THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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52 posts categorized "Science"

22 September 2020

Nuclear history: Triangulating sources and government secrecy.

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Joshua McMullan examines the ongoing security review of the ES and AB series at the National Archives in the context of oral history interviews recorded for 'An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry'.  

Photograph of Peter Vey at the Chernobyl nuclear power station complex in 1988Peter Vey at the Chernobyl nuclear power station complex in 1988, as part of an international delegation led by Lord Marshall. Courtesy of Peter Vey

On the 13th July 2018, senior civil servants from the Ministry of Defence requested that files pertaining to the UK nuclear programme, located within the ES and AB series at the National Archives, be ‘temporarily withdrawn’ from public viewing. The MOD stated this was necessary in order to conduct a security review of said files and, while reviews of this nature are common, the scale is not. As someone researching the UK’s civil nuclear programme’s public relations strategy, the review put a significant hurdle in the way of my work. However, by listening to oral history interviews held at the British Library and conducted with people who worked for the nuclear industry I have been able to continue my research. I have also been able to connect these interviews to other archival sources, including files at the National Archives I was able to access before they were closed off for review. From this work I suggest the government will find it difficult to make secret aspects of nuclear history that were, and are, public. 

In particular the interviews with former managing director of the Central Electricity Generating Board, Sir John Baker, and former head of public relations at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and then CEGB, Peter Vey, have added a lot to my research and my understanding of how the industry worked, both from an organisational and technical point of view. This includes John Baker’s remarks on storing nuclear waste; including the industry’s policy on storing low level nuclear waste, as well as discussions over where future waste disposal sites might be located. In Peter Vey’s interview we learn of how he arranged lunches between Chairman of the UKAEA Sir John Hill and journalists, as well as how the UKAEA believed the BBC held a bias against them. Due to his past work for the UKAEA, Vey’s insights show us what kind of information might be held within the AB files. 

John Baker on storing nuclear waste (C1495/14/07)

Download John Baker on storing nuclear waste transcript

Peter Vey on the BBC (C1495/51/07)

Download Peter Vey on the BBC transcript

We can further summarise this is the kind of information held in the AB files by looking at other archival records held at the National Archives, including PREM 19/3656 that details the UK response to the Chernobyl disaster. This file includes comments from former Deputy Chairman of the UKAEA, and at the time Chairman of the CEGB, Lord Walter Marshall, who wrote to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher advising her what to say and, crucially, what not to say regarding the design of UK nuclear plants. Lord Marshall’s advice was intended to avoid potentially awkward comparisons between the UK’s nuclear programme and that of the Soviet Union. We can also look at reviewed AB files such as AB 38/2164, which details the UKAEA’s public relations response to Chernobyl. In this file we can see the institutional mindset of the UKAEA, which had created a video claiming that an accident like Chernobyl, ‘could not happen here in the UK.’ Internal memos state that the video was not for the general public as it was ‘too technical’, and that an alternative video produced by the CEGB was more appropriate. Vey’s interview brings these documents together when he speaks of how the organisations that made up the industry collaborated to mitigate public concern over the dangers of nuclear power. We learn of how members of the industry viewed the public as well as which technical aspects of UK reactors they believed the public might be concerned with if the information became common knowledge. All of this is information I expected to find in the AB files.

Peter Vey on UK response to Chernobyl (C1495/51/11)

Download Peter Vey on UK response to Chernobyl transcript

By triangulating a variety of sources, including the oral histories held the British Library I have been able to continue with my research despite the ongoing security review of the AB files. However, the availability of so many other sources of evidence does raise an important conundrum for researchers and the government. Even with the MODs decision to retract what was once public information it will prove very difficult to remake the information into a secret when there are thousands of other sources available. Academics such as myself have been able to read and listen to a multitude of different people who know a multitude of different things and to distil it into our work. I am not the first to research the UK nuclear industry, and there are other researchers who are faced with this same hurdle. However, the real challenge is not for us who must navigate around this hurdle, but for the government. If they do decide to re-make swathes of information secret, they will face an impossible challenge of tracking down every source of recorded information in an attempt to close them off. This would include oral history interviews such as those with Sir John Baker and Peter Vey.

Joshua McMullan is an AHRC CDP PhD candidate at the University of Leicester and the National Archives looking at civil nuclear public relations in the 1970s and 1980s

Sir John Baker and Peter Vey were interviewed for the National Life Stories project 'An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry'. Their interviews can be listened to at BL Sounds. For more information on the UK response to the Chernobyl disaster see the blog 'Chernobyl: Perspectives from the British Nuclear Industry

23 July 2020

Oral History of British Science and transnational history

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Dr Sally Horrocks writes about her recent talk at the Global Digital History of Science Festival.

