Jodrell Bank Observatory Archive

Scope and Content

Papers relating to the Jodrell Bank Observatory, Jodrell Bank, Cheshire.

The collection is a hybrid, consisting primarily of the operational and administrative records of the Observatory, records of the University of Manchester (sub) department of radio-astronomy, and the personal papers of Sir Bernard Lovell, Professor of Radio Astronomy and Director of Jodrell Bank, 1951-1980. The distinctions between these component parts are not always easily identifiable.

The archive is extensive and comprises files of correspondence, telexes, papers relating to the funding, construction and operation of the telescope, research programmes and projects, the use of computing at the Observatory, accounting records, scientific reports, telescope log-books, and copies of papers and articles published by Lovell and other JBO staff. There is correspondence with international organizations and research institutes involved in radio-astronomy, UK government agencies which supported scientific research and individual scientists in Britain, the United States, Soviet Union and elsewhere.

Probably the most significant part of the archive for the Observatory's research work and radio-astronomy in general are correspondence files, arranged in twelve series (JBA/CS1-12), comprising several hundred files. Most of the correspondence files relate to Lovell's research work and his papers as Director (JBA/CS6 comprises Lovell's more personal files); series JBA/CS8 and CS9 consist of the correspondence files of Lovell's colleague Robert Hanbury Brown, professor of radio-astronomy at the University of Manchester 1960-1963.JBA/CS10-12 are mostly Lovell's post-retirement files, but include some older files he retained because of their historical importance, and which he used for some of his later writings. Correspondence and papers of other significant figures at Jodrell Bank, namely J. G. Davies (JBA/DAV), H P Palmer (JBA/PAL), Conrad Slater (JBA/SLA) and Francis Graham Smith (JBA/SMI) are filed in separate series.

The CS files also include much information on early research activities at Jodrell Bank, and include correspondence between Lovell and leading physicists and astronomers including: Edward Appleton, Patrick Blackett, Bart Bok, Thomas Cowling, Philip Dee, M. A. Ellison, Erwin Findlay-Freundlich, Nicolai Herlofson, J.S. Hey, Cuno Hoffmeister, Vladimir Kourganoff, Bertil Lindblad, Gordon Little, Rudolph Minkowski, Jan Oort, Ernst Opik, J. L. Pawsey, J. P. M. Prentice, J. A. Ratcliffe, Svein Rosseland, Martin Ryle, Dudley Saward, Harlow Shapley, Sydney van den Bergh, and Frederick Whipple (correspondence with Blackett and Ryle being particularly extensive).

There is extensive information on the general running of the Observatory, including personnel, buildings, maintenance, allocation of frequencies, the concourse centre and the Jodrell Bank Tree Society (arboretum). There is also much relations with the University of Manchester, government departments and agencies (especially the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and Science Research Council), equipment suppliers and contractors (particularly Husband & Co.), private funding bodies, the media, and with the local community. Also covered are the Mark II and Mark III telescopes, and the various JBO outstations. There are numerous files on scientific and astronomical agencies with which the Observatory and its staff were associated: Royal Astronomical Society, International Astronomical Union, International Union for Radio Science (URSI), CSIRO, the Solvay Congress, British Association, NASA plus specific projects and activities such as Halley Bay, meteor experiments, tracking of space probes and satellites (including the Sputniks), Venus Experiment, Project West Ford, NASA's STL project, Echo II, scintillations, and research on pulsars and quasars. Lovell's correspondence also includes a large number of letters forms members of the general public concerning astronomical phenomena, including sightings of alleged unidentified flying objects (Lovell often categorised these letters as 'odd' or 'very odd').

