Papers and correspondence of Robert Hanbury Brown

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

Although there is significant material from Hanbury Brown's education and early career, including wartime service, the bulk dates from the 1960s to the late 1990s and there is thus a pronounced emphasis on Hanbury Brown's career following his departure for Australia. His war-time research, the transition to radio astronomy and the intense collaborations in the Jodrell Bank group are more sketchily documented, as is in fact his and John Davis's quest for an instrument to succeed the NSII.

There is a wide range of biographical material relating to Hanbury Brown's life and career. It includes the contents of a boxfile of biographical correspondence from the 1930s and 1940s documenting his education, wartime service and immediate postwar career. There are transcripts of interviews, proceedings of conferences to honour his achievements, and drafts (with correspondence) of his Royal Society/Australian Academy of Science Biographical Memoir and other tributes and obituaries. There are also some family papers including letters to his wife Heather before and after their marriage, certificates of education and of awards, and a run of diaries 1936-1998. There is also photographic material.

There is documentation of aspects of Hanbury Brown's war work on radar from early experiments at Martlesham airfield in Sussex to memorabilia (including a poem on the 'radar man'). Hanbury Brown's years with the Combined Research Group at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington DC are covered by memoranda and photostats of research reports. Of particular interest is the material relating to the claim on the part of the airborne radar team for an award for the design and development of metre-wave airborne radar. This section further includes reunion activities in the 1990s.

Jodrell Bank material is not extensive. It includes an early letter to J.A. Ratcliffe in which Hanbury Brown outlined a radio interferometer of high resolution, pen-recorded inscriptions of signals from Cassiopeia and Sirius, and a notebook with measurements on Sirius that provided practical vindication of the Hanbury Brown-Twiss effect. There are memoranda and proposals on instruments, notably the steerable radio telescope and the interferometer that was eventually built in Narrabri. The development of this latter instrument is further documented by a notebook containing detailed calculations and tests of sample equipment for the future NSII. A number of photographs show various Jodrell Bank individuals and apparatus. There is more Australian material, essentially covering three astronomical instruments and their genesis. Correspondence, notebooks, photographs and promotional materials document the NSII. The story of the successor instrument, the SUSI, is represented chiefly by photographs of an early model showing a Very Large Stellar Intensity Interferometer, a subsequent proposal of a Michelson interferometer, and discussions between Hanbury Brown and his long-time collaborator John Davis. There is also correspondence re the AAT and the future of science and engineering in the University of Sydney.

Hanbury Brown's 'Research Files' form a substantial component of the archive. They contain research materials, which Hanbury Brown accumulated over many decades. These files testify to three foci of enduring interest on his part, the story of radar, radio astronomy, and reflections about science. The history of radar is documented by original documents and pamphlets, correspondence with both fellow radar pioneers and younger radar buffs, memoirs, and drafts of equipment biographies. The radio astronomy group includes literature on various types of interferometers and on quantum theory, correspondence and draft publications on the behaviour of photons (these from the time of the controversy over the Hanbury Brown-Twiss effect), and a special section on Hanbury Brown's 'dear friend Sirius' (Letter to J.M. Bennett, 1 June 1994). A subgroup is dedicated to historical topics in radio astronomy. Material on reflections about science consists of Hanbury Brown's notes on science-historical literature; correspondence, notes and literature on science's relations with religion; and general articles.

There is extensive documentation of Hanbury Brown's publications and lectures, the largest component of this collection. A considerable variety of publications are represented including scientific papers, books, reviews and newspaper articles, starting with Hanbury Brown's 1935 paper on the cathode-ray oscillograph. Hanbury Brown's speaking engagements are documented by drafts, outlines and index card notes over almost five decades, and include his broadcasts. This material is qualitatively heterogeneous, ranging from expert conference papers to light-hearted dinner toasts. Sound recordings of some of these can be found with the non-textual media in the archive.

There is documentation of Hanbury Brown's involvements with only a few societies and organisations. These include the Astronomical Society of Australia, Institution of Electrical Engineers, National Centre for Basic Sciences in Calcutta, India and Royal Society. Material includes copies of reports (co-authored by Hanbury Brown) to the International Scientific Radio Union and to the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration.