Earlier this month the British Society for the History of Science hosted a successful online ‘Global Digital History of Science Festival’ in place of is usual annual conference. This event prompted me to reflect on how the interviews collected for An Oral History of British Science might be used to explore transnational histories of science and to think about what happens when we view our interviewees as nodes in transnational networks rather than as ‘British scientists’. I was also interested to see what oral history, particularly the extended life story approach used in An Oral History of British Science, might contribute to the project of writing transnational histories of science.

Interviews reveal the ways in which individuals moved across borders at all stages of their lives and for many reasons, sometimes several times- as child refugees, as students, as postdocs, to take up new employment opportunities, as a consequence of the regulatory state.

As a collection these interviews show how individual, family and state decisions, accrete to create a transnational scientific community that is constantly in flux. They also reveal the individual costs of these moves and the barriers that had to be navigated during such transitions that are often not discussed elsewhere.

Oral histories also reveal how individuals who make these moves create their own sense of individual identity. Lithuanian born, South Africa raised Aaron Klug, 1982 Nobel Prize winner for chemistry, reflected on his multiple identities: ‘All these things co-existed. But I didn’t feel any contradiction between feeling Jewish and being South African and also a British subject.’

The ways in which personal relationships were developed and sustained across national borders, and how these relationships acted as facilitators of knowledge exchange also emerge strongly. The cartoon below, presented to physicist Mike Forrest by his Soviet colleague Boris Kadomtsev, a Lenin Prize winner, suggests a sense of fun and camaraderie which also emerges from the interview and shows us a different side of prominent figures:

A black and white cartoon of scientists on a train

Mike Forrest on his first day in the USSR (C1379/48)

So we had this very formal invitation from the Russians, and that was my first trip to Russia. We were met at the airport by Volodiya Sannikov the young Russian who was going to work with us. I think it was December the ninth, so it was a type of deepest Russian winter, a cold one as well, quite a blast when you got off the plane, and even more so when we got out the car to go into the hotel. The first day, I think the first day we went out to see the Park of Achievements, and the second day we went to the lab. Peter Wilcock has a different [laughs] he has a complete reverse, so this is one of these memory things where we remember totally different things. My version, this chap Dennis Ivanov who was the engineer physicist who designed T3, he picked up us up at the hotel and took us to the Park of Achievements in Moscow. This is where they show off all the latest – exhibitions of all the latest stuff. And of course then it was all space. So we actually saw Gagarin’s space capsule, which is fairly horrific. It was like a cannonball with leather straps inside, you just couldn’t imagine, you know, going inside that. I think – it’s a huge, it must have been about a 100 acre site, and it’s the middle of winter, and I think we were about the only tourists there. Anyway, Dennis said “lets go and eat and we'll start talking about the project.” So he took us to this restaurant and plied us with vodka. By the time the food had come [laughs] we were getting a bit sloshed, I think is the right word. Anyway, and then we started chatting, you know, technicalities and we ended up drawing – we didn’t have any drawings of the machine there, so we ended up drawing things on the paper tablecloth. In fact I can recollect carrying bits of this back so we’d have a record, because we honestly wouldn’t have remembered the conversation [laughs].

Oral histories also reveal the significance and involvement of scientists families in these relationships. Dennis Higton, who spent time as technical liaison to the British Embassy in Washington recalled the significance of his wife to his career, describing her as ‘the heroine of the whole trip’:

Dennis Higton on dinner parties in the USA (C1379/41)

I was posted to America in a hurry, but the reason for the hurry was the chap I was replacing had been thrown back home. I was told when I got there – well, I was told by the Foreign Office before I left. They said, ‘Look, we’re bringing you over, the last chap in the world we want to see really, but the real reason for getting you there, what they called the social side, was crashing fast and your task is to put that straight. It doesn’t matter what you do on the technical side.’ But they worried about my wife, but they shouldn’t have done. They thought she was – unable to cope with dinner parties every other night and go out nicely dressed, but she was – she was the heroine of the whole trip, I’m pleased to say. In fact the Americans, they all said, ‘We don’t want to see you, Dennis,’ they said, ‘We want old Joy Bells back, you see.’ And these parties, you see, they not only enable you to talk to people in your discipline, but you’ll meet all sorts of people in all the other disciplines, you see. They’d always be... In your house you’ll always have a meal. Sometimes there are little parties. Sometimes the house would be full of people drinking and eating.

What reasons do you have for throwing a party?

Well, to get to know people. There’s no point in shaking hands at the airport, you’ve got to know them so that they talk to you and you can talk to them. It’s all about talking to people and people that you trust and they trust you. And you’ve got the energy to do it. That’s the – that’s the requirement of a Washington chap.

