A view From the Bridge

Churchill’s Scientists

Posted on behalf of Daniel Cressey

Winston Churchill in 1942

Winston Churchill in 1942

The US Library of Congress

Science both shaped and was shaped by Winston Churchill (1874–1965), twice prime minister of Britain, iconic orator and writer. That relationship is explored in an exhibition at London’s Science Museum marking the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s death. Nature spoke to Andrew Nahum, lead curator for Churchill’s Scientists, about his favourites of the objects on show.

Watson-Watt’s radio receiver

Much has been written about how radar may have given Britain the edge in fighting the Nazi Luftwaffe’s bombing raids during the Second World War. But by the war’s start, radar was still an experimental technology in development by a number of nations, including the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union and Germany.

On display is a shortwave radio receiver used by Scottish radar pioneer Robert Watson-Watt and his colleague Arnold Wilkins in a secret experiment in 1935 — a time when the UK government was aware of the need for air defence against Nazi Germany. Explains Nahum, “the idea that you could get a radio reflection wasn’t new. It was just a question of whether you’d get a reflection off an aeroplane that was measurable.” Watson-Watt and Wilkins drove the equipment to Daventry, in England’s East Midlands, to a site near a powerful short-wave transmitter — a BBC radio mast. They then arranged for a pilot to fly a bomber past.


Robert Watson-Watt's original radar receiver, used in 1935

Robert Watson-Watt’s original radio receiver, used in 1935

“On the ground the boffins were looking at their cathode ray tube and saw a green spot on the oscilloscope grow and diminish as the aircraft crossed. That showed they had detected the short-wave BBC signal reflected from the bomber,” says Nahum. “Watson-Watt allegedly said, ‘Britain is an island once more.’”

Galley proofs of Churchill’s war memoirs

Churchill’s memoirs of the conflict, The Second World War, were published from 1948 to 1953 in six volumes — undoubtedly contributing to his winning the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature.  Alongside details of battles against Germany’s ‘Desert Fox’, Field Marshall Rommel, in North Africa and politicking with Stalin, Churchill dedicated a not-insignificant amount of space to science.

He personally corrected thousands of printers’ proofs. Those on view — extracted from his chapter ‘The Wizard War’ — tell of the debt owed to wartime scientists, singling out the Battle of the Beams. This was the radio war that took place when the Luftwaffe started night bombing in the early 1940s. As Churchill wrote, “Unless British science had proved superior to German, and unless its strange, sinister resources had been effectively brought to bear on the struggle for survival, we might well have been defeated”.

John Kendrew’s ‘Forest of Rods’

John Kendrew's 1960 'Forest of Rods' model showing the structure of myoglobin

John Kendrew’s 1960 ‘Forest of Rods’ model showing the structure of myoglobin

The Science Museum, London

This 1960 model, the ‘Forest of Rods’, shows the structure of myoglobin and was constructed by chemist John Kendrew. During the war Kendrew had met molecular biologist and X-ray crystallography pioneer J.D. Bernal in the Far East, “while they were waiting for an elephant to bring up explosives”, says Nahum. Kendrew thereafter set out to solve the structure of myoglobin.

In his model, coloured clips on the rods indicate the electron density. Nahum avers that this “icon of British molecular biology” should be seen as on a par with Watson and Crick’s DNA structure.

Aldermaston high-speed camera

High-speed camera that caught the detonation of 'Churchill's bomb' in 1952

High-speed camera used to capture the detonation of ‘Churchill’s bomb’ in 1952

The Science Museum, London

After the war, Churchill was eager for Britain to gain knowledge of atomic science. When the United States refused to share the fruits of the Manhattan Project, some of ‘Churchill’s scientists’ were enlisted to build a British bomb by the new 1945 Labour government of Clement Attlee.  (See Richard Rhodes’ review of Graham Farmelo’s 2013 book, Churchill’s Bomb, for more.)

The Aldermaston high-speed camera was built to photograph the first test of the bomb in 1952. Shutter speeds in conventional cameras moved too slowly, so the camera sports a central mirror; film was laid around the outside. As the mirror spins, it projects the image to be captured onto the film, taking pictures at hundreds of frames per second.

Churchill’s Scientists is free and opens on 23 January.

Correction: The clarification that Clement Attlee was British prime minister while the British bomb was being built has been added to this post.

For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.


  1. Peter Marchese

    Report this comment

    Peter Marchese said:

    In 1935 excellent commercial communication receivers were available so I am surprised to see this strange home made contraption that was used