There are several series of correspondence, which together span six decades. There are three alphabetical sequences, one dating from the 1940s to the early 1950s, the second consisting of named correspondents, the third dating chiefly from the 1980s and 1990s (with a few earlier letters). The first sequence includes family letters and correspondence about the Sir Robert Watson-Watt & Partners consultancy. Hanbury Brown's named correspondents in the second sequence are colleagues and friends from the days of radar and early radio astronomy, and his colleague John Davis. The third sequence ranges over a multitude of correspondents and topics. It reflects chiefly Hanbury Brown's activities after his return from Australia in 1991.

Non-textual media spans audiotapes, videotapes, visual material, and computer disks. The audiotapes date from 1973 to 1999 and include recordings of Hanbury Brown's wife Heather. Videotapes are principally of Hanbury Brown's contributions to television documentaries and interviews on his wartime work. The visual material ranges over photographs, graphs, transparencies and an extensive slide collection, which appears to have served Hanbury Brown as a store on which to draw for his lecturing activities. The computer disks reflect both Hanbury Brown's changing word processing equipment and his diverse activities, from his writings to his correspondence with colleagues, friends, institutions, businesses and so forth.

Administrative / Biographical History

Robert Hanbury Brown was born on 31 August 1916 in Aruvankadu, South India, where his father was in charge of a cordite factory. Hanbury Brown was sent to England to be educated and attended Cottesmore Preparatory School in Hove, Sussex, from the age of eight to fourteen. In 1930 he entered Tonbridge School in Kent, switching to Brighton Technical College after only two years. The decision was partly the product of strained family finances - but Hanbury Brown had long shown an active interest in technological matters. His grandfather (the irrigation engineer Sir Robert Hanbury Brown) was one of the early pioneers of radio, and his legal guardian after his parents' divorce was a consulting radio engineer. At Brighton Technical College he studied for an external degree in the University of London, graduating BSc with first class honours in electrical engineering at the age of nineteen. At this time appeared also his first publication (with his student friend Vic Tyler), on 'Lamp polar curves on the cathode-ray oscillograph'. With a grant from East Sussex County Council he then embarked on a postgraduate course in advanced studies on telegraphy and telephony at City & Guilds of London Institute, then part of Imperial College. At the time he hoped to complete a doctorate in radio engineering and to pursue a career that would combine his interest in radio with flying.

Hanbury Brown's involvement both with the new University of London Air Squadron and with cathode-ray tubes drew the interest of the Rector of Imperial College, Henry Tizard. Tizard chaired a committee that had recently been set up by the Air Ministry to find ways of protecting Britain from possible attack from enemy aircraft. Through Tizard's intervention Hanbury Brown came to be recruited into an experimental project instigated by Robert Watson-Watt, to develop a system of radio-location using pulse/echo technique for aircraft detection. In August 1936 Hanbury Brown joined what would grow into the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) and helped develop Chain Home, an air surveillance system of ground stations along the East and South Coasts that proved vital in the 1940 Battle of Britain. From the autumn of 1937 he worked in the airborne radar group under E. G. Bowen, which transferred to the USA in 1942 for a joint British-American mission on air defence. Returning three years later Hanbury Brown rejoined TRE, helping the Air Historical Branch of the Air Ministry write an account of airborne radar and working on the application of the pulsed navigational aid GEE to civil aviation. A research consultancy set up by Watson-Watt in 1947 offered more interesting prospects for the conversion of wartime developments into peacetime technologies. He allowed himself to be recruited and worked as a consulting engineer until Watson-Watt decided to move the firm to Canada. After pondering a number of career possibilities, Hanbury Brown returned to academia in the autumn of 1949, when he started as a PhD student in radio astronomy at the University of Manchester.