These personal relationships helped when it became necessary to circumvent the regulatory state. Interviews with John Scott-Scott and John Nye capture details that out of necessity would never have been committed to paper; of clandestine meetings on benches between British and US scientists, or with Soviet dissidents:

John Scott-Scott on a trip to California (C1379/32)

But they were jolly good, and that’s where you can meet these informal people in the corridor over a cup of tea, where we’d pretend to forget all about security. Yeah, well you’d check that the fellow’s not Russian for a start, but generally speaking you can have a better meeting than you have in a formal sense. Now on one of these things I fixed up with someone to go and see them another day, after the conference, and in the meanwhile some wretch, I don’t know whether it was the British Embassy who used to play us up a lot, had decided, they’d found out about me, and they were going to ban my visit. So I had to turn up at the gate of this place, and they said, ‘You can’t come in, John, sorry, we’re not allowed to do this, that and the other.’ I said, ‘Well that’s a bit daft, I’ve come 6,000 miles,’ because it was on the far side, ‘to have a chat with you.’ ‘Ah, don’t worry about it,’ he said, ‘you just can’t come on site.’ I said, ‘What am I going to do then?’ He says, ‘Drive back half a mile,’ he says, ‘and you’ll find there’s a sort of park area with one or two benches. Just go and park down there.’ I said, ‘All right,’ try anything once. Well you won’t believe it, by the time I got down there half the bushes had got blokes in them. And these blokes all walk out, and they come and sit on these benches round in a circle, and we have a wonderful meeting out there, where someone brought a cold box so we got something cold to drink, and we had our meeting outside in the sun of California. So it just shows, if you know a few people, you know, and they were always very good to me that way.

John Nye on handing over offprints on a bench (C1379/22)

I also discovered that there was a Geophysics Seminar on similar lands in Moscow, and I was invited to, er, address them. I went out there, and we sat round a table and talked about geophysics. And one of the chaps there said please could he have reprints. And I said, ‘Of course, certainly I can, but I’ve left them, I’ve got them all in the hotel.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I’ll pick them up tomorrow morning.’ I was staying in the big hotel where all the foreigners stayed at that time, near the Kremlin. And I said, 'well, I’ll give them to you at my hotel'. ‘No, I can’t come into your hotel,’ he said, ‘we’ll meet outside.’ So we met outside. And he had this carrier bag that all Russians carry around with them in case there’s a bargain going in the shops, so something just come in. And he said, ‘We will walk,’ and we walked, and we walked, and we walked to a park. And traditionally we sat down [laughs] on the park bench. And I took the reprints out of my briefcase and he put them into his carrier bag, just like [laughs] they do in the movies. [Laughs] And I’m sure we were not being observed, but that was his concern. And I went back to my hotel and he went back to his lab.

Written records tell us much about how transnational communities and institutional structures have been constructed and maintained, interviews reveal the practical everyday tasks required to sustain longstanding collaborations such as the International Geophysical Year (1957-58) or World Ocean Circulation Experiment. They also show the many individual contributions that enabled some institutions to develop a reputation as important nodes in international networks

David Davies, editor of Nature from 1973 to 1980, noted of the Department of Geodesy and Geophysics in Cambridge during the early 1970s, ‘they need somebody in a department who will make things happen. You know, who will organise the symposia, who will meet the visitors, who will organise the expeditions’:

David Davies on doing departmental donkey work (C1379/60)

My – I think my job at the department was [laughs] – I sort of knew I wasn’t going to be a brilliant scientist, I sort of knew, I knew I wasn’t, I’d be – and I knew that there were good, really good people coming through all the time like – like Dan for instance who – but all departments in every scientific discipline, every discipline, they need somebody in a department who will make things happen. You know, who will organise the symposia, who will meet the visitors, who will organise the expeditions, this that and the other. And I think – I sort of knew at that stage that that was my role, read the stuff in the library and tell other people about. Being the – being the sort of gatekeeper in a way, friendly gatekeeper, not an unfriendly gatekeeper, and I sort of fitted into that role. I mean Teddy, Teddy sort of was brilliant in all sorts of directions but somebody needed to sort of take onto his bright ideas and move them somewhere else or say, no it wouldn’t work, or let’s try it out. And everybody else really, all the research students, said you needed some – somebody in the department who just knew broadly what was going on and could organise things. And I suppose I slipped into that role ‘cause nobody else did it but, you know, inviting speakers to colloquium and driving people from the station [laughs] and all that kind of stuff. So – and departments do need that as well as brilliant minds, they do need people who will do the donkey work.

Interviews also capture how these practices have changed over time. Physicist Ann Wintle reflected on how email and Skype had enabled her to remain active in her field after retirement, remarking ‘you can discuss things with anybody anywhere’ - allowing her to participate in a transnational research community without leaving her own home in the same way that I was able to do as an attendee at the Festival.