The series on the Aeronautical Research Council (JBA/ARC), British Space Development Company (JBA/BSD), Committee on Space Research (JBA/COS), International Geophysical Year (JBA/IGY), Meetings and Records (2 series) and Royal Society document the involvement of Jodrell Bank staff, primarily Lovell, with external bodies, some relating to specific projects. JBA/MKV contains extensive information on the aborted MKV telescope project. JBA/PUB consist of publications of Jodrell Bank staff, while JBA/SYM deals with a range of academic symposia and conferences held at the Observatory. JBA/COM is a district series which deals with computing issues at the Observatory (Jodrell Bank was a pioneer in the use of computing in astronomy), and JBA/REC is a miscellaneous series of records produced by the Observatory, including meteorological records.

The archive includes Lovell's papers which are directly related to his work as Director of the Radio-Telescope, as well as papers which relate to his other academic and outside interests. In the latter category are the series JBA/PRE which deal with his student and early career papers, and the papers relating to his membership of the Worshipful College of Musicians (JBA/WCM). The archives also include Lovell's diaries (JBA/DIA) and papers relating to his lectures (JBA/LEC). Lovell's personal diaries (JBA/DIP) contain atmospheric accounts of his visits to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.

The archive constitutes an essential source for the history of radio astronomy and science in general, particularly in post-war Britain. It includes essential information about international co-operation in astronomy, the development of diverse research programmes in British radio-astronomy, the funding and organization of scientific research and higher education, the presentation of the Jodrell Bank telescope as a iconic development in post-war British science among many other topics.

Administrative / Biographical History

The Jodrell Bank Observatory is one of the world's largest radio-telescope facilities. Originally known as the Jodrell Bank Experimental Station, it was renamed the Nuffield Radio Astronomy Laboratories in 1966, and changed to its current name in 1999.

The first radar transmitter and receiver was installed by Bernard Lovell, then working as a physicist at the University of Manchester, at Jodrell Bank, Cheshire, in December 1945 (the University campus had proved unsuitable because of the high level of electrical interference). At this period Lovell was researching cosmic rays under the direction of Patrick Blackett, professor of physics at the University of Manchester. Lovell's work involved studying radio echoes from large cosmic ray showers in the Earth's atmosphere, using old military radars. As a result of this, Lovell went on to make important discoveries in meteoric astronomy.

By the late 1940s, radio-astronomy was becoming an established area of research. The University of Manchester was keen to develop research in this area, with a team led by Lovell. In 1947, a new 218ft transit telescope was built to study radio emissions from space. However, this telescope could only track a limited area of the sky. Lovell wanted to build a fully steerable telescope, but it proved difficult to find an engineering firm which felt it could meet the specification. In 1949, the University opened discussions with Messrs. Husband & Co of Sheffield. Husband drew up plans for a 250ft fully steerable telescope, and in 1951 an application for £259,000 grant was submitted by the University to the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, the sponsoring government department.

The construction of this telescope proved to be long and complex, as costs mounted and redesigns were required. As completed, the telescope comprised a 250ft paraboloid, constructed of steel sheets and supported by a steel framework. At the centre of it bowl was a 62.5ft steel mast. The bowl was attached to two towers by a set of trunnion bearings, with the towers mounted on six bogeys which ran on two concentric circular rails along the ground. These allowed the telescope to be turned horizontally or in azimuth. Originally known as the Mark I, the telescope became operational in 1957. At the time the Mark I was the largest fully-steerable radio telescope in the world.

The telescope was at the time one of the most powerful radars in the world, and soon attracted public attention when it tracked the Soviet Sputnik satellite in October 1957. During the 'Space Race' the telescope was frequently used to track satellites, missiles and space probes; work which proved to be financially beneficial.

