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An Icon of Futures Past

The Lovell Radio Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, with its 76m dish, is still one of the largest fully steerable telescopes in the world. Originally referred to as the 250ft telescope or just by the observatory name, it was renamed in 1988 in honour of Sir Bernard Lovell, who founded the observatory in 1955. The telescope saw First Light in 1957, and, despite spiralling costs and huge technical difficulties, was almost at once recognised as an icon of both cutting-edge technological innovation and British aspirations to scientific leadership. This image was cemented in the collective imaginary of the British public when it was successfully used to track signals from the very first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, just a few months after it first came into operation, and again when it proved to be the only station capable of tracking the Russian Luna missions to the Moon.

The Jodrell Bank Observatory is still actively used for scientific research, operated by the University of Manchester and recently being selected to host a headquarters for the upcoming Square Kilometer Array, and the site also hosts an active science communications centre. Its importance has been recognised since 2019 by the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While astronomers use the Lovell telescope to study light emitted in the distant past, the observatory’s iconic status means that we can also look at the interaction between this science facility and science fiction - both in the representations of science in the recent past and in imagery of the future

 The Doctor Falls 

The Pharos project, LogopolisPerhaps the best known appearance of Jodrell Bank in science fiction occurs in the television series Doctor Who, when Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor and the Master compete over the facility’s use to prevent the destruction of the Universe. While the science here is… problematic in places, it nonetheless invokes the terminology of radio astronomy to lend authority, including references to 3C461 (the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant, as catalogued in the third Cambridge catalogue of radio sources). Tom Baker, unfortunately, falls to his regeneration from the walkways of the Lovell Telescope, emerging from the experience in the form of Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor. This event, coming at the climax of the story “Logopolis” in 1981, was notable for using a telescope already over two decades old as a visual shorthand for excitingly advanced technology (as part of the fictional “Pharos Project”, which was itself replicated on an alien planet).

If this was still the case in 1981, then how must it have been perceived in earlier decades? Well, interestingly, we can gain additional insights into this without leaving the Doctor Who universe. Doctor Who annuals were published in the UK every year from 1965 to 1985. These combined factual articles with prose stories, in-universe reference material, picture strip stories, games and activities. The factual articles were often, but not always, themed on space or other technological innovations. The Doctor Who Annual 1981, published the year before the Lovell Telescope appeared on screen in “Logopolis”, contained a full-page article entitled “Scanning the Skies”. Interestingly for a book aimed at a young audience, this explained several aspects of the work done at Jodrell Bank, with a focus on then-current theories proposed to explain the origin of quasars. These included matter-antimatter annihilation and black holes formed by gravitational collapse. The latter of these explanations was already in the ascendant in the scientific community at this point, although questions remained. Perhaps more interesting is the opening line of the article: “You shouldn’t have any difficulty recognising the enormous radio telescope in our picture” - more than twenty years after its construction, the telescope was still a familiar image in the media.

The Doctor and Sarah drive towards Jodrell BankStepping back in time, we encounter Jodrell Bank again in the 1974 Doctor Who Summer Holiday Special (a magazine equivalent of the usual Christmas annuals). Here the reference is entirely a visual one: Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor and companion Sarah Jane require a facility to observe a Nova-produced poison gas cloud about to kill all life on Earth (we’ll pass over that rapidly for now). The “giant electronic eye” they use is never named, but is nonetheless unmistakably modelled on the Lovell Telescope - again providing supporting evidence for the power of its image to invoke advanced technology.

This is also seen in the previous decade, when the Dr Who Annual 1969, included a double-page factual article entitled “Listen to the Stars”. Perhaps reflecting the intense interest in the details of space science at this key point in the space age, the article is heavily technical. Giving a brief history of radio astronomy, it then goes on to describe the Lovell telescope dish and technical capabilities, its control systems and its structural details including the challenge of dealing with rain accumulation and high winds. Its work is described as including meteor tracking and radio ranging experiments as well as study of extragalactic radio sources. Again though, it’s interesting to note the way in which the annual frames this technical account. In this case rather than the opening sentence, I want to highlight the final comments:

“Jodrell Bank is now world famous. Its success in tracking the Russian sputniks and the American space probes won it distinction in the International Geophysical Year. Britain has entered the Space Age exploration as an active participant - thanks to this amazing radio telescope."

What interests me in this is the way it frames Britain’s technical aspirations at the time. At the time of writing, the telescope would have been just a decade old, and the space race at its height, with the first moon landing to follow in the following year. As we’ll see earlier fiction tended to position Britain as a future leader in space travel. Here, instead, we see a much diminished aspiration. From 1950 through the 1960s, the British government pursued a space missile launch programme of its own, based at an Anglo-Australian facility at Woomera. By the end of the 1960s however, it was clear that this programme was winding down, with budget cuts and little potential for British-led crewed missions, even if satellite launches were still being pursued. Here, in an aspirational annual aimed at children, we perhaps see a recognition of this reality with an attempt instead to reframe space travel as space exploration in the astronomical sense, and that pursuit being equated in some sense with the products of the Russian and American space race.

The White Heat of Technology

If, by the end of the 1960s, Jodrell Bank was being used to justify Britain’s relatively minor contribution to the new era of space exploration, how was it represented in its first decade?

 While the observatory’s founder, Bernard Lovell, inspired the first name of television scientist Quatermass as early as 1953, it wasn’t until the 250ft telescope eventually named after him was constructed that a striking image was added to the science fiction imaginary of the late 1950s and 1960s.