Ann Wintle on laboratory work via Skype (C1379/57)

I guess when I turned sixty in 2008, I was by then thinking, I’ve got to do something with my life, I can’t actually sit in Aberystwyth forever. You know, there are two perfectly competent people running a lab here but, you know, I will feel like the - you know, the sort of – the ghost that creeps in from time to time and this isn’t right, they need to be – not have me anywhere in sight. So yeah, I decided coming to Cambridge would be a good idea and just made the move, so … still have the same interests but no sort of – nobody to go talk to every day, but when you can do it on Skype or on the phone or send emails, it’s not – not a problem. I can still think and work and write, so that’s good. You know, I can download from libraries. That means that, you know, all the information is still at your fingertips. It’s only when you’re wanting to have a detailed discussion with somebody, equivalent to having a discussion with them in the room, that the Skype comes in and then you’re – you can do instant texting. You can almost write – you can almost type as fast as you can talk. So you can just, you know, talk like we are now but you’re just doing it on a keyboard. And that person is instantly there engaging with you, whereas if it’s emails it might take a little bit and they may have wandered off somewhere. But I mean, in this case it’s – it’s absolutely instant. And then we send – we’re still sending emails with files on them if we want to know, you know, 'what does that dataset look like?' and, ooh, 'go check your email box, I’ve just sent it to you'. So you can get that and then you can look at it and then you can both talk about it. That – that’s how it works. It’s really – it’s great. I mean, it’s, you know, you’d – I can see why in the past some people might have either gone very solitary when they retired or they disengaged totally from their academic field, because they didn’t have any interactions that – in this way, because you didn’t have the communication. Now you’ve got the communication, you know, you can discuss things with anybody anywhere. So you’ve I think probably got more chance of staying involved with your – with your research ideas. Though you don’t have the equipment to do it yourself, you’ve still got the ideas and if you hit it right you can persuade somebody to do the experiment you would do if you were there. They think it’s their experiment but, you know, you know you’ve just pushed them in that little direction, saying, ‘Ooh, I think I’d look at that, yeah.’ So that’s – that’s great fun. It also means they have to go off and spend physical time doing the experiments where you can go off and read a book [laughs].

Dr Sally Horrocks is the Senior Academic Advisor for the National Life Stories project An Oral History of British Science. All the clips featured in this blog can he found on the Voices of Science website.

24 June 2020

Working from home

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For those of us who usually travel to work every day, working from home takes some getting used to. Fortunately we’ve been able to consult our collections for some advice. The British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue lists 56 oral history recordings, across 19 different collections, that mention ‘working from home’. In interviews recorded for the National Life Stories project An Oral History of British Science, three interviewees describe their approach to being productive, creative, and professional in a domestic environment.

Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley

Portrait of Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley
Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley as the first ever national Ambassador for Philanthropy, 2009. Photo credit: Unlimited Photography

Dame Stephanie Steve Shirley set up a tech company in the 1960s to enable women with children to work as programmers from home. She had a novel approach to creating a professional atmosphere, which included playing pre-recorded office sounds while making phone calls. In her recording she describes how she got her business off the ground at a time when women with families were expected to forego their careers.

'…I recorded sort of, office type noises… so whenever the phone went I would put this on in the background so that I’d got this busy office buzz behind me. Now, I really sort of think how very naïve, but it wasn’t naïve, it actually got us going…' (C1379/28)

Audio clip: Stephanie Shirley on programming from home (C1379/28)

At the end of January in ’64, or something like that, we had a tiny mention in the Guardian newspaper, Manchester Guardian it probably still was then, that mentioned this extraordinary woman, Steve Shirley, writing computer programs in Chesham in between feeding her baby and washing the nappies. And that was really the sort of phraseology that was used. And that brought in a flood of women who liked the idea of working from home, and had computer skills, and had, as I always projected I suppose, the need or the – or might be financial need of course, to go on working without being a conventional employee. I had a secretary who came in one afternoon a week and, erm, engaged her through an agency that specialised in part-time work which largely meant women. And, so I got hold of this secretary, who’s still a friend today, called Barbara Edwards, and she arrived, was at home, in my home. She brought her own little portable typewriter. Later on she brought her own baby in a carrycot. And she was instructed really to make sure that I looked – that the correspondence and stuff went out looking as if it came out of a chairman’s office. And I know if I had difficult phone calls to make, or senior phone calls to make, I would wait until Barbara was in, so that she could connect me and give the impression of some sort of infrastructure behind me. The phone was pretty well how business was done, and sometimes of course there would be very domestic noises going on in the background. And so I took a tape recording, which we had a large tape recording then, tape recorder then, which I was using for dictation and other things like that. But I recorded sort of, office type noises, I recorded Barbara at her typewriter, so whenever the phone went I would put this on in the background so that I’d got this busy office buzz behind me. Now, I really sort of think how very naïve, but it wasn’t naïve, it actually got us going, because although there was a market there, although I did have skills, it wasn’t developed, and I did not have the commercial skills, but I sort of had some marketing skills. I changed my name from Stephanie to Steve, because I felt that I wasn’t really getting any responses from the letters that I was sending out to people offering services. My husband actually suggested that perhaps it was the good old-fashioned sexism, they saw a letter from Stephanie Shirley and it just went in the bin. So I started writing as Steve Shirley. And it seemed to me that I was getting some better response, well I was getting some responses and the work did start slowly to flow in as distinct from just all those private introductions.