The construction of the telescope had left significant debts and some of these were paid off by the industrialist Lord Nuffield. In recognition, the Jodrell Bank facility was renamed the Nuffield Radio Astronomy Laboratories in 1966. In 1970 some major modifications were made to the telescope, which was renamed the Mark IA. In July 1987 it was renamed the Lovell Telescope. Between 2000 and 2002, there was a further major upgrade to this telescope.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the Observatory planned further new telescopes. The first of these was the Mark II telescope, which was completed at Jodrell Bank in 1964; this was a smaller telescope used for short centimetre wavelength research. Smaller telescopes were built at other locations, including the 25m telescope at Defford, Worcestershire, and the Mark III telescope constructed at Wardle, south Cheshire in 1966 (this was decommissioned in 1996). The purpose of these new telescopes was to support the Observatory's increasing work in interferometry, which required additional linked telescopes to combine radio signals for higher resolution astronomical images. This work was later expanded in the MTRLI/Merlin networks.

The Observatory received a further boost when the Radio Astronomy Planning Committee (the Fleck Committee). reported in 1965 and made recommendations for the future development of British radio-astronomy. Fleck ensured that Jodrell Bank and the University of Cambridge would continue to play the lead roles in British radio-astronomy research. The Fleck Committee also supported the development of a new very large telescope under the control of Jodrell Bank, as well as improvements to the existing Mark I.

The new large telescope project was originally conceived as the Mark IV and would have been located in the vicinity of the Mark I. When this proved impractical, a new telescope, known as the Mark V and later the modified Mark VA, was conceived; this was to be massive 400ft dish. A site at Meifod, Montgomery shire was identified for this telescope. However, this failed to get government funding, and by the mid-1970s, plans for a very large radio telescope receded. However, in the late 1960s, the Mark I was subject to major upgrades, and was thereafter known as the Mark IA. A new bicycle wheel girder was added as a central support, a new rail track was added to support this heavier structure, the bowl surface was renovated, and a new computing system added.

Jodrell Bank Observatory has undertaken a wide range of research since foundation. Some of its earliest work involved radar observations of meteors and planets, and the measurement of the Moon's surface. In the late 1950s, important work was done on quasars, which used portable telescopes transmitting by microwave radio links. Later research focussed in studies of the radio energy of neutral hydrogen; radio astronomical detection of interstellar molecules; radio recombination lines; pulsars and flare stars.

Since the 1960s the Observatory has been involved in Very Long Baseline Interferometry research, which uses multiple radio-telescopes to collect data. In the 1970s, following the breakdown of the Mark V project, the Observatory developed the Multi-Telescope Radio-Linked Interferometer (MTRLI), later renamed MERLIN (Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer]. This built on existing work in long baselines, using the Mark II and Mark III telescopes as part of an interferometer, with new telescopes being added at Knockin (Shropshire), and Darnhall and Pickmere (formerly known as Tabley) in Cheshire, in addition to the Defford telescope in Worcestershire (originally leased from the Radio Research Establishment). With additional telescopes added, more information could be collected on radio sources, as observations were possible of fringe visibility variations as the baseline of the interferometer changed during the observation. In the late 1980s a radio-telescope of the University of Cambridge joined the MERLIN network. In recent years the Observatory has been involved in the e-MERLIN project to upgrade the MERLIN array of seven UK-based radio-telescopes.

The Observatory is currently part of the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, which is itself part of the Department of Physics and Astronomy within the Faculty of Science and Engineering. Since the 2010s the Observatory site has included the headquarters of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). SKA is a separate organisation, an array of radio-telescopes which is being developed at sites om the southern hemisphere.

In July 2019, the Observatory was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Bernard Lovell was born at Oldland Common, Gloucestershire on 31 August 1913. He was educated at Kingswood Grammar School, Bristol, and the University of Bristol. After completing a doctorate on the conductivity of thin metallic films at Bristol, he took up the post of assistant lecturer in the department of physics of the University of Manchester in 1936.

During the Second World War, Lovell worked at the Telecommunications Research Establishment on radar, particularly the development of 'blind bombing' systems. He was appointed OBE for this work. After the War, he returned to Manchester to work on cosmic radiation under Patrick Blackett. He was promoted to senior lecturer in 1947, reader in 1949 and became professor of radio-astronomy (a new post in 1951). He retired from his chair in 1980 and as Director of the Observatory in 1981.

