How a hat box inspired the Jodrell Bank Observatory telescope

The story of the inspiration behind the landmark Lovell telescope has been shared as a new visitor centre prepares to open on the site.

29 May 2022

The design of the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory was inspired by a hat box, according to memories shared by one engineer with his family.

Previously unseen photos showing the construction of prototypes of the telescope in the 1950s have been released as the Cheshire observatory is set to open a new development supported by £12.5 million from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The pictures were taken by Barry Wade, the father of the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s executive director, Isabel Hunt. The late Mr Wade was a trainee engineer at the site from 1951 to 1952.

Ms Hunt said her father had referred to the distinctive structure as the Hat Box telescope.

Men working on the Jodrell Bank site in the early 1950s (Isabel Hunt/PA)
Barry Wade took this photograph of men working on the Jodrell Bank site in the early 1950s (Isabel Hunt/PA)

Mr Wade had said the astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell, the founder of the observatory, had been looking for a solution for how to balance the radio telescope and had a “lightbulb moment” when he opened his hat box to get ready for work one morning.

Ms Hunt said: “I don’t know if that was true or not, but it was one of my father’s lasting memories from his time there.”

On Saturday, the observatory, named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2019, will open the First Light Pavilion.

The new building will house a permanent exhibition on the story of Jodrell Bank along with a planetarium, temporary exhibitions gallery and a cafe.

A picture taken by trainee engineer Barry Wade showing construction of a prototype of the telescope at Jodrell Bank in the early 1950s (Isabel Hunt/PA)
Barry Wade took this photograph of a prototype of the Lovell telescope under construction (Isabel Hunt/PA)

Ms Hunt said: “When I joined the National Lottery Heritage Fund, I was really looking forward to making a difference for the UK’s heritage, but it was even more exciting to find out that one of our major investments at Jodrell Bank was intertwined with my very own family heritage.

“My father spoke very fondly of his time at Jodrell Bank, and along with all the other fascinating history being shared as part of the First Light Project, I am sure these stories will inspire the next generation of engineers.”

Eilish McGuinness, CEO of the National Lottery Heritage Fund said: “Jodrell Bank is truly a unique heritage site, of national and international importance, with an inspirational story of Britain’s role as a leader in the science of the exploration of the universe, set in a landscape of great beauty and with iconic heritage at every turn.

“The National Lottery Heritage Fund awarded £12.5 million to the First Light Project so that the site’s powerful human stories of curiosity, exploration and discovery could be shared with the public.

“The stunning new building, its exciting exhibition, and an incredibly diverse and inclusive engagement programme, will all have a fantastic impact, delighting and inspiring every visitor, including the next generation of scientists following in the footsteps of Sir Bernard Lovell.”

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