Stephanie Shirley was recorded in 2010 by interviewer Thomas Lean. Listen to the recording in full on BL Sounds.

Richard West

Richard West, Quaternary botanist and geologist, continued his research into environmental change after his retirement by working from home. No longer able to access university equipment, and steering clear of distractions on the internet ('I gave it up as a bad job because it interrupted my train of thought'), he continued his work using ‘kitchen science’:

'…if you’re in post you’re – so much of your university time is taken up with committee work, going to meetings, teaching, trying to get money for research, but I can do all the things I need to do with the aid of a low power microscope and these measuring cylinders, sorting out sediment.' (C1379/34)

We moved into this house in 1958. And this part of the building was derelict. Erm, where I am sitting now were two loose boxes, and where you are now is the tack room and it was full of horse medicines and all that sort of thing. And a next door neighbour used to keep a pony in one of the loose boxes at that time. And – but in 1965 we decided to make it into living space. So this room came into operation in about 1967 I think and I used it for my writing and reprint collection and so on and books. There’s not much apparatus here. This microscope is the kind of cheapest version of a low power microscope you can get and I’ve only had it since I started working in Beachamwell. I’ve got several old microscopes going back to the 1930s which used to be used, but they’re all packed away. Those are in boxes in the room somewhere. This is the only one I use. I used to spend a lot of time looking at pollen grains underneath a high power binocular microscope but I haven’t done that for twenty years or so. The drawing board I got very early on in the early 1960s, ‘cause I was engaged in drawing a lot of drawing of sections at that time, and so that’s lasted me very well. I don’t think there’s anything else here, except this computer and so on on. I used to be on the internet and on email but I gave it up as a bad job because it interrupted my train of thought, so I’m not on the internet now, which annoys everybody ‘cause they have to write to me or ring me up. But at least I’m not constantly being bothered by things. I can also go across the road to the public library where I can use a computer and Google and so on as much as I want to. Apart from that, I don’t think [laughs] I don’t think there’s any apparatus here at all. It’s all books and reprints.

Richard West was recorded in 2010 by interviewer Paul Merchant. Listen to the recording in full on BL Sounds.

Sir John Charnley

Photograph of John Charnley in Farnborough wind tunnel
John Charnley in Farnborough wind tunnel, 2012. Photo credit: Matt Casswell, British Library

Sir John Charnley, aeronautical engineer, would continue working at home in the evening, after dinner, and after a full day in the office. 'If there was a problem that was bothering me, it would go home with me and I would wrestle with it.' In the clip below Charnley describes waiting until he was at home, late at night, to do his most creative thinking as a senior scientific civil servant:

John Charnley on problem solving at home (C1379/30)

I wasn’t of the mind that said that you didn’t take your work home with you, that you left it all behind in the office. If there was a problem that was bothering me, it would go home with me and I would wrestle with it. When I was in London, I’d catch a train home about half past six, I’d be home half past seven till eight, we’d have supper, which would've been beautiful, prepared, beautiful, drink. And if there was a problem going, there was something on my mind, Mary would go to bed and she’d leave me with a cup of coffee and I would work on. I can easily, and it isn’t a problem, to work in the night. I don’t like working first thing in the morning. There are those people who are that way inclined, but I’m a late night person - in my youth, I don’t know if I can do it now. But then I’d certainly work until one, two – and the fact that I’d been at meetings with, and particularly when I was in London, and meetings of all sorts, technical, financial, with the Treasury, you name it, lots – with the Services, I had the feeling I didn’t have time to think of where I was going, and I would do that at home. So as far as I was concerned, when I was in the office I was at the beck and call of other people, but when I wanted to be creative myself, in satisfying myself I was on the right path and I was going in the right direction, in whatever element of my job, that sort of thinking I did at home, late at night or early morning if you wish. So a) my job came home with me, I could stay late in the office if that made sense, but I’d certainly bring it home with me and work on it at home. And I had a very long suffering and forbearing wife. Bless her. Yep, oh yeah, sure, sure, sure, did a lot at home.

John Charnley was recorded in 2010 by interviewer Thomas Lean. Listen to the recording in full on BL Sounds.

Dame Stephanie Steve Shirley, Richard West, and Sir John Charnley all feature on the British Library website Voices of Science.

25 November 2019

Recording of the week: 'Power' by Adrienne Rich

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This week's selection comes from Dr Eva del Rey, Curator of Drama and Literature Recordings and Digital Performance.

This week’s recording of the week features American poet Adrienne Rich reading her poem ‘Power’. Rich is performing at the 1st International Feminist Book Fair, London, 1984. The poem was first published in 1977 in Rich's acclaimed collection The Dream of a Common Language.

Rich introduces ‘Power’ saying it's a poem about power (women’s power), considering both true and false power...