Lovell was a very prominent public scientist in the middle decades of the 20th century, He delivered the Reith Lectures in 1958 (published as The individual and the universe (1959). Lovell wrote a number of books on radio-astronomy and cosmology, as well as an autobiography Astronomer by chance (1990). He was elected FRS in 1955 and awarded the Royal Medal in 1960. Lovell was president of the Royal Astronomical Society from 1969-1971, and of the British Association in 1975-6. He received the RAS's Gold Medal in 1981. He was knighted in 1961.Outside of his work, Lovell pursued his interests in music, cricket and arboriculture. Sir Bernard Lovell died on 6 August 2012.


The archive is currently arranged into the following series:

  • JBA/ARC Aeronautical Research Council (15 items)
  • JBA/ATR Astronomy Transformed (4 items)
  • JBA/BSD British Space Development Company (BSDC) (9 items)
  • JBA/COM Computers (17 items)
  • JBA/COR Records of correspondence (5 items)
  • JBA/COS Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) (17 items)
  • JBA/CS1 Correspondence Series 1 (29 items)
  • JBA/CS2 Correspondence Series 2 (38 items)
  • JBA/CS3 Correspondence Series 3 (105 items)
  • JBA/CS4 Correspondence Series 4 (3 items)
  • JBA/CS5 Correspondence Series 5 (8 items)
  • JBA/CS6 Correspondence Series 6 (34 items)
  • JBA/CS7 Correspondence Series 7 (200 items)
  • JBA/CS8 Correspondence Series 8 (47 items)
  • JBA/CS9 Correspondence Series 9 (36 items)
  • JBA/CS10 Correspondence Series 10 (28 items)
  • JBA/CS11 Correspondence Series 11 (55 items)
  • JBA/CS12 Correspondence Series 12 (69 items)
  • JBA/DAV J.G. Davies (9 items)
  • JBA/DIA Desk Diaries (20 items)
  • JBA/DIP Lovell's Personal Diaries (Soviet Union) (5 items)
  • JBA/IGY International Geophysical Year (30 items)
  • JBA/JBM Jodrell Bank Miscellaneous (60 items)
  • JBA/LEC Lectures (69 items)
  • JBA/LOG Log Books (447 items)
  • JBA/LOV Lovell's notes of files (1 item)
  • JBA/MKV Mark V radio telescope (98 items)
  • JBA/MR1 Meetings and Records 1 (21 items)
  • JBA/MR2 Meetings and Records 2 (16 items)
  • JBA/OBI Obituaries (26 items)
  • JBA/OPL Promotional Literature (5 items)
  • JBA/PAL H.P. Palmer (63 items)
  • JBA/PRE Pre-1945 papers of Bernard Lovell (66 items)
  • JBA/PUB Publications (303 items)
  • JBA/REC Records (35mm film) (22 items)
  • JBA/RSY Royal Society (40 items)
  • JBA/SLA Conrad Slater (2 items)
  • JBA/SMI F. Graham Smith (10 items)
  • JBA/SPE Specifications and technical drawings (4 items)
  • JBA/SRC Science Research Council (1 item)
  • JBA/SYM Symposia (3 items)
  • JBA/TEL Telexes and telegrams (152 items)
  • JBA/VIS Visitors (15 items)
  • JBA/WCM Worshipful Company of Musicians (8 items)

The archive was originally arranged and described in the 1990s. No documentation survives of how the cataloguing was undertaken. The current catalogue is essentially a new edition of this catalogue, compiled in line with current archival descriptive standards. In 2021, additional catalogue descriptions were added for material donated by Bernard Lovell in the early 2000s (this is mostly personal in nature, but also included files he had retained to assist with some of his later publications and research). As a result, three new correspondence series: CS10, CS11 and CS12 have been added, while other files have been added to existing series (e.g. JBM, OBI, PRE, PUB, SMI, SPE, WCM). A new series was also created for Lovell's personal narrative diaries of his visits to the USSR (JBA/DIP). A substantial body of records remains at the Observatory, especially for the post-1980 period.