His impact at Jodrell Bank, where Manchester's radio astronomy group was based, was instantaneous. The development for which he achieved his greatest distinction lay in interferometry, indeed in showing how the principle of the intensity interferometer could be applied to optical interferometry. In 1956, he and the mathematician R.Q. Twiss showed on the basis of a laboratory experiment that the time of arrival of photons at two separate detectors was correlated (Hanbury Brown-Twiss effect). Physicists struggled with the idea, photon correlation being inconceivable from a quantum theoretical perspective; yet Hanbury Brown and Twiss proceeded to demonstrate on the example of the star Sirius how the phenomenon could be used in an interferometer to measure the apparent angular diameter of bright visual stars. Their work earned them a Michelson Medal for opening up the subject of quantum optics. With the controversy over the Hanbury Brown-Twiss effect in full swing, Hanbury Brown proposed a large optical interferometer to measure the diameters of other main sequence stars. The Department of Scientific and Industrial Research agreed to fund the initial design costs and a large part of the eventual construction costs for an instrument consisting of two reflectors, mounted on a circular railway track 188 metres in diameter. The instrument was manufactured in Britain and Italy, but built in the Australian bush near Narrabri in New South Wales. The construction of the Narrabri Stellar Intensity Interferometer (NSII) at a fairly remote site was a heroic task, which kept Hanbury Brown full-time in Australia. In 1964, two years into the mission, he resigned from the personal chair which the University of Manchester had created for him in 1960, and accepted an appointment as Professor of Physics (Astronomy) at the University of Sydney. Despite tempting offers to go elsewhere after the NSII was decommissioned in 1974, he stayed on to explore a next generation instrument. This was not to be another intensity interferometer, but a modernised Michelson interferometer, the Sydney University Stellar Interferometer (SUSI). The SUSI became the project of his colleague John Davis and it finally opened in 1991, ten years after Hanbury Brown officially retired.

Hanbury Brown's commitments to science manifested beyond the instruments and institutions with which he was most visibly affiliated. His involvements in such ventures of the 1970s as the Anglo-Australian-Telescope (AAT) or the Science Task Force both illustrate in their way how he envisaged future science. For instance, he used a job interview for the directorship of the new AAT to criticize centralist tendencies in Australian science funding, pleading for greater equality of the state universities vis-�is the flagship of Australian academia, the Australian National University. Likewise, as a member of the Science Task Force, a consultative committee of the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration, he expressed his concerns over changes in the scientific ethos under government funding, which had become the norm after World War II. The now classic report of the Task Force, Towards Diversity and Adaptability (1975), was imbued with the ideal of scientific autonomy.

Over the years Hanbury Brown also developed his dimension as a public scientist in his writings and his lectures. He became an interpreter of science who explained to non-expert audiences his particular science, interferometry, as well as his views on the scientific enterprise more broadly. His broadcasts and other public performances bear this out, as do such monographs as his account of The Intensity Interferometer (1974) or the more philosophical Man and the Stars (1978) and The Wisdom of Science (1986). In his last publication, There are no Dinosaurs in the Bible, which he had written for his grandchildren and which appeared posthumously, Hanbury Brown returned to a theme that had occupied him over a number of decades, the relations between science and religion. Another subject close to his heart were his wartime experiences. His friendships from the radar days lasted a lifetime, and he continued to explore the history of radar with younger radar buffs, through reunions and celebratory occasions, and in television programmes and sound recordings.

Hanbury Brown accumulated many honours during his long career. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1960. In 1986, he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia. He was also rumoured to have been the prototype prompting the expression 'boffin' (for a technological expert). He married Heather Hilda Chesterman in 1952. They had one daughter and two sons (twins). He died on 16 January 2002.


By section as follows: Biographical, Radar, Jodrell Bank, Australia, research files, Publications, lectures and broadcasts, Societies and organisations, Correspondence, Non-textual media. Index of correspondents.

Conditions Governing Access

Papers retain the period of confidentiality agreed at time of the deposit. All new deposits closed for 30 years except by permission of Officers of the Royal Society or the person controlling access.

Acquisition Information

The papers were received from Dr Marion Hanbury Brown, daughter of Robert Hanbury Brown, in August 2003 and August 2006.

Other Finding Aids

Printed Catalogue of: NCUACS catalogue no. 151/1/07, 160pp.. Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath

Archivist's Note

Compiled by Dr Tim Powell, NCUACS, 3 September 2007

Related Material

A substantial portion of Hanbury Brown's personal archive was destroyed in 1961 owing to a misunderstanding (letter to J.P. Wild, 16 January 1974). Some material relating to his Jodrell Bank period can be found in the papers of A.C.B. Lovell in the Jodrell Bank Archive at the John Rylands University Library of the University of Manchester. Hanbury Brown left many of the documents relating to his work in astronomy in Australia to the University of Sydney, where he thought they belonged. These are in the University Archives of the University of Sydney and include correspondence regarding the intensity interferometer at Narrabri, technical papers, funding and general correspondence, 1957-1983. There is also correspondence on the AAT, 1967-1974, and an audio tape interview on his retirement in 1981. Further material, notably 27 scrapbooks compiled by Hanbury Brown's wife Heather, are in the hands of the family. It is anticipated that they will be deposited at the Royal Society to join this collection in due course.