The poem also examines the quality of endurance, with reference to the life of scientist Marie Curie.

Adrienne Rich reading 'Power' at the 1st International Feminist Book Fair London 1984 (C154/2)

Marie Skłodowska Curie (7 November 1864 - 4 July 1934) was a Polish-born physicist and chemist.

She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, the only woman who has won it twice, and the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different fields.

Marie and her physicist husband Paul Curie did research on uraninite, a radioactive uranium-rich mineral and ore. The Curies isolated the uranium from its radioactive elements, which they named radium and polonium. The latter after Marie’s homeland in Poland.

As a result the Curies won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 (shared with physicist Henri Becquerel). Later in 1911, Marie won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her services to the advancement of chemistry.

Marie Curie died from aplastic anemia. This was reportedly caused by her exposure to chemicals and radiation.

Marie Curie working in her laboratoryMarie Curie in her laboratory. Photo credit: National Archief on Visual Hunt / No known copyright restrictions

The 1st International Feminist Book Fair took place 7-9 June 1984 at the Africa Centre in London.

This was a public event with presentations on politics, class, race, gender, sexuality, social equality and women's place in the literary world.

Speakers included: Audre Lorde, Suniti Namjoshi, Toni Cade Bambara, Alifa Rifaat, Joan Barfoot, Susan Griffin, Nicole Brossard, Maureen Watson, Grace Nichols and others.

The  event was recorded by the British Library and the collection has been recently been digitised by the Library’s Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.

Follow @BL_DramaSound, @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

UOSH_Footer_2019_Magenta (004)

06 September 2019

Ernest Shackleton and the Farthest South

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The ‘Nimrod’ expedition (1907-1909) was the first of three expeditions to the Antarctic led by Sir Ernest Shackleton. The mission was very much a private affair and at the time didn’t receive the support of the major scientific organisations. The ship itself didn’t meet Shackleton’s expectations, as we can tell from his appraisal when he first caught sight of it on the Thames on 15 June 1907:

I must confess that I was disappointed when I first examined the little ship, to which I was about to commit the hopes and aspirations of many years. She was dilapidated and smelt strongly of seal-oil, and an inspection in dock showed that she required caulking and that her masts would have to be renewed.1

Nimrod sailed from England on 7 August 1907. This was the first attempt made by the British to reach the Antarctic. However the Nimrod (named after a great biblical figure ‘the first on earth to be a mighty man’2, as written in Genesis) didn’t actually make it to the South Pole. The most southern point was reached on 9 January 1909 at latitude 88ᵒ23’S and longitude 162ᵒE.

Listen to the voice of Shackleton recorded on 23 June 1909 (Bl ref. 1CL0029071)

The Nimrod, having the party of the British Antarctic Expedition, left New Zealand on 1 January 1908. We landed at Cape Royds in the Antarctic under the great volcano Mount Erebus at the beginning of February. On 3 March a party ascended that mountain, encountering severe blizzards, and for the first time in human history the great Erebus, 13,350 feet high, was ascended by men.

The Southern journey started from Cape Royds on 28 October 1908 and on January 9 of this year, 1909, the British flag was hoisted in latitude 88 23 South and longitude 162 East. We retraced our steps over crevasses through soft snow encountering blizzards till eventually on 1 March of 1909 we arrived at winter quarters, having covered 1,708 miles on the journey...

Black and white photograph of the ship Nimrod off Cape RoydsPhoto of Nimrod off Cape Royds. From Shackleton, E. H. “Some Results of the British Antarctic Expedition, 1907-9.” The Geographical Journal, vol. 34, no. 5, 1909, pp. 481–500. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1777278.

The dash to the South Pole is certainly the central episode of the whole expedition.3 Even though the main target of reaching the South Pole was not attained, the expedition represents the first ever registered record to reach the South Magnetic Pole.

The expedition was also a product of the Empire: the British flag was now flying over the Northern and Southern Poles for the first time.

Eric Marshall, Frank Wild and Ernest Shackleton at their Farthest South latitudePhotograph of Eric Marshall, Frank Wild and Ernest Shackleton at their Farthest South latitude, 88°23'S, Nimrod expedition 9 January 1909. From the book The Heart of the Antarctic by Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Men go out unto the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated simply by a love of adventure, some have taken thirst for scientific knowledge, and others again are drawn away from the trodden paths by the ‘lure of little voices’, the mysterious fascination of the unknown. I think that in my own case it was a combination of these factors that determined me to try my fortune once again in the frozen south.4

This recording is part of the UCL Phonetics Collection (British Library ref.: 1CL0029071), original issue: Gramophone (HMV) D 377. The collection was acquired by the British Library Sound Archive from the UCL Department of Phonetics and Linguistics.

Blogpost by Giulia Baldorilli, Sound and Vision Reference Specialist, British Library

[1] Shackleton, E. (1909). The Heart of the Antarctic, etc.