Current arrangement and description of the archive is provisional, and further processing will be required in future. Currently, the collection is not arranged in archival order, and in some cases, the particular provenance of parts of the archive is not indicated. It also appears that files have not been rearranged in chronological order within series, but were listed as found. The original referencing used box numbers e.g. JBA/LEC/1/1 which equates to fonds/series/box/item. This is not in line with Library practice and where new series are created in future these will not include the box reference.

Access Information

The collection is open to any accredited reader, unless otherwise stated. Some items are currently closed to public inspection, and others may require review before access is granted to researchers.

The collection includes material which is subject to the Data Protection Act 2018. Under the Act 2018 (DPA), The University of Manchester Library (UML) holds the right to process personal data for archiving and research purposes. In accordance with the DPA, UML has made every attempt to ensure that all personal and sensitive personal data has been processed fairly, lawfully and accurately. Users of the archive are expected to comply with the Data Protection Act 2018, and will be required to sign a form acknowledging that they will abide by the requirements of the Act in any further processing of the material by themselves.

Open parts of this collection, and the catalogue descriptions, may contain personal data about living individuals. Some items in this collection may be closed to public inspection in line with the requirements of the DPA. Restrictions/closures of specific items will be indicated in the catalogue.

Custodial History

Until his retirement in 1981, Bernard Lovell took a direct interest in the maintenance of the observatory's records and was instrumental in ensuring that key records were retained for archival preservation. In 1979, the bulk of the records of the records in the current archive were transferred to the University Library. Since then there have been numerous accessions, some coming from the Observatory and others from Bernard Lovell in 2001, 2004 and 2008. Lovell had retained a number of files after his retirement as Director; many of these were used in publications he produced in the 1980s and 1990s. In addition, Lovell transferred many personal papers, not all of which were directly related to his work at the Observatory.


Accruals will continue to be added to the archive.

Related Material

The University of Manchester Archives contains papers relating to the Observatory in the Vice-Chancellor's archive (VCA); these include VCA/7/720, VCA/7/735, VCA/7/734-739, VCA/7/847, VCA/7/848, VCA/7/920, VCA/7/951.

Some of Bernard Lovell's papers are held elsewhere. These include a small collection relating to TRE held at the Imperial War Museum (BL), while Lovell's dairies relating to the construction of the Mark 1 (ref. 20101) and other papers (MS/870) are held by the Royal Society.

The Papers of Robert Hanbury Brown are held by the Royal Society. The papers of Sir Martin Ryle are held at Churchill, College Cambridge (GBR/0014/RYLE). The papers of Patrick Blackett are held at the Royal Society (GB 117 Blackett).

The Observatory had close connections with some government agencies, and relevant records will be found at the National Archives. These include Air Ministry files, AIR 20/11427 AIR77/82 and AF/T1911/64, Cabinet Office files, CAB 124/1774-1777, CAB 124/2704, Treasury files, T 218/129-135, and Home Office files, HO255/174, HO 255/345 (radio frequencies), HO 255/1077.


Lovell's own writings provide a valuable introduction to Jodrell Bank and British radio-astronomy in general, especially his autobiography Astronomer by chance (Oxford 1992). The development of the Observatory is chronicles in three books by Lovell: The story of Jodrell Bank (Oxford 1968), Out of the zenith: Jodrell Bank, 1957-1970 (Oxford 1973); and the The Jodrell Bank telescopes (Oxford 1985), which covers the Mark II to V projects and the MTRLI.

See also Dudley Saward, Bernard Lovell: a biography (London, 1984), David Edge and Michael Mulkay Astronomy transformed: the emergence of radio astronomy in Britain (New York 1976), and Jon Agar, Science and spectacle: the work of Jodrell Bank in post-war British culture (Amsterdam 1998), which consider the Observatory in its wider scientific and social contexts.