollections of British space projects can be found on the rockets and satellites theme page on the Voices of Science website.


Dr Sally Horrocks
Senior Academic Consultant, An Oral History of British Science

11 December 2015

Audio-Visual Resources and The Academic Book of the Future

In early 2015 I was fortunate enough to catch Bex Lyons giving a presentation on The Academic Book of the Future. This is a research project sponsored by the British Library and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and delivered by a research team led by Dr Samantha Rayner at UCL. The project seeks to explore the future of academic books in the context of open access publishing and digital change.


Aside from the fascinating debates about what constitutes ‘academic’, what constitutes a ‘book’, and what an ‘academic book’ might be in the current research landscape – I was struck by the potential applications of the project to the collection I am vested in at The British Library: sound.

The British Library sound archive is an extraordinary collection of over 6.5 million recordings dating back to the birth of recorded sound in the early 19th century. If you were to listen to our entire collection back to back, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no holidays or breaks, it would take you over 140 years – plus the collection is growing daily! It is a unique research resource, comparable only to the Library of Congress sound collections in the USA. Find out more about our collection here 

Sound recordings are the closest thing to time travel that we have as a research tool. Take for instance this audio clip of JRR Tolkien visiting a tobacco shop. We are instantly transported to 1929 when the recording was made, and it is easy to feel that you are being addressed directly. The time that has passed between then and now seems to vanish. (image:

The Save Our Sounds project

Professional reel-to-reel player being maintainedMany of the British Library’s recordings are under threat of disappearing as technologies change and some formats begin to naturally decay, and in response to this challenge the Library has launched a major campaign to digitise our historic sound collections.

As well as enabling us to future-proof our collections, the Save Our Sounds campaign is a unique opportunity for us to take stock of our role as audio heritage archivists, cataloguers, librarians, and collectors. Part of this includes considering access and the ways in which our collections are used by researchers. It is here, at the crossroads of research and engagement, that linking up with The Academic Book of the Future project becomes very exciting.

At the moment, if an ‘academic text’ includes audio or visual resources these tend to be included as DVDs, CDs, and perhaps even CD-ROMs (yes, they are still floating around out there!). As the technological landscape of the world changes, the ability to access and play CDs, DVDs and most definitely CD-ROMs will become increasingly limited. From the initial survey work that has been done for the Save Our Sounds project, the main preservation concern is not that the recordings themselves are at risk of disappearing, but the obsolescence of the playback equipment.

So, how will audio-visual resources be included in academic books of the future?

In current and emerging contexts in which content is increasingly digitised and media-rich, how will the ability to incorporate audio-visual research directly into research outputs change the way in which these outputs are created, accessed, and referenced?

We hope that working with The Academic Book of the Future project to address some of these questions will offer important insights into how researchers are using sound and moving image resources, and highlight common issues and concerns across disciplines.

If you are or have used sound and/or audio-visual materials for research do please complete our short survey. The closing date is Friday 1st April.

A symposium has been arranged to discuss the findings of the survey & hear presentations by publishing houses, app developers, and researchers. The symposium will address and encourage discussing ways of working together to fully explore the potential of audio-visual components in the academic book of the future. Save the date – 23rd May 2016 at The British Library, London.

Find out more about Save our Sounds at, follow @SoundHeritage for live updates from our digitisation studio, @SoundArchive for tweets from the sound team, and use #SaveOurSounds to join the conversation on Twitter.

Steven Dryden - Sound & Vision Reference Specialist 

10 December 2015

Voices of Science wins a second prize: the British Society for the History of Science's Ayrton Prize

Paul blog
Image - Dick and Jean Grove’s ‘picnic fieldwork’. c1970

It was revealed last Friday that Voices of Science- the website of An Oral History of British Science, led by National Life Stories at the British Library - has won a further prize: the British Society for the History of Science's [BSHS] Ayrton Prize  "for outstanding web projects and digital engagement in the history of science, technology and medicine."  In the view of the BSHS's Outreach and Education Chair, Voices of Science:

"breaks new ground in charting the lives of practising scientists and opens a gateway to a new generation of research and engagement. The site itself is well-crafted and slick, and makes the most of the resources available. Amongst a really excellent shortlist which included other innovative and engaging projects, Voices of Science is a worthy winner.” 

We are especially pleased that what seems to have been appreciated is a new way of understanding scientists' lives.  If new ground has been broken, it has been broken by a particular methodology: life story oral history.  The long interviews with scientists that are drawn on by Voices of Science stand-out from other shorter interviews with scientists in being led by open questions, conducted in non-technical language, interested in the day-to-day details of scientific work but also the time and space beyond work - family life, children, friendships, hobbies, worries, hopes, holidays, television, the rooms of homes, childhood  scrapbooks and more.  How else would we have captured the mix of family life and environmental science in geographers Dick and Jean Grove’s ‘picnic fieldwork’ (Dick is behind the camera in the photo above)?  Or the mix of obsession and amused self-awareness bound up in an eminent oceanographer's memory of weekends visiting sites of stone circles?:   

David Cartwright recalls weekends of visiting sites of stone circles

Or the sexist gaze in a workplace canteen, recalled by Dame Stephanie Shirley?:

Like other National Life Stories projects -  Artists Lives, Authors Lives, Lives in the Oil Industry and many others - An Oral History of British Science conducts life story interviews completely free of any need to celebrate the objects and subjects of its research.  There is an important difference between being enthusiastic for something, and being fascinated by it.  Being enthusiastic for places you in a position of advocacy; being fascinated by implies an independent position alongside.  Voices of Science was made a team of oral historians positioned alongside science, viewing it as a particular, fascinating (but not necessarily special) set of concerns and practices.

Dr Paul Merchant
Oral History Interviewer, National Life Stories