[2] Riffenburgh, B. (2004). Nimrod: Ernest Shackleton and the extraordinary story of the 1907-09 British Antarctic Expedition, Beau Riffenburgh. London: Bloomsbury.

[3] British Newspaper Archive, Globe - Wednesday 10 November 1909.

[4] Shackleton, E. (1909). The Heart of the Antarctic, etc.

19 July 2019

Memories of the Moon Landing

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50 years ago, on 20th July 1969 Apollo 11 landed on the Moon and astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on its surface. Live television pictures broadcast from the Moon turned this into a global event, memories of which are captured in numerous interviews held in the British Library Oral History collections. This blog explores just a few of the diverse perspectives on this event that these interviews reveal.

Earth Rising over the Moon's Horizon, Credit: NASA

Earth Rising over the Moon's Horizon, Credit: NASA

Gerald Myers (b. 1934) was interviewed by Jill Wormsley for the Millennium Memory Bank. He recalls that for those of his generation who grew up rarely travelling far from home, the idea of people visiting the Moon seemed ‘incredible’. This was certainly not something he expected to happen in his lifetime. For others such as Paul Ward (b. 1962), interviewed by Wendy Rickard in 2007 for the HIV/AIDS Testimonies project, watching the Moon landing was integral to his recollections of family life in the late 1960s alongside memories of family meals and birthdays.

Materials scientist Julia King (b. 1954) interviewed by Thomas Lean for An Oral History of British Science, recalled the Moon landings as part of a wider focus on the latest achievements in science and technology that permeated her childhood:

Julia King on the Moon landing in 1969 (C1379/43) [Track 1, 01:24:14 – 01:85:05]

‘Well I remember being taken to meet Valentina Tereshkova, who was the first woman in space, a Russian cosmonaut, and getting her autograph. She must have been speaking at Wigmore Hall or something like that. And of course there was, when I was at school, when I was at Godolphin, where we all sat in the hall to watch the Moon landings. So there was all that going on as well. It was a time of, of real, really intense time for discovery in science, and new, new things happening. And the papers were, were absolutely full of it. They weren’t full of footballers and, and, TV shows, talent shows on television and things; they were, they were full of, a lot of achievements in science.’

Julia King

Julia King, interviewed for An Oral History of British Science

One of the people behind this press coverage was Dennis Griffiths (1933-2015). Griffiths was the driving force behind An Oral History of the British Press, and was interviewed for the project by Louise Brodie in 2006. In 1969 he was a member of The Evening Standard production department. At a time when a lengthy setting up process was required to generate colour copy, the paper’s managing director Jocelyn Stevens took a gamble that the landing would be successful. The production team raced into action to pre-print a facsimile colour picture of Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon ahead of the event itself so that the paper’s front page was already in place before any official pictures were released. As Griffiths recalled:

Dennis Griffiths on the Evening Standard front page (C638/06) [Track 6, 00:10:42 – 00:11:20]

‘I mean the adrenaline was flowing and when I’ve given talks on newspapers all over the world when I come to the Moon landing and I show them the paper how it was actually done and they disbelieve that anybody would produce a national newspaper days before it happened and gamble and then absolutely slay the opposition. Yes, that was without doubt the highlight.’

Dennis Griffiths describes working on that day (C638/06) [Track 1, 02:28:53 – -2:29:10]

‘You would have paid to have worked on that day. It was the most exciting day of my career. And at the end of the day when they blasted back off, the editor Charles Wintour threw a champagne party in his office to celebrate.’

For his efforts Griffiths received a bonus cheque which he used to buy a pearl ring for his wife, Liz.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, Credit: NASA

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, Credit: NASA

A sense of how the Moon landings continued to resonate many years later emerges from furniture designer Tom Dixon’s (b. 1959) interview with Frances Cornford, part of Crafts Lives. In 2004, as Creative Director of Habitat he developed a line of products in collaboration with celebrities. Most of them were prominent individuals from the creative industries or sport, but one of the more successful products in the range was ‘a moon lamp with Buzz Aldrin, you know, for kids’. Sold as the ‘Moonbuzz’, Dixon saw a clear story behind this product which strengthened its appeal with the public. It also suggests just how firmly embedded in popular culture the events of July 1969 remain.

Extracts from interviews with British Space Scientists can be found on our Voices of Science Rockets and Satellites theme page with full interviews on British Library Sounds under the subject heading space science and engineering.

Blogpost by Dr Sally Horrocks, Senior Academic Advisor, National Life Stories, British Library

16 July 2019

Alan Turing on the £50 note

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One of the computers used by Alan Turing during his time at Manchester. Courtesy of Ferranti/Computer Conservation Society.One of the computers used by Alan Turing during his time at Manchester. Courtesy of Ferranti/Computer Conservation Society.