 A for Andromeda was a BBC television series from 1961. Based on an idea from prominent (optical) astronomer Fred Hoyle, the series was written by John Elliot. In the story, an observatory inspired by Jodrell Bank and its work receives an alien signal encoding instructions for new technology. Unfortunately the recordings of the original series no longer exist, although telesnaps, a later novelisation and snippets of film do survive.

Image from Front cover from Strange AdventuresThe familiar outline of the telescope appears in comics of this era that can be found online, including Doctor Solar Man of the Atom (#27, 1962) where “Kendall Banks, England, home of the world’s largest radio telescope” is the key location, and Strange Adventures (vol 1, #151, 1963) where giant aliens make an “Invasion via Radio Telescope!”, climbing out from a very familiar looking dish. In each case, the dish is used to represent the pinnacle of human technical achievement, and to contrast this against alien interventions. While the information available online regarding comics of this period is limited, and there are likely other examples, both Doctor Solar and Strange Adventures were published by American companies. They thus illustrate the widespread use of this iconography, and the attraction is had for young readers at the time.

Jodrell Bank in Dan Dare Space Annual 1963Back in Britain, one of the most popular science fictions for young people at this time was provided by Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future, the lead comic strip in Eagle. The Dan Dare stories of this date had strayed outside our own solar system, and no longer prioritised the rigorous attention to technical detail seen in its earlier years. Nonetheless, the interest of its audience in space science was still profound. Dan Dare’s Space Annual 1963 contains several pages of descriptions of “landmarks in the history of telescopes”, including a full page illustration of the Lovell Telescope and its control room. While this is less detailed than the articles in the Doctor Who annuals, it highlights the tracking of Pioneer Five, again associating Jodrell Bank with the American space programme.

A more detailed insight was provided to the same readers and at about the same time in an item reproduced in The Eagle Annual: The best of the 1960s comic (published 2009). In a full-page article, “The Man from Eagle” described a personal visit to Jodrell Bank. Alongside technical information on the dish and its capabilities (such as slew rate, where, amusingly a copyeditor seems to have expanded “24 degrees per min” as “24 degrees per minimum”), a description is given of the facility’s space tracking work (described as 5% of its time) and science. Highlights included lunar ranging of Venus and identification of radio emission from a galaxy merger. Again, the final words are telling: “From what I saw at Jodrell Bank, I am quite sure that future generations will regard its work as among the greatest contribution towards man’s knowledge of the universe and what lies beyond.”

A vision of future past 

In 2004, a new comic, “Ministry of Space” by Ellis, Weston & Martin, presented a Dan Dare-inspired alternate history in which Britain really had fulfilled its post-war aspirations to international leadership and space age dominance. In contrast to 1950s Dan Dare though, this was a far more cynical view, with darkness and political immorality lying at its heart. Amongst its early scenes there is a sequence explicitly set at Jodrell Bank and showing the Lovell telescope. Dated 1948, it uses the powerful iconography of the telescope to recapture that age of British aspiration, while pulling it forward in time to highlight the rapid pace of development in this fully-funded alternate history. This is not accidental. In an afterword in which he discusses his inspirations, creator Warren Ellis comments that “The construction of the Jodrell Bank radio telescope put a chunk of the future in middle England…. you get the palpable sense that Britain wanted to believe that there was something next.”

Cultural historian and geographer Oliver Dunnett has argued that there was a distinctive ‘British Outer Space’ in the 1950s and 60s, which developed largely from the aspirations of the British Interplanetary Society and spread into the wider cultural milieu through the work of its members, including science populariser Patrick Moore and science fiction author Arthur C Clarke. In this vision of the future, the focus was very much on crewed space flight, and Dunnett notes that radio astronomy was not mentioned at the BIS’s London Congress in 1951 (too early for the Lovell telescope but not for the innovative work of British scientists including Lovell and Ryle). For the BIS, astronomy was not sufficient to fulfil British potential. It is perhaps ironic then that Jodrell Bank has become simultaneously an icon of the aspirations of British space in the post-war period and an emblem of the failure of the crewed British space programme.

So has the Man from Eagle’s prediction come true? Do the future - now current - generations “regard it’s work as among the greatest contribution towards man’s knowledge”? Astronomers are certainly still well aware of the telescope and its work, although it has been complemented and somewhat superseded by other large dishes and radio telescope arrays. Amongst the elder members of the general public, the children of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the Lovell Telescope’s iconic status was confirmed in 2008 when a general outcry met proposals for its closure due to budget cuts. The facility was reprieved after political intervention.

 However the younger generation - particularly those who have never visited its “Discovery Centre” - are likely less familiar with its image than those who grew up with its work making headlines. Nonetheless, Jodrell Bank was visited by 150,000 people in 2014, and its school workshop programme reached 15,000 students. Clearly interest in the historic site is yet to wane.

Jodrell Bank’s role as an icon of British space aspirations remains striking. In recent years, the observatory has hosted the Bluedot festival which aims to combine music with science and culture. And in 2015, the BBC produced an episode of documentary series Timeshift entitled “How Britain Won the Space Race”, telling the history of Jodrell Bank and Lovell. This is certainly a title that the readers of science fiction past would be unsurprised to encounter, but its impact now lies in the surprise it will evoke when encountered by a modern audience; the title itself is a reminder of the flexibility of the observatory’s presence in the British imaginary of space, and the varied ways in which it has been interpreted over time.

"An Icon of Futures Past", Elizabeth Stanway, Cosmic Stories blog, 2nd May 2021