Churchill's Scientists

Robert Watson-Watt's giant receiver.‘More than any other country in the world, Britain must depend for survival on skilled minds.’ So said Winston Churchill when he opened Churchill College, Cambridge in October 1959. It summed up his life-long belief that, if Britain could gain any advantage over an adversary by drawing upon the ideas of its scientists and inventors, then they should be encouraged. To mark the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s death, the Science Museum has put together a fascinating exhibition to illustrate the support he gave to a range of scientists during the Second World War.

That war generated an immense number of scientific leaps and technological advances. New inventions ranged from jet engines to atom bombs, from flying wings to floating tanks and from miniature radios to ballistic missiles. Churchill immersed himself in the work of the nation’s engineers and physicists and a new word appeared, ‘boffin’, to describe the scientists who worked away on machines, the purpose of which most people did not even begin to understand. But Churchill knew that among them were probably the ideas that would help win the war and he wanted them realised as soon as possible.

The exhibition begins with the development of radar and the giant receiver (4 feet high and 6 feet wide, pictured above) used by Robert Watson-Watt in the famous Daventry experiment in which he invented British radar in February 1935. Even a valve used in the Chain Home radar system in 1940 is 15 inches tall and 3 inches in diameter. Yet only three years later there is an H2S radar receiver small enough to be carried in an aircraft and accurate enough to pick up a signal from the conning tower of a U-boat. These three exhibits speak louder than words on the pace of scientific change in the Second World War.

There is a spread on Operational Research, the process of mathematical analysis pioneered by Professor Patrick Blackett, that was applied to many military questions. Also a section on food and nutrition and on the new drugs of war, the antibiotics that helped to save, among millions of others, Churchill himself when he caught pneumonia in Tunis in December 1943. It was feared he might not survive but treatment with a new antibiotic called M&B brought recovery.

There is a section on ‘Tube Alloys’ with a suitcase of fine mesh screens for uranium enrichment and a set of Churchill’s galley proofs from a chapter on science, which he called ‘The Wizard War’ in his six-volume history. Churchill dictated great chunks of these books and saw the galleys almost as a first draft. Screeds of handwritten re-writes cover the proofs (publishers beware of the Churchill method). The cast of characters featured is extensive and it is good they are not all backroom boys, but there are a few girls, too, like Elsie Widdowson, who demonstrated that the body could exist on a diet of far fewer calories than was supposed; and Dorothy Hodgkin, who unravelled the structure of penicillin.

The last section explores how many of the wartime advances were taken forward in the postwar era. A few boxes of wartime surplus radar kit helped create radio astronomy and Bernard Lovell’s magnificent 250-foot radio telescope at Jodrell Bank. A Gee navigating device turned into a machine to measure the electrical currents in the brain. But the mushroom cloud dominates here, with William Penny building the British atom bomb without any help from the Americans.

Of course, not everything can be included in a small exhibition. I would have liked something on the encouragement Churchill gave to scientists in the Great War at the Admiralty and, although Frederic Lindemann is there as Churchill’s scientific adviser, he gets off lightly with only a passing reference to his sinister misuse of statistics to prove that the bombing of Germany would disable the Nazi war machine by killing all the workers. Also, the captions are minimal and would benefit from far more background. But lead-curator Andrew Nahum’s exhibition opens up a little-known aspect of Churchill’s wartime achievement. It is a tremendous subject and a fine tribute to Britain’s leader.

Churchill’s Scientists is at the Science Museum, London SW7, until March 2016.

Taylor Downing is author of Secret Warriors: Key Scientists in the Great War and Churchill’s War Lab: Code Breakers and Boffins in WW2 (both Little, Brown, 2014, 2011).