This week mathematician Alan Turing was announced as the new face of the £50 bank note. Turing’s impact on the modern world is astonishing: In the 1930s his mathematical theories about an abstract “universal machine” presaged the general purpose computer; he played a key role in ultra secret wartime code breaking at Bletchley Park, contributing to work that probably saved millions of lives. In the postwar years he designed one of the earliest modern computers, the Automatic Computing Engine, and pondered if machines could think, helping to lay the foundations for the study of artificial intelligence. At the University of Manchester he was one of the earliest users of the pioneering Manchester Baby, the world’s first modern computer. A gay man at a time when such relations were illegal, he was prosecuted for homosexual acts in 1952, and died at his own hand in 1954 after consuming a cyanide laced apple. His eventual pardon in 2013 after a popular campaign was followed by ‘Turing’s Law’ in 2017, which granted a pardon to tens of thousands of gay and bisexual men previously convicted under laws that have now been repealed.

Several of those who worked with Turing in his time at Manchester were interviewed for An Oral History of British Science, recording unique personal reflections on a man who was far less well known at the time. For example, electronics engineer Geoff Tootill was one of the team who build the Manchester Baby, and found himself in the unique position of debugging Turing’s first computer program:

Geoff Tootill on working with Alan Turing (C1379/02/02) 

Research student Dai Edwards, was another who helped Turing use the Manchester computer:

Dai Edwards on helping Alan Turing use the Manchester Mark 1 (C1379/11/03)

Mathematical prodigy, heroic wartime codebreaker, tragic LGBT icon, a father of computing, now the subject of a Hollywood film; as time passes it gets increasingly difficult to separate the man from the legend, which makes the memories of those who knew him invaluable for helping to understand the real Alan Turing.

04 July 2019

Chernobyl: Perspectives from the British Nuclear Industry

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Photograph of Peter Vey at the Chernobyl nuclear power station complex in 1988Peter Vey at the Chernobyl nuclear power station complex in 1988, as part of an international delegation led by Lord Marshall. Courtesy of Peter Vey

A new television series has once again brought public attention to the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, when an explosion in one of the RMBK reactors caused one of the worlds worst nuclear disasters. Today, our attitudes toward nuclear power are forever overshadowed by Chernobyl, and it’s easy to forget that the early days of nuclear power were marked by tremendous optimism. In 1956 the Queen opened Calder Hall, the first full size nuclear power station to provide electricity to the public in the world, declaring that the terrible power of the atom bomb had now been, “harnessed for the first time for the common good of our community.” Nuclear power, futuristic and apparently clean and economical, promised an age of “electricity too cheap to meter.” Yet gradually the mood changed, as Granville Camsey, a nuclear engineer caught up in the early optimism, and then the backlash against nuclear power, recalled in his interview for An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry.

"It became very difficult to say you were a nuclear engineer" (C1495/09/05)

The Chernobyl disaster was a major issue for the British Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB), which was trying to obtain permission to build a new nuclear plant at Sizewell to join the fleet of older reactors it already operated at the time. In this age of Cold War secrecy, the Soviets initially attempted to cover-up the disaster. But European nuclear power stations started to detect inexplicably high levels of radiation as a radioactive cloud spread across Europe. With the Soviet Union underplaying the severity of the situation, other countries scrambled to figure out what had happened, reassure the public, and to assess the risks of a Chernobyl happening at their own nuclear plants. As recalled by Peter Vey, head of public relations at the CEGB, the days after Chernobyl were very busy ones, particularly for the CEGB chairman and nuclear scientist Walter Marshall.

"The cloud by then had reached Dungeness" (C1495/51/11)

In the aftermath of Chernobyl, nuclear industries around the world united to try and improve the safety of nuclear power stations. Two years after the disaster Peter Vey travelled to the Soviet Union as part of a delegation visiting to sign a nuclear safety agreement. The trip included a visit to Chernobyl itself.

"People had just dropped everything" (C1495/51/11)

Chernobyl, and the later Fukishima disaster in Japan, had a profound effect on the nuclear industry across the world. Although the high cost of nuclear power has been a major factor in there being no new nuclear plants built since Chernobyl, higher safety standards and negative public opinion have undoubtedly been a factor too. Various countries have attempted to phase out nuclear power. No new nuclear plants have been built in Britain since Sizewell B was completed in 1995, and the planned Hinkley C station under development still faces uncertainties. Most of Britain’s existing nuclear stations, built between the 1960s and 1980s, are due to run at least another decade or more. When they are finally shut down, radioactive contamination means they will not be simply demolished, but carefully dismantled and decontaminated. The most radioactive parts will be sealed up and left as nuclear landmarks for decades, until they become safe enough to remove entirely. In this short video, former manager Peter Webster explores the silent control room and reactor hall of one such decommissioned station at Oldbury near Bristol.

If you would like to know more about the history of the public relations of nuclear power, you might be interested in this academic article by Tom Lean and Sally Horrocks based on An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry.

Blog by Tom Lean, project interviewer for An Oral History of British Science and An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry.