|Author:||Phillip Gething, former Scientific Officer in the Meridian Department|
|Comment:||Dr Phillip Gething, joined the Meridian Department at Greenwich as a Scientific Officer in 1951. He moved with the Observatory to Herstmonceux in 1953, where he remained for several years. In retirement, he wrote his recollections. His permission to publish them on this website is gratefully acknowledged.
|Copyright:||© Phillip Gething, 2014
1. New beginnings
2. The Scientific Civil Service
3. Other sites
4. Lunch party
6. The Meridian Department
1. My duties
2. Up minus Down
3. Other telescopes
4. Observing on the Airy
5. Reduction of the observations
6. Links with the past
1. A mixture of duties
2. Delving more deeply
3. Collimation Error
4. Diameter of the Sun
5. Latitude variations
6. Design of special eyepiece
7. The RTC investigation
8. Tidal friction
9. Azimuth mark at Chingford
10. Personal matters
1. The transfer
2. New Offices
3. New colleagues
4. Sports and Pastimes
5. The Observatory Magazine
6. Joining the Society of Friends
7. Arrival of others
8. Installing the Photographic Zenith Tube
9. Into the dyke
10. Flora McBain
11. Moving house
12. Life in the village
13. Advice to an amateur
2. IAU in Dublin
3. Teething troubles with the PZT
4. Reducing the observations
5. Tommy Gold
6. New Astronomer Royal
7. The Cooke RTC
8. RAS in Bristol
9. David breaks his leg
1. New recruits
2. Attempts at Establishment
3. Saving for a house
4. Growing doubts
5. Looking around
6. Interview for GCHQ
7. Chess tournament
8. House negotiations
9. New arrival
10. Clinching the deal
11. Farewell to Herstmonceux
12. Reporting to GCHQ
I was born in Luton, Bedfordshire, and was brought up there. I entered Luton Grammar School in September 1939, took School Certificate in 1943, and Higher School Certificate in 1945 and 1946. When I was about thirteen, my parents arranged a visit to the home of Horace Dall, who had an observatory in his back garden housing a 15-inch (I think) telescope and a camera obscura in his loft. I will not go into details, but was impressed and intrigued. In the Lower 6th Form I and two other boys constructed a 6-inch Newtonian telescope, following a talk at the school by an old boy, Ken Pedder. In my third year in the 6th form I won both a Royal scholarship and a State scholarship, but could not hold both. Each was worth £100 per annum. I accepted the Royal because it guaranteed entry to Imperial College at a time when many ex-servicemen were resuming their studies and few places were available to boys straight from school.
I entered Imperial College in October 1946 to study maths. In my five years there I obtained a BSc in Maths (2nd class honours), an MSc in Technical Optics (with a little extra spectroscopy) and a PhD for theoretical research “in the Field of Astrophysics” (I quote from the certificate I received). At about the time I started at IC I applied to join the British Astronomical Association and became a member in November of that year, although it was some time before I summoned up the courage to attend my first meeting.
Towards the end of my second year, with final exams approaching (it was a compressed course, mainly for the benefit of ex-servicemen, but others including me had to do a third year of studies to qualify) I began to consider seriously the possibility of pursuing astronomy as a career. It suddenly occurred to me that a student called Plaskett, who sat behind me in lectures, might be the son of H.H. Plaskett, the current president of the RAS. Student John Plaskett had a soft Canadian accent and came from Oxford. Professor Plaskett came originally from Canada and held a chair currently in Oxford. Yes, I was right, and the upshot was that I was invited to their lovely home for tea on a Saturday afternoon in about April 1948, where I received very kind hospitality and much good advice. Professor Plaskett spoke very highly of the Cambridge Observatories as the place to go for research leading to a PhD; Professor Redman, the new director recently returned from South Africa was “one of the finest observers in the world.” So I wrote to Cambridge and was invited for interview. Professor Redman was also kind and courteous, with Dr Linfoot, the deputy director, hovering in the background. It was a disappointment to receive a letter later from Redman saying he could not find a place for me; there were several Cambridge students who wanted to do research and he had to give them priority. Moreover, I was at least one year younger than most of them. If I cared to apply next year, when the Observatories would be better equipped…
With advice from Professor Levy, the head of the IC maths department, I now decided to do the MSc in optics in my third year, carrying on with my Royal scholarship. In this way I could get an MSc by examination at the same time as qualifying for my BSc, which seemed almost too good to be true. This I did. The head of the optics department, Professor Martin, was aware of my interest in astronomy, and arranged for me to learn something about spectroscopy; I attended some of the lectures to undergraduate physics students given by Professor Pearse and also did some practical work in the spectroscopy lab.
In the course of the year I was given three practical tasks in the optics lab. First, the department had acquired an unwanted meridian instrument from the Cambridge Observatories (no doubt thrown out by Redman!). I think Cambridge retained the main lens, but Professor Martin had jumped at the chance to acquire the rest as a sort of very accurate angle-measuring device for use in the lab. He proposed to mount a smaller telescope in the central cube. The instrument had been dismantled by IC workshop staff and brought back in crates during the summer vacation.
So on my first day in the department I had to find out what all the bits were for, using excellent photographs taken before and during dismantling; then, a little later, design a couple of brick pillars and get them built, buy a brass telescope tube in the Farringdon Road, and generally get the thing working. After it was all erected by workshop staff, with me standing by and helping, I took many reading on the six circle-reading telescopes and detected a cyclical term of some sort as the instrument was rotated in its bearings; this was evidence of a small centring error of the circle relative to the axis of rotation..
My second project was to build, or start to build, a photographic telescope system with a very small f ratio, something like f/0.7. This would have made it fantastically fast as a camera lens. It was to be a Bouwer system, using only spherical surfaces. An early stage would be to grind, polish and test the main mirror. The first step was to order a suitable block of glass, which had to be unusually thick because of the deep hollow I was going to make in it. I placed the order, with Chance’s I think, but it didn’t come for months. Even so, I managed to get through the rough grinding and fine grinding (on an iron tool) and the polishing before my course ended.
The third task was to look at a possible automatic focussing device for cameras. I will skip that as outside the scope of this chapter. It suffices to say I didn’t get very far. In fairness, I think I was over-loaded with work; there was a fairly heavy timetable of lectures, lens design calculations with much arithmetic and use of log tables, some practical work in the lab and the glass workshop, plus the extra spectroscopy lectures and practical work, plus the three personal optics projects, all to be done from October to about May or early June,
At some point in the spring of 1949 I suggested to Martin that I would like to apply again to Cambridge, but he thought the competition would still be fierce and strongly advised me to consider doing a PhD under Dr Whitrow, back in the maths department. Perhaps he felt that progress on my second and third projects was far from spectacular, and hence that theoretical work might suit me better; if so, he was too polite to say so. I went to see Dr Whitrow and was attracted by the idea of doing a PhD in a minimum of two years, rather than the minimum of three at Cambridge, so we agreed I would become his research student. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was to be his first ever research student, but was soon joined by David Randall, who had done a BSc in maths a year after me. Whitrow said he would put my name in for a DSIR research grant of £220 p.a., but was not optimistic – there was a great deal of competition. His prediction proved correct. At his suggestion I wrote to the Ministry of Education and managed to persuade them to extend my Royal scholarship for a fourth year. Perhaps that would not have been possible with a State scholarship – who knows? In my fifth and final year I did get one of the DSIR grants.
I got on very well with Dr Whitrow. He was a cultured man who expected me to write good English. He introduced me to some of the current astronomers; we had lunch with Professor Dingle and, on another occasion with Professor Stratton. At some point, probably in the spring of 1950, I attended about six lectures by Professor George McVittie at Queen Mary College in the Mile End Road; Randall came to the first one or two and then lost interest. These must have been morning lectures, because at the first one he welcomed his two visitors from IC and asked the other students to show us “where the feeding troughs are” at lunchtime.
During the second year of my PhD I attended the Mill Hill Observatory one afternoon/evening each week for a course of instruction over the winter. C. C. L. Gregory was in charge, and the delightful Margaret Burbidge assisted him. There were lectures every week, with spherical trigonometry treated very thoroughly. The practical exercises (when weather permitted) included one evening on a small reversible transit instrument. I and a few other students in the group tried to determine our latitude one evening from a bright star of known declination. I am sorry to say I placed Mill Hill on about the same latitude as Derby; perhaps I had observed the wrong star.
My external examiner for the PhD was Professor William McCrea. Some time in late June or early July of 1951 I had an oral exam with him and Whitrow, which lasted well over an hour. Some of my college friends assumed I had been through a great ordeal, but in fact we had had a very interesting discussion and I can honestly say I found it stimulating and (almost) enjoyable. We talked mostly about Kinematic Relativity, but also about accretion, a field in which McCrea and one of his students, K. N. Dodd, later followed up some of my work with a more refined model. The PhD was awarded on 11th July. Thus ended a very happy and productive two years for me.
In that final year of my PhD I began to consider the jobs market. As I was liable for National Service, was planning to get married, and didn’t fancy 28 shillings a week as a private, I applied for short service commissions in both the RAF and the RN. Both were seeking instructors for navigation. I had no practical experience as a navigator, but the main requirement seemed to be to teach spherical trigonometry, and I felt my knowledge there was at least adequate. I was unsuccessful in both cases, falling at the first hurdle. For the RAF, the interview came first and was very general, mainly about world affairs and trouble spots; I don’t recall being asked anything about navigation. When asked to define the British Empire, I insisted it was now the Commonwealth. Perhaps this did not endear me to the Board, although not fatal by itself. For the navy, a medical came first and I failed that on eyesight.
At about this time, I spotted an advert in Nature for Scientific Officers at the Royal Observatory. This seemed like a very lucky coincidence, so I applied forthwith, with the blessing of Dr Whitrow. I think a good honours degree was required, and that the specification of desirable knowledge included positional astronomy, celestial mechanics, earth’s magnetic field, optics and spectroscopy. I sent for an application form without delay and was soon called to an interview at the Old Admiralty Building in Whitehall.
By some blunder, the candidates and the interviewers did not come together for the whole of the morning. We candidates could hear the boom of voices through the partition. Our assumption was that the timetable was running late and that the first candidate was receiving an awful grilling. When the mistake was discovered, it was nearly noon. The board decided to take an early lunch and start fresh in the afternoon. Much later, I was ushered into the presence of an interview board of three or four people. I recognised the Astronomer Royal, Sir Harold Spencer Jones, and Dr Robert Atkinson, the Chief Assistant. There may have been a scientist from another establishment and someone from Personnel.
I found out afterwards that there were three vacancies, one in the solar department requiring astrophysics and optics, one in the meridian department requiring positional astronomy and one in the Nautical Almanac Office requiring celestial mechanics. Atkinson was in charge of the meridian work, and I suspect I was being considered for that vacancy alone from the moment I entered the room. So Atkinson led the main attack, so to speak. He wasn’t exactly abrasive or rude, but he made no attempt to be friendly either; that wasn’t in his nature. He cross-examined me rather thoroughly, as he was entitled to do, and refused to agree with any weak or superficial answers. He asked me many questions about transit instruments, including one about determining level error. I described a striding level across the pivots, which I had used at the Mill Hill Observatory. Yes, he said, what about a second method? I now know he was thinking of observation into a bowl of mercury at the nadir, but I had never heard of that method, so I said no, I knew of no other method. Atkinson persisted, what about a second method? No. Come on, think about it. In desperation, I suggested that perhaps you could use the transit times of well-known stars with accurate positions, provided collimation error had been eliminated by reversal. Atkinson demolished me. “That assumes you know your clock error, and if you know that why are you observing?” I had no answer. But I have no complaints, particularly in view of the outcome. He probably demolished other candidates with even more vigour.
The advert had mentioned a knowledge of optics as a qualification for the posts advertised and I returned to that subject once or twice. Eventually Atkinson said something like: “Why do you keep on about optics? We’re not interested in that.” In later years I would have replied politely: “Because it’s mentioned in the advert.” But I was too confused by this time by a slightly hostile interview to think straight, so I kept quiet.
After some weeks I had heard nothing, so I rang up a contact number in the Admiralty. A friendly voice told me that I was first reserve, and I might just be lucky because he thought one candidate had declined the offer made to him. A little later I received a letter offering a post, and gratefully accepted.
I started work in the Meridian Department at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich on Monday 20th August 1951. My grade was Temporary Scientific Officer, with a salary of £475 p.a. Various allowances could be added to the starting salary for an honours degree, higher degrees and relevant experience, but all these were of no value to me because there was an age scale, an overall limit on what I could be paid at age 22; the effect was rather vicious in my case and limited me for several years.
For the first few weeks I stayed at a small private hotel in Vanburgh Hill. This had been recommended to me by Andrew Murray, when I made a preliminary visit to the RO, and I certainly found it to be comfortable. It was run by a Commander Dunn and his wife. He had served as catering officer on large ships of the Royal Navy.
The usual pattern was that I travelled up from Luton each Sunday evening and home again on the next Saturday afternoon; the whole civil service worked on Saturday mornings. On weekdays I went out for a hot lunch with some of my new colleagues at the RO and had a hot dinner at the hotel in the evenings.
On 1st September I became officially engaged to Helen Slater. We had had an understanding for a few months, but I had been unwilling to ask her to commit herself until I had a job. She was working in the reference library of Hampstead Public Library. I had little in the way of savings after five years at college. The weekly expenses of living for five nights a week in the hotel and travelling home to Luton for the week-ends were not negligible and now I was hoping to be saving up to get married.
I must say a few words about the Scientific Civil Service (SCS) as background to the work. At that time there were three main ladders. School leavers with good school certificates including science subjects were recruited as Assistants (Scientific), best abbreviated as SA. Their usual outlet was to obtain Higher School Certificates (A levels) or equivalent and then apply to the Civil Service Commission for re-grading as Assistant Experimental Officer (AXO). This route was certainly open, but not always at the first attempt; you needed good exam results, a good report from your establishment and a good interview to succeed. For those who failed, but nevertheless stayed in the SCS, the rank of SSA could be reached eventually, but it tended to be reserved for those over about fifty.
The qualification for AXO was good A levels or a pass degree or equivalent. Promotion to XO might come at 28 for those who did really well; not everyone reached SXO, usually at about 45 or 50; XO was the so-called career grade that everyone could expect to reach.
For SO you needed a good honours degree, usually first class or upper second. Promotion to SSO could be expected at about 28 or 29 and PSO by about 36 on average; this was the career grade. Cross-promotion from AXO to SO or XO to SSO was theoretically possible but very rare in practice; this was one of the unfortunate rigidities of the system. Probably the policy was to keep as many of the vacancies as possible on the SO route for bright young applicants from university, the assumed managers of the future.
It was also assumed that such people would want to flit backwards and forwards easily between the academic world and the SCS. New SOs, including myself, therefore tended to be recruited as temporary or unestablished civil servants, and made to use the Federated Superannuation Scheme for Universities (FSSU). Unfortunately this was a contributory scheme, inferior to the main civil service scheme. I had to contribute 5% of my salary, and the final pension (in inflationary times) was likely to be worse than a final salary scheme. Because of these factors, most people who liked the work and the environment aimed to become established civil servants, via the CSC, after a few years and thus to switch to a pension under "the Acts." The only disadvantage came if you wanted to leave the civil service and then come back; it was known to be almost impossible for established civil servants to get back after resignation.
In my first year or two I was thoroughly confused by the terminology: temporary, on probation, unestablished, established. Worse, I think people like Mr Symms were still grappling with the new system. It took me four years to become established, at which point I was presented with a bill for my FSSU contributions for the fifth year, which “they” had chosen to pay in advance because of some discount. Bang went five per cent of a year’s salary because of their mistake. True, on retirement I would have five years rather than four of paid-up policies; but they would be worth very little. I forget the fine detail, but was probably allowed to continue to pay 5% each month over my fifth year. Much later, I was able to "buy back" the four years of unestablished service, but my contributions (and the government's) to the FSSU endowment policies with Legal and General were lost. No doubt the insurance companies did well out of this kind of early surrender.
It turned out that there was very little movement between the SCS and the academic world, so the FSSU arrangement was abandoned a few years later. In fairness, it must be said that people at Chief Assistant level or above such as Gold, Eggen, Graham Smith and Margaret Burbidge, did move about a good deal, and that the underlying aim of pension portability was ahead of its time.
In pre-war days, the RO had had a staff structure of its own. Senior Wranglers from Cambridge came straight in as one of two Chief Assistants, did a stint of several years at Greenwich and then went to the Cape as His Majesty's Astronomer or to Edinburgh as AR for Scotland; the former had the higher status. The more successful would eventually return to the RO as Astronomer Royal. Good experienced academics, not of the Senior Wrangler class, could come in as Assistants; this was roughly equivalent to direct recruitment as PSO. Dr Hunter (of Imperial College) was an example. Below this level were locally-recruited staff, non-graduates who had mainly started as boy computers. Only a proportion of the latter could expect to be offered a permanent position as Junior Assistant (junior grade) and then win through to Junior Assistant (senior grade).
In 1948–49 a major re-grading exercise took place to assimilate the staff into the SCS structure. The Astronomer Royal was graded as CSO B, I believe, because full CSO was reserved for the heads of very large research establishments and chief scientists in the London ministries; there was nothing above this grade. However, the status of the Astronomer Royal was unique, and the grade tended to be called AR. The one Chief Assistant in post at that date, and the Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac Office, became SPSOs.
I was told that a re-grading proposal was circulated, showing the head of the Meridian Department (Cullen) as SXO, whereas the heads of other departments (Time, Magnetic/Meteorological, Astrophysics) were shown as PSOs. This may have been a slur on his abilities, or based on the apparently routine nature of positional astronomy compared with other work. Anyway, he scrawled, "This is an insult" in large letters on the document and sent it on its way. Nobody in the hierarchy discussed the matter with him, and he said nothing to them. When the final grades appeared, he was a PSO.
At the time I joined, Sir Harold Spencer Jones was the AR and was already at Herstmonceux with the Solar Department, the Magnetic and Meteorological Department and the Chronometer Department. Donald Sadler, Superintendent of the NAO, was also there with his staff, in temporary buildings. Atkinson, the only Chief Assistant, had remained at Greenwich, in charge of the staff there. There was a vacancy for another chief assistant, previously filled by Dr Hulme. He had recently gone to a post in New Zealand, where he later achieved unwelcome publicity: his daughter, with a girl friend, murdered the friend’s mother. Assisting Atkinson with the administrative work at Greenwich were two women. Mrs Nicholls, plump and motherly in a white lab coat, acted as his secretary and general dogsbody. She it was who collected our contributions to the tea club each month. Vera Bennett, younger and thinner, spent most of her day typing.
Most of the Time Department were at Abinger, under Humphry Smith, but there was a small group at Greenwich consisting of Cecil Harris (heavily affected by rheumatoid arthritis), Joy Penny and Peter Corben (good on electronics). They may have had an SA some of the time. Harris, a small grey-haired man, hobbled around with one or two sticks and was cheerful with everyone. There was another Harris (R. J., called Johnny, I think) working in the Astrophysics Department. He eventually went to Australia and became head of the Perth Observatory, but died comparatively young. Many, many years later I met his father, who had worked at GCHQ. Cecil Harris lived in an old house in Greenwich. Symms, the head of the Meridian Department, said he was religious and this had helped him cope with the pain. Dr Wellgate, an SSO, worked at Abinger under Smith, but specialising in electronics; part of his job was to keep the crystal clocks running in their temperature-controlled ovens. Tommy Tucker, regarded by Symms as very bright, was also there.
The theoretical lunch party consisted of George Wells, Andrew Murray, Joy Penny, Aled Jones, Peter Corben and myself, but because of night observing duties and the resulting afternoon off, our numbers were often depleted. We went to the local pub, The Duke of Gloucester in Greenwich, and had a proper sit-down meal served by a waitress (Betty) in uniform. There was an understanding with her that we clubbed together to provide a tip on Fridays, but no other days.
After lunch we would wander into the shopping area, gaze into the extensive windows of Mr H Pockett, the local pawnbroker, and agree nearly every day that he must be a fence handling stolen property, then wait outside the Express Dairy for Aled to buy a bakewell tart and/or a youghourt from "Edie in the E.D." Yoghourts were extremely sour in those days, and were sometime eaten with brown sugar.
George Wells was a gentle and good-humoured bachelor in his fifties, balding through a fringe of white hair and slightly plump, a sort of kind uncle with a fund of good stories. By no means a leader of men, or a great scientist, quiet George (XO) was nevertheless in charge of lunch. He it was who handed our weekly tip to the waitress with impeccable thanks. He it was who knew the publican and was trusted as a regular. On almost my first visit, the publican was away in hospital. I asked our waitress for a brown ale and was invited to go behind the bar, help myself and leave the money by the till. This was all very fine, but I didn't know where the bottles were kept or how to open them or what to pay. I think another barman must have appeared in the nick of time.
George was also known to many of the locals and used to be teased unmercifully because he was known to be something to do with the weather. He did indeed work in the Magnetic and Meteorological department and had been left behind at Greenwich when most of his department moved to Herstmonceux so that daily observations of temperature, pressure, sunshine and so on could be taken in parallel over some months or years.
"What have you done with the sun today, George?" the local wags would call out as we walked down to the pub. George would make some suitably humorous reply, but actually rather disliked this daily ordeal.
Joy Penny worked in the Time Department and was a single woman, probably in her early thirties and graded then as AXO (Temporary). She chattered and laughed a good deal, but was forthright when she wanted to be and was active in the union, IPCS. She was old enough to have worked on the time signals during the war, when they were provided from the Royal Observatory at Edinburgh.
Aled Jones was a young Welshman graded as SA, the most junior grade in the SCS. He lived in cheap digs that sounded dreadful and could not afford to go home to North Wales more than a few times a year. But he was extremely good at his job, full of fun and energy, and helpful to others including myself. He came from Penryndeudreth in North Wales. He was doing evening classes to get the qualifications necessary to become an AXO.
Peter Corben was a young man of about my own age with fair hair and a pleasant smile. He usually walked about the RO in a white lab coat, as we all did at times.
Andrew Murray was an Oxford graduate in maths who had then done his national service in the army, had served in Egypt and had risen to the rank of Captain or Major - rather unusual for anyone doing National Service. He had then taken a job as an AXO at the RO because his parents lived at Eastbourne and he liked that part of the country; so he was waiting for the move of the RO to Herstmonceux. We got on well together and he was very helpful to me in the early days; later we tended to find ourselves doing separate tasks. Andrew claimed that many mathematical problems could be tackled through the use of e to the power i theta, a suggestion that caused some innocent merriment and was eventually embroidered on to an apron made for him by Joy Penny, when he and Peter Corben started to share a flat.
My father, sister Joan and I were now all working in London (in the City, West End and Greenwich respectively) and my mother had been attending some evening classes in Westminster. My parents therefore decided to move to London and bought a house in Blackheath at 6 Highmore Road, very close to one boundary wall of Greenwich Park. They took over the keys on 29th September 1951 and I thankfully left the hotel for the comfort of home. Mother was very much the instigator of the move. She argued, with considerable justification, that we could save money and a great deal of travelling time if we lived in London.
The house at 6 Highmore Road was an oldish one, with large rooms. It had previously been owned by Mr P J Melotte, a member of the RO staff who had been evacuated to Abinger and was now retired, but I think there must have been another owner after him. We did once receive a food parcel for him sent from South Africa and I was able to get his correct current address from the RO. There were four bedrooms on the first floor and a fifth up in the attic. It was semi-detached, with a compact back garden which ended in a wall of old yellow bricks.
I was assigned to the Meridian Department without any choice in the matter, but I had no objection. Dr George Wilkins joined the Nautical Almanac Office at Herstmonceux a few weeks after I started, also as an SO (but established rather than temporary), and Patrick Wayman came from Cambridge a few months later to join the Solar Department at Herstmonceux as a temporary SO. Pat had been allowed to stay on at Cambridge to finish his PhD. In each case we were put into Departments where there would be a PSO vacancy within ten years.
On arrival I knew a very small amount about meridian astronomy, including terminology such as collimation error, but no more than any new recruit would pick up in a couple of days. Leonard Stanley Theodore Symms had become Head of the Meridian Department at the start of the year, with promotion to PSO (from SXO, I think), on the retirement of Mr R. Cullen. I didn't really appreciate, when I arrived, that he was so newly promoted. Mr Cullen, by all accounts, had been something of a disciplinarian who had come to work each day with a bowler hat jammed on his head. Symms was much more relaxed, very pleasant on the whole and modern in outlook. Nevertheless, he was very definitely in charge and could burst into wrath on occasions.
We worked in one large room with windows on three sides, looking out over Greenwich Park. In winter the room was heated by a blast of hot air coming out of a grill at one end and (sometimes) a coal fire at the other. The temperature had to drop below some magic figure (sixty degrees F?) before a fire was allowed, as fuel was in short supply. On such days, Arthur Westcott, the head of the small workshops, would be invited up from the basement below to read the thermometer. If it was showing 61 degrees, a little alcohol was applied to the bulb just before he arrived to reduce the reading! Provided he was convinced, he ordered one of the labourers to lay and light the fire. A fire was popular, the ducted hot air very unpopular; it was said to contain boiler fumes and to cause chest complaints. At my end of the room there was no real problem, but I daresay the ducts were full of the dust of ages and Aled, not by nature a complainer, certainly disliked the system.
Hanging on the wall above the duct was a large picture frame carrying a graph of latitude variation at Greenwich. It was explained to me in my first few days that the latitude of Greenwich could vary by about thirty feet. This was complete news to me; I was surprised in the sense that I had never seen it mentioned in any textbook. Why hadn’t I been told?
The standard "desk" for junior staff was a large and rectangular table with two drawers at each end. Two people could sit at the ends, with any common books they needed placed in book-ends at the midpoint. The spare half of Murray's table (I think he sat to one side) was sometimes used for measuring the chronograph tapes. These desks were in dark brown wood and red or brown rexine, and most people had windsor armchairs. Symms was having furniture renovated, ready for the move to Herstmonceux, so every so often a couple of smart tables would re-appear and two shabby ones would be sent off to the French polishers. On my starting day there was a spare desk available, a rather elegant small writing desk with an upright chair and padded seat. I was very happy with these and used them for the whole of my six years with the observatory.
The staff of the department were organised into two separate teams on the two sides of the central walk, to reduce the time/right ascension measurements and the zenith distances (declination measurements) respectively, made on the Airy Transit Circle. I worked in the R.A. team, which was supervised by Symms; he applied final checks and quality inspections, but did not do any of the original measurements on the timing records, or the arithmetic. Kenneth Blackwell supervised the ZD work and was directly involved in it. Blackwell was an experimental officer, who nevertheless had Frank Jeffries, an SXO, working for him.
Miss Jeffries was Frank's niece, rather younger than him, a plump spinster with a sharp tongue. She was graded as Senior Assistant Scientific after years of work in the RO and was fairly bitter about life in general, probably because of her rather poor pay and status. She longed for the old days, when men wore wing collars and courtesy reigned. Frank's wife would meet him out of work sometimes and we could see her waiting, out in the park.
Frank had a responsibility for the dark-room at Greenwich and was sometimes referred to, rather misleadingly, as the official photographer. His main job was to make up fresh solutions of developer and fixer when they were needed, and no doubt to order fresh supplies of chemicals. He disappeared from our office for long periods and it was generally assumed that he was not exactly killing himself with over-work; watching a solution cool is not arduous. However, no one dared to criticise him in Miss Jeffries’ presence. He was within a year or so of retirement after years of faithful service, and a thoroughly likeable man, so Symms turned a blind eye to his frequent absences from the office.
The rather irascible Dr Atkinson probably also had his suspicions about Frank, and was critical of him as well as of everybody else. On Frank's last day at work, Atkinson asked him to prepare a complete inventory of his chemicals and the equipment in the dark room. "Oh no, it's too late now," said Frank quietly. "If you'd asked me earlier, I might have done it." He recounted this story to us with some pleasure as he emptied his desk. I don't recall any ceremony or speeches. Miss Jeffries seemed rather lost without him.
Completing the ZD team was an SA, Joyce Buchan. She was always addressed as Miss Buchan, pronounced Bew-can at her insistence. A pleasant and competent girl, shortish with a mass of fair hair, she adorned the office and could be relied on to smile sweetly at the jokes and stories that we all shared, mainly recounted by Symms.
The RA team was myself, Murray and Aled Jones, with a vacancy for another SA. This vacancy was filled for a short time by a very careless youth, who wrote very badly and untidily, then by a taller and clumsy boy (name forgotten). I think both disappeared, to our relief, when they reached eighteen and were called up. Then came Gilbert Satterthwaite, who stayed much longer; he suffered a bit from asthma and was probably exempt for that reason from National Service. He stood out from others because he was interested in astronomy, belonged to the BAA and knew some of the personalities such as Patrick Moore.
Miss Buchan resigned and was replaced by Miss Slater, then she was replaced by Miss Virginia Papworth appeared, also as an SA; I think she helped on both the RAs and ZDs at different times. Her mother and step-father lived near Tunbridge Wells and ran a business of hiring out marquees. She was another of those who had joined at Greenwich in anticipation of the move to Herstmonceux.
Symms had come up the hard way, was not a graduate, and yet had won through to become a PSO and head of the Meridian Department. In the First Word War he had volunteered when he was seventeen, lied about his age and joined the Royal Field Artillery, which used horses to pull the gun limbers. The scenes in the trenches had left an indelible impression on his mind. There is an obituary by Richard Woolley in Q. J. RAS, Sept. 1978, p.356.
Between the wars, Symms told us, he had been a worrier, and had suffered from stomach ulcers for a while. During the Second World War he and his family had been evacuated to Edinburgh, so that he could run the time service from the Royal Observatory there. He had worked under Professor Greaves (the observatory is associated with the University), who had a phobia about the fire risk from smoking; on entering a communal office, Greaves would sometimes sniff at the wastepaper baskets, to see if anyone was putting cigarette ends in them.
But he had his good points: when Symms arrived in Edinburgh, with his family still in London, he was told to go out and find accommodation for them and not to report back for work until the problem was settled. The process took a couple of days. Later, some of his furniture was transported to Edinburgh by rail. It was shunted all over the country in the process and was heavily damaged. Symms was not a great admirer of the railways after that and strongly advised us all, when the time came to move to Herstmonceux, not to use them to move furniture.
At Edinburgh, he and Joy Penny applied some science to the time signals and eventually produced impressive papers on the subject. They plotted very long graphs of clock drift over periods of months, gumming sheets of graph paper together. Ten feet of these might be unrolled on the floor to be studied with Greaves. The time delay involved in sending the Six Pips by landline to Rugby (or elsewhere), for radio transmission, was calibrated out by sending a few pips there and back, just before the vital time, and halving the total travel time. I believe this calibration process was known as sending a chaser, an odd term when the calibration signal had to be sent before the official time signal. Occasionally the land line would be switched at the last moment by the Post Office, thus ruining the calibration.
Some of the work was published in Monthly Notices of the RAS after the war (Greaves and Symms, vol. 103, p.196; Symms and Penny, vol. 106, p.390). Greaves said at some stage, "If I'd known you were going to do all this work, I would have registered both of you for PhDs."
By the time I knew him, Symms was clearly enjoying life. He ate an occasional sandwich and drank an occasional glass of milk in working hours to keep something in his stomach, but he was in good health and with a zest for life. He did advise us not to swallow anything that was too hot to hold in the mouth. He loved his car and the chance to get out and see the countryside, or to work in hot sunshine in his garden, stripped to the waist. He lived with his wife and two daughters in a house on Shooters Hill.
One daughter worked as a government driver in a car pool in Westminster. One pompous minister got into her car at the House of Commons and said "Number Ten" without a please. So she said "Number Ten where?", just to deflate him. Symms told this story with a chuckle. The other daughter was working for the Foreign Office in a junior clerical capacity when she had a mental breakdown of some sort. It arose because she made a mistake one day; she nearly sent out documents intended for our ambassadors in various other countries to their ambassadors here. Fortunately the mistake was spotted by a more senior officer, who ticked her off and said, "Are you trying to start a war or something?" This insensitive remark preyed on her mind and she became mentally ill. Symms did not chuckle when he commented on what he regarded as the stupidity of her superior.
It was the familiar jokes that Symms liked best. A hacking cough in the office usually brought out the saying, "It wasn't the cough that carried him off, so much as the coffin they carried him off in." If somebody knocked something off a desk by accident, he would mutter "Naughty table." This was a dig at Blackwell, who was inclined to blame other people, or inanimate objects, for things that happened to him. At the end of a long calculation, or if an astronomical quantity was quoted with great accuracy, he and we would say: "The last figure may be right, but the first one certainly isn't." This was a repeat of a famous remark made by Dr John Jackson, a canny Scot, at an RAS meeting, when the period of a double star was quoted to several decimal places. Symms was also scathing about workshop staff who referred to something they had made as being "spot on", instead of quoting tolerances, e.g. "this is flat to a thousandth of an inch."
Andrew Murray and I would sometimes question the value of the observations that were being made with the Airy Transit Circle. Were they published and forgotten? Who actually used our observations of the positions of the sun, moon and planets, which could be predicted by the NAO for the next umpteen years more accurately than we could observe them? One day Symms suggested that part of the answer was "the frequency standards people" at NPL, who were trying to build better and better clocks and frequency standards from various forms of vibrating crystals. They needed accurate time signals from the Time Department, which in turn depended on the accurate star positions determined in a fundamental frame of reference, relative the First Point of Aries, by us. You couldn't find the First Point of Aries, where the celestial equator intersected the ecliptic, without observing the sun etc. against a framework of stars.
Murray and I countered that the crystal clocks were already a great deal better than our observations, but Symms argued that our observations could correct long 'drifts' in clock rate. What he said was probably right, but we pulled his leg from time to time about all the hard work we were doing for "the frequency standards people" and how pleased they would be; Symms chuckled away and took it in good part, not sorry to have staff who would ask a few awkward questions.
He was in fact a very good scientist, with a real feel for everyday science and a deep understanding of his subject. Earlier in life he had studied in evening classes and had reached, I think, BSc Inter level. In the course of these studies he had been forced to do English, and told us how he had never understood Shakespeare at school, but had suddenly seen, as an adult, what "Julius Caesar" was all about. "The tears streamed down my face," he said.
Symms initiated an investigation on the strange behaviour of the Cooke Reversible Transit Circle with temperature changes; I will come to this in the next chapter. He also conducted experiments in the office to see how long small bulbs of the bicycle-bulb sort would last at various voltage levels. These "pea-lamps" as he called them, were going to be used on the Cooke RTC when it was moved to Herstmonceux, and high reliability was important. The experiments showed that 3-volt bulbs supplied at 2.9 volts (i.e. under-run) would last almost indefinitely, whereas they burned out very rapidly at 3.1 volts (over-run). So it was clearly important to protect the bulbs in some way from voltage spikes or surges.
Another subject for investigation (rather later) was oils. Oil was used on telescope bearings partly to reduce friction and partly to keep rust at bay. We expected a more salty atmosphere at Herstmonceux than at Greenwich. You could buy thin oils or thick oils, mineral oils or vegetable oils. So Symms asked the head of the chronometer workshops at Herstmonceux, David Evans, to put out strips of metal nailed to boards for weathering, treating different strips in different ways. I forget the result, but one form of oil proved greatly superior to the other in protecting against rust.
Symms also had discussions with the Ordnance Survey people about establishing a good N-S reference line for maps of Britain. The OS people, with Alan Cook (later Sir Alan) as an adviser, reckoned they knew the shape of Britain extremely accurately, but that it could be slightly slewed in angle relative to true North. As a result of these discussions, Symms came up with two ideas. One was that we might be able to resume observations on an old azimuth mark some miles north of Greenwich, in Epping Forest. This was a brick pillar surmounted by a vertical "assegai" (spear). The mark had been invisible for years, partly because of the trees but mainly because of the murk. If the OS could place a light on top of the pillar for a few weeks, we would determine the azimuth of the line from there to Greenwich with high accuracy.
The other point that he made, and it was a courageous thing to say, was that the OS could probably determine the longitude of Herstmonceux better than we could. This statement was close to sacrilege; we were the custodians of the prime meridian through Greenwich and also of the Six Pips. But Symms had a good technical reason for his suggestion: any gravity anomaly at either Greenwich or Herstmonceux would throw out our determination of the vertical and hence our timing of the transit of stars across a great circle drawn through the zenith.
Murray and I browsed through "Geodesy" by Brigadier Bomford. I copied out a chunk from Encyclopedia Britannica about Laplace stations, which are fundamental points in a survey whose positions are determined astronomically as well as by triangulation, and where the N-S line is also determined; the term eventually appeared in the AR's annual report for 1955. We listened to the discussions between Symms and Cook about gravity surveys, and whether you could calculate the deflection of the vertical at Greenwich or Herstmonceux from gravity surveys over the UK and the North Sea. Cook had access to surveys made from submarines in the North Sea, using very sensitive gravity meters. These measured variations in the intensity of the gravitational force, from which deflections could be deduced by an application of Stokes'(?) theorem.
We on the RO side didn't pretend to understand the details, nor did we have the facilities to undertake the analysis, but Symms had the honesty and open-mindedness to recognise that the OS knew more than we did, and could help us. His attitude helped to establish very friendly relations with Cook and his team. I would guess that Atkinson and Spencer Jones were a bit taken aback initially, but came to appreciate what he was doing.
Yet another idea he pursued was a method of recording time events accurately. We used long paper tapes with red ink traces on them, with a kick in the trace for clock ticks and for moments of transit. Symms persuaded the electronics group at Abinger to experiment with photographing a rotating disk. They in fact mounted a circular protractor on the shaft of an electric motor and photographed it with a flashing light. The experiment showed that the scheme was entirely feasible: the rotation of the motor was sufficiently regular, the flash sufficiently brief but bright, to give a clear sharp image from which the time of the flash could be determined to high accuracy, probably one hundredth of a second or better.
In between the technical discussions, Symms was never averse to a good gossip about the old days. He would tell us about the characters of the past, about the fine hockey team that the RO had fielded for many years (he and Blackwell had played in it), about his brief experience in outside industry as a sort of field mathematician to a cable company, but most of all about the First World War. On a dull afternoon it was easy to start him talking. He knew we egged him on, but said it was important we should know what it was like in the desolation of the mud and the shell holes. He knew Luton very slightly, having been stationed near Biscot Mill for a short time when there really was a windmill there.
Two favourite stories from France were about the time he and his mates had to dispose of a dead horse and the time he had to attend an identity parade over a rape case. The horse was killed in a collision with a train when they were pulling a gun limber at the gallop. They tried to bury it in accordance with army regulations, but the ground was hard. The horse being very large, they hacked at it in an attempt to cut off the neck and legs so that they could dig a smaller hole, but without much success. So they did a deal with a local butcher, who was quite willing to add a bit of horsemeat to his stock. He really wanted the carcass delivered quietly to his back door after dark, but because of language difficulties the lads didn't understand this. They dragged the carcass behind their limber to the shop in broad daylight, in full view of various customers. It was apparently a revolting sight, having been hit by a train, attacked with an axe and dragged through the dust. "You should have seen that butcher's face!" said Symms, the chuckles turning into a belly laugh.
A trooper suspected of rape was to be put up in an identity parade. He was entitled to be one of a number of soldiers of about the right height and appearance, dressed in the same uniform. Symms happened to fit the specification and was ordered to attend. He reckoned that he and his fellows in the line were all a bit nervous that the woman might point to one of them. The suspect was marched in and allowed to pick his own spot, somewhere in the line. Then the woman making the charge appeared. The surprise to Symms was that she was a very old woman. Without hesitation, she went straight up to the suspect and began to attack him, trying to scratch his eyes out. "Not much doubt there," said Symms. His only worry about justice was that he (Symms) didn't look much like the guilty man.
Not long after I joined the RO, Symms asked me a question by means of a little story. A bright young mathematician joined a firm making hosepipe nozzles and tried to apply his maths to improving the design. One of the oldest employees was the usual designer, and he did it from years of experience. One day they had a competition to see whose nozzle was the best. Who do you think won?
I thought perhaps I was being got at as the new graduate and gave my answer with a sort of groan: “I suppose you will say the old chap.” But Symms had a more subtle answer, one that conveyed a quite different and more interesting message: he said they shouldn't have been competing, they should have been cooperating.
Symms reckoned that the human fingertips, and particularly the thumbnail, are very sensitive instruments. A moving thumbnail can easily detect the edge of a very thin cigarette paper. He also believed that the best way to clean a lens was with a well-boiled linen handkerchief. He agreed with the idea of brushing off lumps of grit first with a camel-hair brush, he agreed that meths might be needed to remove grease, but not meths with cotton wool. Cotton wool he regarded as lumpy and scratchy and prone to leave stray hairs behind. I could see nothing wrong with his reasoning.
There was a BBC outside radio broadcast from the RO one night, and Symms (as the senior man) was chosen to give a running commentary as a star crossed the field of view of the Airy Transit Circle. He rehearsed with the BBC people, who were twitchy because there were patches of cloud drifting across the sky. Why worry? said Symms; I know from the clock just when Delta Ophiuci ought to enter the field of view and I can give a commentary, cloud or not. So that is what happened; the relevant patch of sky was cloudy at the vital time, Symms watched the clock and said with simulated excitement that the star had entered the field of view, was nearly up to wire one, and so on.
This incident may have happened before I joined the RO, but I heard much about it. Murray said this incident destroyed his faith in all outside broadcasts: perhaps the test matches weren't being played at all. We often pulled Symms' leg about Delta Ophiuci, which was thereafter referred to as the star that can be seen through thick cloud. And so exciting.
The Prime Meridian is marked on the ground for tourists, who like to stand with one foot in the eastern hemisphere and one in the western. One day an advertising agency came, with permission, to photograph their models in a variety of dresses, astride the meridian in our courtyard. Reports reaching us in the office said that each girl had brought one vanity box and that they were changing in all sorts of odd corners; but we were not encouraged to leave the office and spoil the photographs.
I will now jump forward slightly, from my initial introduction to Greenwich to marriage. Helen and I were married on 14th February 1953 at St Mary's Church, Caledonian Road, Islington. We then spent our honeymoon in Edinburgh, on the assumption that it was an elegant and civilized city with theatres, music concerts and plenty of restaurants. And so it proved to be. I think we stayed at the Royal Hotel on Princes Street, but the hotel no longer seems to exist.
We lived initially in a part of my parents' house. My bedroom became our bedroom and we used the larger bedroom behind as a sitting room and kitchen. My parents paid for a large pedestal washbasin and a cooker point to be installed. I had bought two oak bookcases from Heal's to match Helen's two, and one fireside chair to match (as closely as possible) Helen's fireside chair. My colleagues clubbed together for a wedding present and I asked for an eight-day dining room clock. Blackwell insisted that I should buy this at Camerer Cuss, a large shop in the middle of London somewhere, because they gave a good discount to IPCS members. He also said, and Symms agreed, that I should insist they install it on my mantelpiece and level it to get an even beat. So I went up to the shop in question, chose my clock and asked if they could deliver it "because I was not going home immediately but have other calls to make." The shop agreed, a young mechanic was summoned from the back and he asked me how to get there. I felt a bit guilty about asking him to catch the train out to Maze Hill, carrying my clock, but he did it and I went off for a coffee somewhere, anxious not to catch the same train. He found the right house and apparently pronounced our mantelpiece to be level.
Helen brought her electric kettle and Baby Belling cooker with her, and we bought a rather posh Electrolux cylinder vacuum cleaner. We went into an electrical shop at the top of Westcombe Hill intending to buy a simpler and cheaper upright Hoover, but a good salesman convinced us that a cylinder model, with its assorted fittings, was a much better proposition.
There was problem over voltage. The supply in the Greenwich area was at 220 volts, whereas almost everywhere else in the country was on 240 volts. Helen assumed that she would have to have her equipment converted for Greenwich and then converted back again when we moved to Sussex later. I said that things would simply cook and boil more slowly at Greenwich. Before we were married, we did a timed test on boiling a measured quantity of water in her electric kettle at both places and my prediction of the increase in time proved rather accurate (to her surprise!). I also thought about the high, medium and low settings on her oven and said over the phone one day that only one element out of two was in use on medium. My reasoning was that you needed a low resistance to get a high V squared over r, so the two elements would be used in parallel for high heat and in series for low heat. The intermediate case had to be one element on its own. She went to have a look, found I was right, and was again surprised.
We consulted her cousin Jan, a professional electrician, about the options open to us. He said that a professional would simply cut off part of each element to get the same heating on a lower voltage. Then, unfortunately, we would have to have new elements when we moved to the higher voltage again because you couldn't put the bits of wire back. My attitude was that I didn't mind whether the kettle took ten minutes or twelve to boil. Helen, pleased that it boiled at all, eventually agreed, so we did nothing and left the kettle and the cooker untouched. But we did buy our vacuum cleaner to suit the local voltage.
When we had everything organised, I invited several of my colleagues round for evening coffee. Symms, Blackwell and Aled Jones certainly came, and I think Andrew Murray also.
My main day-time work at Greenwich was on the reduction of the RA observations made with the Airy Transit Circle. This was a fairly routine arithmetical task. It is easier if I describe the observing routine first. Typically, an observer on any of the telescopes did two or three night duties a week, of up to three hours, and had some time off by day to compensate. Thus, a duty on Sunday night gave you Monday afternoon off and a duty on Thursday night gave you Friday afternoon off, but a duty on Friday or Saturday night produced no such reward; the argument was that you could catch up on your sleep over the week-end.
This system of roughly two afternoons for three duties was reckoned to be fair, because complete cloud cover sometimes made it unnecessary to come in for a duty. However, you had to be at home watching the sky, not at a distant dance or theatre. For a duty performed after midnight you could sleep late the next morning and come in at (say) ten a.m. but not much later, as well as taking the afternoon off.
To be on duty from two a.m. to five a.m. was about the worst; if you went to bed early, you had to set the alarm for not much after one a.m. If it was then cloudy, you could re-set the alarm for a little later and try to sleep. I soon found it was actually easier to go in, grab a few star observations through gaps in the clouds and pack up early if the cloud cover increased, than stay at home watching the sky and agonising over the decision. After a full duty you were back in bed a little before six, trying to ignore the milkman and other street noises but not succeeding. Nearly as bad was to have to start a duty at five in the morning; you were up at four and home in time for breakfast, with no chance of any sleep afterwards.
This irregular work pattern never really suited me, and it became worse after marriage. When Helen was expecting David, she needed my help to go out and do the shopping with her on my free afternoons, when in theory I should have been making up lost sleep. After David was born, we had to cope with night feeds for several weeks and even when the interval lengthened, there were months when we had to be awake by six in the morning.
Within a few weeks of my arrival, I was allowed to become a trainee observer on the Airy Transit Circle. I was issued with an alarm clock, a torch, and a key to Greenwich Park gates. I already had a key to the door in the high fence surrounding the main RO compound. Symms arranged for me to be paid observing allowance, typically five shillings a week, while I was learning. This was a revolutionary idea, approved of and campaigned for by the local branch of the union, namely the Association of Astronomers within the Institution of Professional Civil Servants, but it caused some resentment among older staff. The old system had been that you had to achieve a certificate of competence, by practising in your own time, before you could become an observer and be paid that little extra. Indeed, the payment was seen as being for a special skill, similar to that for a typist who reaches a certain speed, or a driver who learns to drive heavy goods vehicles. The certificate was equivalent to a driving licence. I myself could see the logic.
Symms would have none of this. He thought it right for me to be paid for the extra work and broken evenings, whatever my level of competence, and he managed to persuade Atkinson of this. I had not asked for any privilege, but some regrets among the traditionalists became apparent and there was a little muttering. They saw me as not only the first SO ever employed by the RO, but as a sort of privileged graduate who had asked for, and received, a special dispensation. The muttering died down when new recruits in more junior grades were treated in exactly the same way. This episode did teach me that envy is a powerful and not always logical force.
The telescope itself, in use for a hundred years, had a tarnished objective so thin at the edges that it could not be cleaned any more. Its elevation setting was read through six micrometers set at 60 degrees intervals round a divided circle attached to the telescope; unfortunately, many of the divisions on the circle had been worn away by continual cleaning and others were very faint.
Our aim during a typical duty was to observe a minimum of six clock stars (near the equator) and four azimuth stars (near the pole), to determine clock error and azimuth error respectively, and the moon or any planets that transited at about the same time. We observed the zenith distance of each star as well as the time of transit; the ZD was measured from the elevation setting of the telescope, plus the micrometer position of the horizontal wire in the field of view. The micrometer settings were recorded at the moments when the object passed several fixed vertical wires, by pricking holes on to a strip of paper round the micrometer head. The motion of the Sun in declination as it crossed the field of view was clearly visible in the changing micrometer reading.
Two limbs of the moon (one vertical and one horizontal) were generally illuminated and observed; we also tried to use a small crater, Mosting A, so that we could link the limbs together. For example, at one part of the month we might be able to observe 1L, NL and Mosting A, while later on we could get Mosting A, SL and 2L. Unfortunately it was difficult to recognise one small crater from many others. Our mnemonic was that it was “the drip under the nose of the old man in the moon.” But changes of phase brought changes of appearance; I doubt if I found a likely crater more than 50% of the time, and 50% of those turned out to be wrong when the observations were reduced, so my overall success rate was not more than 25%.
Observations from the fixed north collimator on the south collimator, and from the telescope on both collimators, told us something about collimation error. We also made observations into a bowl of mercury, with the telescope vertical, in order to determine level error, using the pricker again and bringing the horizontal wire up on each side of its image three times; a good observer ended up with six pricks in the same pattern as a six on a domino or die. An unexpected problem occurred after my marriage in February 1953: I began wearing a wedding ring and any speck of mercury that got on to my ring finger would form an amalgam with the gold, turning its shine to dull silver. Helen's father had to have the ring dealt with for me by Laporte's (the chemical company where he was a director) on a couple of occasions. I resolved to put the ring in my pocket when I was observing, but didn't always remember.
In general, our observing periods were centred around the times of transit of the moon and/or one or two planets. We also observed the sun at transit at midday, Monday to Saturday, and also on Sundays near the equinoxes. For the Sun, we tried to observe the time of transit of the first limb, the ZD just before transit of (say) the North limb, the ZD just after transit of the South Limb and the time of transit of the second limb. This was hectic for the observer on duty, even with an assistant to read the circle settings for the elevation angle of the telescope, and even more hectic on a Sunday without an assistant.
On a winter week-day, two observers walked up to the Airy telescope a few minutes before transit. While summer time was in force, our lunch party rarely went out to lunch until after the transit, which could occur well after 1 p.m. In effect, we often had a team of three (Aled, Andrew and myself) doing the work of two people. George and Joy, not recognised as Airy observers, usually acted as spectators, although they sometime lent a hand if one of the regulars was absent.
Each observer had a notebook with his initials in large letters on the label; I was PG and Colin Andrew Murray chose to be AM. We usually addressed one another in the same way: I could be PG to Aled where Phillip would have seemed (in those times) too familiar and Dr Gething too formal. To record that you had observed the first limb of the sun, you noted the symbol for the sun, followed by 1L. This looked very much like "oil", so the observer who had observed both vertical limbs would call out to his assistant "Oil and Toil". The limbs were always shimmering in the field of view, but if conditions were exceptionally bad, usually on a very hot day, and it was almost impossible to made a good tangent to what should be a circular arc, we were entitled to note that the limb was "boiling". Various combinations of oil, toil and boil were therefore called out to the person with the notebook.
In the office, phrases such as “AM, could you pass me that book please,” or “Come off it, KB” when Kenneth Blackwell was being more argumentative than usual, were heard frequently. Symms, however, was addressed by most of us as Mr Symms. The one exception was Blackwell, who tended to say Symms rather rudely sometimes, as in “I don't agree with you, Symms.”
Every Monday, the observer on duty had to go through a ritual of raising the Airy Transit Circle out of its bearings, with the help of a large and dictatorial labourer, Jack Johnson. In his blue overall, with well-rounded belly, Johnson was physically strong, outspoken and no respecter of persons. If you took his sarcastic comments in good part he became more pleasant as you got to know him.
He had been called up from the RO during the war and had risen to be a sergeant major; Symms always said he was daft to come back as a labourer and could have made a good career in the army. The other labourer was Arthur, from Ascension Island (?); this was his surname. He had a slightly brown skin, was younger and thinner than Johnson and was very conscientious in sweeping up and doing other odd jobs about the site. He was also cheerful and helpful. Everyone liked Arthur, but I suspect his prospects as an unskilled man were nil.
There were two reasons for raising the telescope. One was to allow Johnson to clean off the old oil from the bearings and apply new, clean oil. The other was to allow the observer to make observations of one collimator on the other, with the telescope raised out of the way. On other days, and early on Mondays, we determined collimation error by observing through slots in the central cube of the telescope. The clear view was assumed to provide a more reliable measurement, unaffected by diffraction effects, and an "up minus down" correction was applied for the rest of the week.
The actual process of raising the telescope required a certain agility. One had to straddle across the horizontal telescope on narrow wooden steps attached to the two piers, lower a large crank handle into place and lock it, then begin to turn it to raise the telescope. But somewhere between climbing and cranking, part of the steps had to be removed and the top step hinged back to allow the telescope to rise. Fortunately there was a hand rail to hang on to with one hand while turning with the other. As with all transit telescopes, the greater part of its weight was balanced out by counterweights; only twenty or thirty pounds was left to ensure a firm contact with the bearings.
On a clear night, other telescopes would also be in use. A small reversible transit was used by Cecil Harris, Joy Penny and Peter Corben for time determinations; because it was small, it could be reversed in the course of an observation of a single star, thus removing one of the great bugbears of positional astronomy, collimation error, in which the axis of the telescope is not exactly at right-angles to the axis of rotation. Because the telescope was small it could be used only on bright stars, but these were sufficient for the determination of clock error. The Airy, on the other hand, could be used down to magnitude 7 or 8 and was used for measurements in ZD as well as RA, thus providing a framework of "fundamental" stars over the whole of the area of sky accessible to us.
Ernie Martin, of the Astrophysics and Astrographic Department, might be taking plates on the Astrographic telescope. Identical telescopes were in use at a number of observatories, to map the whole northern hemisphere in a collaborative effort. On each of Ernie's plates, covering no more than about one degree by one degree (?), there would be a few fundamental stars that could served as a reference frame for the others. That is to say, when the plate was measured, the fundamental stars were used to determine the "plate constants" that defined the RA and ZD axes on the plate. Thus the faint stars could be linked in to the First Point of Aries, through the good offices of the Airy TC. This is a slight over-simplification; in practice, Ernie would have looked up his fundamental positions in a star catalogue such as the FK3, based on observations from a number of observatories including Greenwich.
The Yapp 36 inch telescope and the Cooke RTC were located in a separate fenced enclosure within the park; Dr Hunter or one of his staff might be taking plates on the Yapp, which was the biggest telescope available to the Royal Observatory and was used for astrophysical investigations, usually with spectroscope attached. The role of the observer was to do the guiding, assisted by the clock drive, for long-exposure plates.
It was one of the golden rules that you never touched a telescope on which you did not work. We could show private visitors round at week-ends (with prior permission from the Chief Assistant), but the rule was always the same: look, but don't touch, unless you are a trained observer on that instrument.
Let me now return to a typical duty on the Airy on a clear night. I would let myself into the main courtyard and pop into the porter's lodge, where a night watchman was on duty, just to let him know I had arrived. Then I would go into the Airy pavilion, open up the shutters and start up a timing drum that ran throughout my duty; this was a back-up record for identification purposes, less accurate than the tape set running for each star transit.
An observer spent most of his time down in the pit below the telescope. There was a faint light over a clock, showing sidereal time and a catalogue of stars in time order. So at (say) ten thirty you could prepare for (say) a clock star that would transit at ten thirty five. The telescope was adjusted to the correct elevation angle, the observing couch adjusted to the right position at about the right angle.
A star to the south of the zenith came into the field of view from the right (image reversed - it really moved from E to W across the meridian) and somewhere near the horizontal wire. There were eight vertical wires in all, known as 1,2,3, 3.5, 4.5, 5,6,7. We took ZD observations at 1,2,3,5,6,7. Over the middle section we bisected the star image with a vertical moveable wire and tried to follow it smoothly across. This was done by turning two knurled knobs, hand over hand, as smoothly as possible. One secret of smooth motion was to grip the knobs rather tightly.
As the knobs rotated, they closed an electrical contact, three times per revolution. These three metallic inserts had two equal spaces between them, but then a longer gap until they came round again; hence the pulses on the time records came out in groups of three, which we joined during the subsequent analysis with pencil "seagulls" to get the right grouping. The moving wire arrangement was called an impersonal micrometer, and was a big improvement on the old method of timing the crossing of fixed wires, an arrangement that revealed big but fairly consistent "personal equations" in the way different people timed the same event.
My recollection is that clock stars or azimuth stars came along every few minutes, so in theory one might expect to complete a set of six clock stars, four azimuth stars and a couple of planets within an hour. But the time gaps were irregular, and quite long in places. Also, we had to make occasional observations of collimation error and level error, as well as reading pressure and temperature at frequent intervals. Each star observation took two or three minutes to complete, including the recording of six circle readings in the notebook. So an average duty tended to last two hours or more, particularly as we all tried to do more than the minimum. With some broken cloud blotting out wanted stars, two and a half or three hours would be a normal length for a duty.
The impersonal micrometer was used in a different way for observing stars very close to the pole, which moved very slowly in the field of view. Here the system was to bisect the star, tap a contact at that moment, and note down the micrometer reading. This process was repeated several times, coming in from the left and the right of the star alternately.
I naturally equipped myself with a flask of tea and was well wrapped up on a winter's night. There was, of course, no heating whatsoever in the pavilion and the shutters were open. The clear nights in winter tend to be the frosty ones, and the temperature in the early hours of the morning can drop well below freezing point. It was wise not to jump straight out of a warm bed, throw on one's clothes and dash out into the night; I learned by experience that it was better to set the alarm a few minutes earlier and drink a cup of tea before leaving home.
The night watchmen often offered mugs of tea and we didn't refuse these. Joe Church usually made cheese or beef sandwiches that I didn't want, but the older hands who enjoyed them pleaded with me not to offend Joe by refusing them, even if I quietly threw them away. We each slipped him half a crown every few weeks. One of the other watchmen, who was a bit simple, had a kettle simmering on the range all night, with tea leaves already in it. The resulting mixture was reckoned to contain a dangerous concentration of tannin and tasted awful, so I did quietly pour most of these mugs away behind the pavilion, in the shrubbery. The same area had always been used, so tradition said, by some of the old observers with weak bladders to relieve themselves quickly between the transit of two stars, so there were in-house jokes about how the shrubs flourished on a varied liquid diet.
The thermometers were in a Stevenson screen on the other side of the courtyard. I think we read a wet-bulb thermometer and a dry-bulb one. We also carried out and plugged in an aspirated thermometer with an electric fan and read it after a few minutes, all by torchlight. One annoyance was that a couple of naval families were living in the old Astronomer Royal's residence because of the housing shortage, and one family had a couple of snapping Corgi dogs. Now I like dogs in general, but I always seemed to be colliding with this loud family when I crossed the dark courtyard, as they came and went to various outside events or walks with the dogs. The dogs were naturally highly excited by a shadowy figure with a torch, so I often read the thermometers with the dogs snapping at my legs as though they were going to take a lump out. They never did, but I and the other observers felt that the naval captain and his wife could have done more to keep the dogs under control.
At the start of the next working day, Aled or one of the other SAs would collect the observing notebook from the Airy and deliver it to the Chief Assistant. Atkinson saw the notebook from each instrument, just to get a quick idea of what had happened overnight. Aled would also put a new sheet of paper on the time drum, wind up the weight that drove it, check the chronograph pens and so on. Then, when the notebook came out from the Chief Assistant's office, Aled would enter up each star name in time order in large thin ledgers, one column for each star. Much the same was done by his opposite number on the ZD side, with new paper strips for the small drums used on the ZD pricker, but I cannot speak for the details of that process.
As soon as time permitted, two of us read in the chronograph tapes, aiming to record ten contact times each to one hundredth of a second. We placed a transparent scale over the tape for this purpose and estimated the last figure. Then, again when time permitted, Aled would calculate the time of transit as the mean of the ten observations. There was in fact a backlog, usually of a day or two, on the current observations, and we were also trying to catch up on a considerable backlog of war-time observations that had never been reduced. Most of these had been made against very poor clocks, using the time drum rather than the chronograph tapes, so they were of dubious value; but management had decreed they should be reduced as a fill-in task, so we did our best.
Aled then proceeded with the routine calculations. He applied corrections for collimation error and level error, then entered up the clock errors from the clock stars in a special clock error ledger, and the azimuth errors from the azimuth stars in a special azimuth error ledger. Hopefully a set of (say) six clock stars would give very consistent values of clock error, with a scatter not exceeding a few hundredth of a second. Hopefully too it would look like a reasonable value compared with the previous night and the general trend of error with time. If so, Symms would give his approval and the determined clock error would be applied as a correction to all the observations; similarly with azimuth error.
Aled completed the calculation and then compared the final star (or planet) position with the catalogue position, interpolated for the correct time of observation, to determine a residual called (O - C), that is observed minus calculated. We also compared observed diameters of the sun and planets with the ephemeris value. Andrew Murray or myself, usually me, then checked all Aled's calculations. I tried to work independently, by covering up his workings. We had a large nomogram on a big drawing board for checking the slightly non-linear interpolations; that is, we took account of second differences as well as first differences. We used the board in pairs, one person singing out the catalogue positions and the other swivelling a plastic strip over the nomogram. Sometimes we were trying to interpolate on what was, in effect, a parabola rather than a straight line; because special rules were then needed, this was known as a "funny one", a term which tended to cause us to giggle and disturb the rest of the office.
My checking activities worked well with Aled, who was neat and accurate. If I disagreed, I usually found he was right. Suppose, for a moment, that only one in ten thousand of his digits was wrong and I achieved, independently, the same standard. Then we were likely to have a combined error rate of one in a hundred million digits. Symms applied a final private check on the various residuals that could also pick up some errors, but probably not all. He deliberately didn't explain the check to Aled, Murray and myself, but we knew roughly what he was doing and it was an effective quality check. The underlying idea was as follows: if there were only clock stars, and the clock error was determined from the set, the residuals for the clock stars should sum to zero. In practice it was a little more complicated than that.
Later, when Trundle took over some of the calculations from Aled, the process broke down and I was partly to blame. Trundle was untidy, careless, and a bad writer. His figures sloped heavily backwards and his noughts could be mistaken for nines and vice versa. He made this sort of mistake himself, getting (say) 10.92 as the correct mean time of transit but later interpreting it as 10.02 for the next stage of the calculation. Spotting some of his own mistakes, he wrote over many of his digits, scratched out some with a knife and wrote in a new figure, or stuck on a strip of paper to re-do his calculation.
The scratching-out policy was approved; indeed, we were issued with special wooden-handled knives for this purpose. "Paper hanging" was also approved; an occasional blank ledger was cut up to provide the right printed forms and we each had a tube of gum, with a drawing pin stuck in the nozzle, and a pair of scissors to equip us for this task. The careful worker crossed out the incorrect figures before paper-hanging, in case the gummed strip ever came adrift, and stuck in a decent-sized piece of paper, say one inch by three. Not Trundle! He was inclined to stick on a scrap of paper to cover one digit. Even after all his corrections, a high proportion of his completed calculations were wrong. Each untidy column was likely to contain a mistake somewhere or other.
I didn't appreciate the dangers of all this to begin with; indeed, none of the rest of us realised just how bad he was. I did sometimes pass a ledger back to him that was particularly untidy or inaccurate, telling him to re-do his work; then he would find and correct some of the mistakes, introduce a few more, and make the working ledger a great deal more untidy than it was before. The theoretical error rate of (say) one in a hundred million for Aled and me combined dropped to (say) one in a thousand for Trundle and me. My rate was worse than usual, because I was working on such untidy figures.
One afternoon, when I was taking time off after an observing duty, Symms applied his final error checks to one of the ledgers. They didn't work, so he began to delve more deeply and found mistake after mistake. He tut-tutted as he worked, so the rest of the office knew that all was not well. The next morning he went over some of the mistakes with me and quietly ticked me off - quietly, in the sense that he wasn't in a temper, but loud enough for everyone to hear. “This won't do,” he said. He was absolutely right, and I could only apologise and say I would try harder. He did then admit that I had an unusual problem with Trundle (I think Trundle was away on that day, perhaps at classes). I took all the obvious steps to improve the situation – in particular, crossing out before paper-hanging and using substantial pieces of paper - and Trundle resigned before too long, so the problem disappeared.
Although Trundle was the primary cause of the trouble, I suspect that my own concentration had lapsed. For many years at school and university I had been studying hard to pass exams. Now that was finished and I had settled into a job with a large element of routine work. After the first few months the strangeness had worn off and I was chugging along on simple calculations well within my capabilities. I certainly enjoyed the lack of pressure and felt a temptation to relax my guard.
In my early days at the RO I rounded off my PhD work by delivering a paper on "Accretion and the origin of comets" to the RAS (Friday October 12th 1951; see "The Observatory 71, Dec 1951, pp 215-217). The discussion went quite well but Tommy Gold button-holed me afterwards in the RAS office and disagreed politely with one of my main points. I had said that, if the tail behind the sun is swept away to make comets, it couldn't also fall into the sun and keep the sun burning: you couldn't run with the fox and hunt with the hounds. Gold said, quite reasonably, that it was possible for most of the material to fall into the sun but for a few wisps to be swept away to make comets.
The next morning Symms very kindly congratulated me in front of the whole office on my presentation. He himself had been a member of the RAS for a few years but had never signed the book at the first meeting he attended after his admission as a Fellow. Now he was too embarrassed to do so. We pulled his leg about that, and nudged him at meetings when new fellows were invited to step forward, sign and shake hands with the President.
Dr Whitrow took me as his guest to the 990th meeting of the RAS Dining Club at Oddenino's, near Piccadilly Circus on November 9th 1951; a fellow guest was Professor Bernard Lovell and we each had to make a short after-dinner speech. At some point also, Helen and I were invited to dinner at Dr Whitrow's flat in Albert Bridge Road and met his charming wife Magda. One of his current PhD students was also present.
Later I sent a paper entitled "On the relative abundances of primary cosmic-ray particles" to a conference in Liege (September 1953), which I didn't attend. I am not particularly proud of this paper; charitably, it could be called a review, but it is really a re-hash of work by others, a hack job with no great originality.
Another ticking-off, quite unfair this time, came from Atkinson over another unfortunate incident. There was a foreign visitor working with the Astrophysics team under Hunter and he had to be taught how to use the Yapp telescope. One completely cloudy night, when I was scheduled for duty on the Airy, I stayed at home. Hunter came in with his visitor, opened up the Yapp dome, set the telescope to the co-ordinates of a number of stars and took one or two sample plates. This was a training exercise, and included noting down what plates had been exposed.
Next morning, Atkinson saw my blank notebook and refused to release it until he had interviewed me. Aled broke the news to me and I went round to Atkinson's office. A somewhat unpleasant discussion followed, in which he accused me of staying at home when I could have been observing and I indignantly denied the charge. How, then, he demanded, had Hunter managed to take a number of plates on the Yapp? The correct explanation didn't occur to me and I was completely thrown by this information.
I went to see Hunter and expressed surprise. He told me what had happened, and as soon as Atkinson appeared for the morning tea break, spoke up on my behalf in front of everyone else. "The cloud cover was complete," he said. "I was only showing X how to open the dome and take plates."
"The man should have been here," said Atkinson. He almost accused Hunter of telling lies on my behalf. There was no further argument in front of me, but I believe Hunter spoke up for me again in private, both to Atkinson and separately to Symms. “I can quite see what happened,” said Symms, “but Atkinson will never admit that he made a mistake.”
Having been in hot water twice, I realised that I had to watch my step. My initial appointment was probationary and so my position was not entirely secure. I had been relaxing too much; now I must pull my socks up. My first resolution was to come into the observatory whenever I was on duty, cloudy or not. It was easier to come in, kick my heels for an hour if the sky was cloudy, enter a determination of collimation error and level error in my notebook while waiting for the sky to clear, then go home and sleep soundly, than to stay in bed, re-setting the alarm and studying the sky (say) every half hour. It might be cloudy every time I looked from home, but what had happened between times? My second resolution was to look more deeply into meridian astronomy. I began a series of investigations described in the next chapter.
I found Atkinson a difficult person to work for, quick to criticise and very slow to praise. His obituary, by Andrew Murray, concludes as follows: “His natural shyness made his personal relationships not always easy; nevertheless all who were privileged to work closely with him on scientific problems will remember with gratitude his patience and inspiration.” I think that is too kind, and understates the real problem. He was deeply suspicious of his colleagues and had an almost paranoid fear that people were slacking.
Atkinson had held various academic posts before the war, working for a time in Gottingen and Berlin. He once told me that having to lecture in German was a good way of learning the language (and the astrophysics) well. He wrote major papers on nuclear fusion processes in stellar interiors and contributed a great deal to the theory of the Carbon - Nitrogen cycle. In 1937 he became Chief Assistant at Greenwich, in succession to Woolley. Murray's obituary suggests that he was perhaps unwise to take this appointment at age 39.
Wartime service on the de-gaussing of ships followed and Atkinson did not return to Greenwich until 1946, by which time he was 48. He was a recognised authority, from his earlier work, on astrophysics; now he thought he should bring his undoubtedly sharp brain to bear on the problems of positional astronomy, to show his rounded abilities. This fitted in well with the fact that he had been left at Greenwich, with the Meridian Department as one of his responsibilities. So he proceeded to come up with a series of novel ideas, and was something of a trial to Symms.
He spoke with approval of Danjon's astrolabe, an instrument in which the passage of a star across a fixed elevation (say 30 degrees) was timed; but this made RA observations, as well as ZD observations, vulnerable to errors introduced by the vagaries of refraction. He analysed some of the old Airy results in which stars had been observed by reflection in a bowl of mercury as well as direct and used symmetry arguments to criticize some of the original conclusions; he was quite incensed that harmonic terms were there in the (R - D ) residuals that should not have been there and seemed to blame the staff who had found the terms. But they were there, and it was possible to think of physical explanations.
One problem in ZD observations is the difficulty of separating flexure and refraction errors; for a given star, the telescope is always set to the same elevation; hence the use of the mercury bowl to introduce a different configuration. Atkinson pressed for the use of a pentag prism in front of the Airy objective, so that the telescope could be set to some quite different elevation; this would produce the same refraction but a different degree of flexure. He claimed that the pentag could be mounted on a separate frame to avoid adding to the flexure, and could be optically ground to produce a deflection of exactly 90 degrees or whatever. This angle had to be determined accurately, but would be absolutely constant at all wavelengths. He also “invented” a mirror transit instrument, in which the mirror rotated and the tube remained fixed.
Atkinson would come briskly into our office and spring his latest idea on Symms and the rest of us. It was stimulating in a way, but posed a problem for Symms. We expressed our guarded doubts, most of which were shot down by Atkinson. Symms' comments were usually the most thoughtful, and often the most damming, but he had to be tactful and express interest. Atkinson would dash out again and, provided no fatal obstacle had been suggested, would occasionally proceed to draft a paper to the RAS. Meanwhile, Symms was shaking his head over another wild idea that would come to nothing.
Atkinson was also spending some of his time on a major geodetic idea, and it was a good one in principle (but not a new one). The shape of the earth may be accurately known, but its exact size, and the position of cities relative to each other, were less accurately known. During the war, some of the electronic navigational aids had shown up surprising uncertainties in the widths of oceans, or even the Channel; Paris was a mile or two from where we thought it was.
Now if a shadow of the moon at eclipse moves across the Atlantic Ocean at 1000 m.p.h. and takes three hours to cross, the Atlantic must be 3000 miles wide. In practice, the speed of the shadow will not be constant and the spherical geometry has to be taken into account, but this was the basic idea that Atkinson explored. He mounted at least two eclipse expeditions with some success. The first took place at Mombassa in 1948 as a trial run and Andrew Murray was already helping with the reduction of the observations by the time I joined the RO. The second was mounted while I was there, and Kenneth Blackwell was selected as one of the observers for the eclipse of February 25th 1952. A series of timed photographs were taken of the uneclipsed arc of the Sun from four widely separated camps where the eclipse was partial; these camps were at two sites in the Sudan, in Iraq and in Kuwait.
The line joining the two cusps swings round rapidly as the eclipse proceeds and can be timed much more accurately than the vague passage of a partial shadow over the ground. Two problems arise. The first is that errors in the determined location of each camp and in the ephemeris positions of the sun and moon are mixed up in a rather complicated way with errors in the shape and size of the geoid; there were days when Atkinson didn't seem sure which was the unknown and which were the knowns. The other is that hills, valleys and craters on the terminator of the moon give a rather jerky motion to the rotation of the line of cusps.
To help Atkinson with the second problem, the US Naval Observatory in Washington had produced profiles of the moon's limb at about the right libration; these were ink tracings on long rolls of paper, with the vertical scale greatly exaggerated. Murray was working on the analysis of the results from the first eclipse, and experimenting with various ways of applying the limb corrections. He certainly brought energy and skill and enthusiasm to bear on this task, where others might have regarded it as a chore. He plugged away at the underlying theory, drawing diagrams of spherical triangles until he fully understood the whole analysis, not just the limb correction. He was certainly prepared to argue, and put forward ideas that went down well with Atkinson. In short, he greatly enhanced his reputation making many useful contributions to the study.
Blackwell, on the other hand, slightly blotted his copybook by getting photographs that were out of focus. Before the expedition he and the others (Atkinson, Cordwell and Pope) practised some of their skills, such as raising a tall radio mast with a falling derrick, in the RO enclosure. Then he was sent out with his tent to the Kuwaiti desert on his own. He did get some help, and a local assistant, from the Kuwait oil company.
A day or two after he set up camp, a telegram arrived from Atkinson, instructing each observer to insert a filter in front of the main camera lens and adjust the focus accordingly. The actual instructions about which way to change the focus were either wrong, or at least ambiguous if you want to be kind to Atkinson. Blackwell made the wrong decision, obtained fuzzy photographs and was never forgiven for this waste of money and opportunity. Atkinson said openly in our office that anyone with the slightest understanding of optics should have been able to work out the right answer, as Pope and Cordwell did. Incidentally, he himself contracted amoebic dysentery in the Sudan and had to be nursed by Cordwell.
Atkinson was given a special merit promotion to DCSO in about 1956, by which time he was 58; I think this was a fair recognition of his undoubted abilities and energy. He retained his administrative load as a Chief Assistant, with a slightly higher status than Gold, the other Chief Assistant by that time.
Ernie Martin stumped into our room one day and announced rather brusquely that the king had died. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II took place on June 2nd 1953 and we were given the day off. Helen and I watched the ceremony on a TV beonging to one of her uncles.
A little later, the queen made various ceremonial drives so that she could be seen by her subjects. One of these was across Blackheath, and we were allowed enough time off one afternoon to go and give her a cheer. Most of the staff, including me, did this. The skilled instrument makers in the basement also said they would go, until they found they would miss their tea break. They then said they knew what she looked like.
The Duke of Edinburgh gave a talk at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich on one occasion, attended by various local dignitaries and senior RO staff, including Symms. Apparently the Duke praised the Air Almanac and said it was much more convenient to use than the Nautical Almanac. As a sailor he thought the NAO ought to do something about this. Symms was quite impressed with his knowledge and his talk.
The Duke also visited to RO, perhaps on a separate date or perhaps on the same day. Staff and close relations lined up in the courtyard and the AR came up from Herstmonceux to welcome his distinguished visitor. Ewan Whittaker was stationed on the roof to give early warning of the approach of the cavalcade. Our rather shabby courtyard had been decorated with tubs of hydrangeas for the day, and I think some doors had been painted. There was some criticism of these actions; why should a royal visitor always be given a misleading impression of the conditions in which people worked?
Symms and Blackwell were in the Airy pavilion to demonstrate the transit circle. Symms did most of the talking, with Blackwell taking photographs at close range. “Practically pushing his camera in the Duke's face” said Symms afterwards. He thought this was bad manners.
The Ministry of Works decreed that all public buildings must be floodlit for a couple of months to celebrate the coronation. Stupidly, they insisted that the rule applied even to an astronomical observatory; the Octagon Room was an historic monument, a fine sight from the river and so on. Atkinson had big arguments with them and finally won a concession; any observer who felt that the floodlights were handicapping his work could turn them off at the master switch.
Atkinson dropped some pretty broad hints that he would be pleased if we switched off at the slightest excuse. The master switch would stop the timing clock as well as the lights, so the lights might come back on in daylight, thus triggering criticisms of government waste and incompetence. We must make a note in our observing notebooks and he would then call the Ministry of Works the next morning to reset the clock. So this is what we did for a few weeks; I rather think we won the duel.
Soon after joining the observatory I was easily persuaded to join the IPCS. Ernie Martin was the secretary and leading light in our local branch, the Association of Astronomers, and Joy Penny was also an active member of the committee. Before very long I was a member of the committee too - I can't remember why I was elected.
Ernie was small and rather earnest man in his fifties, tubby, with glasses. He was Dr Hunter's right-hand man in the Astrophysics Department. He puffed away at a Sherlock Holmes pipe in the tea breaks and tried to sound wise and calm, but was actually rather excitable. His red face and neck would become even more flushed when he was upset about something. A year or two before he was moved to Herstmonceux he bought a bungalow outside Battle and installed his housekeeper there; so one of our committee meetings was held in his bungalow. A man called Richards from the NAO was our chairman; he really was calm and good-humoured.
Once a year the Association had an AGM in the chapel at Herstmonceux, with the AR in the chair. This was a good opportunity for the staff at Greenwich, from Atkinson downwards, to visit the new site, and we hired a coach for these occasions. On one visit we had to travel home in thick fog, (just after the day of the great smog in London, in December 1952) and Atkinson ran in front of the coach waving his white scarf to guide the driver for part of the way. A clear memory is of his head gradually dropping back past our windows, puffing to keep up, as the coach gathered speed in a clearer patch. The driver soon stopped to let him rejoin us.
Also at one of these AGMs, I was asked to act as one of the tellers for calling out votes from folded voting papers. Ernie asked me beforehand to call them out fast, to keep up the interest. Being too anxious to please in those days, I made a slight fool of myself by calling them out much too fast. The AR, a ponderous man with a great deal of gravitas, made some dry joke at the end about my rapid-fire delivery, but I realised I had behaved in a rather immature way.
A perennial subject at these AGMs was the Chamberlain- Rickerby case. My recollection, which may miss many of the nuances, is as follows. These two members of staff had been moved permanently to Abinger just before the war to set up a magnetic observatory. As soon as the war started, other people were evacuated (as a temporary, emergency, measure) to Abinger from Greenwich and were able to claim London weighting on their salaries throughout the duration of the war. Chamberlain and Rickerby, now SXOs, thought they should be able to claim the same, which amounted to a substantial sum. The Treasury said no. The union said yes. The AR, as president of our branch of the union, appeared to say yes in public. The older members of staff supported them, but privately some of the newcomers were much less convinced: they had surely benefited from the cheaper prices outside London. At each meeting, of course, Ernie Martin led us through a long and solemn history of the background and brought us up to date on the latest negotiations. We were expected to shake our heads and say it was a terrible scandal. I believe they got their money in the end, long after I left. Eric Shepherd still groans if you mention the Chamberlain-Rickerby case.
Symms attended one of the arbitration hearings about our salaries and came back greatly impressed by Stanley Mayne, the IPCS secretary. Apparently he was a big man who cross-examined the official witnesses with the skill of a good barrister and ran rings round them. So Symms was a fan of IPCS. In political terms, Blackwell and I tended to defend the Labour government and Symms and Murray to attack them. I can remember Murray warning Symms, shortly after my arrival, that I supported the wrong side. But we tried not to get too heated. The ground-nuts scheme for Africa was turning into a fiasco of mis-management, which was a tragedy. Instead of starting in a small way with pilot schemes to learn the difficulties, vast sums had been spent on a grandiose scheme to feed the world. Symms, a true-blue conservative and a strong admirer of Churchill, waxed sarcastic about all this, and it was difficult to disagree with some of his strictures. He sometimes made the point, a little crudely, that the missionaries had been wrong to provide “knickers for the natives” before teaching the natives to wipe their bottoms. So “knickers for the natives” became a sort of shorthand in the office for anything too ambitious or socialist.
Although there was a great deal of routine work in the Meridian Department, we did find time to look into anything that puzzled or intrigued us. The staffing levels seemed to be more than adequate to keep up with the current observations on the Airy, which was merely ticking over compared with pre-war levels of activity. The wartime observations were a background task, but nobody had a high opinion of them and they were less important than any investigations to improve the standards of our current work. So the atmosphere was favourable to spending a small proportion of one's time on studies with a research flavour. Those of us who belonged to the RAS were permitted and encouraged to attend the Friday afternoon meetings, once a month throughout the winter.
There was also a summer meeting of the RAS in Leeds, July 23–25 1952. I travelled up by train with Andrew Murray and I remember that we bumped into Cordwell from Abinger while we were there; he commented on the smoky atmosphere and said he had to de-coke his nose periodically. Andrew and I shared a set of room in the University, near Headingley, with a sitting room between us and a single bedroom each. We did manage to get into the centre of Leeds once, by bus or tram or both. There was an excursion to Fountain's Abbey one afternoon by coach, and I have a photograph that the RAS has copied for its archives.
A couple of people there of about our own age were Leon Mestel and Roger Tayler. Mestel gave a paper on white dwarf stars, describing important work he had done under the supervision of Fred Hoyle. He was verbally attacked by a fat, crusty old gentleman, who said: “You're telling fairy stories. If you go on telling fairy stories like that, you'll soon be telling bigger stories than Fred Hoyle.” With considerable presence of mind, Mestel replied: “If that's a compliment, thank you very much.” There was laughter and applause. I've always kept that reply ready, in case of similar trouble. The exchange was not recorded in the pages of The Observatory (Vol. 72, October 1952, pp 185–190), but I have reminded Mestel of it since (at the RAS meetings in Guernsey, 1999) and he confirmed my recollection. Both Mestel and Tayler became distinguished academics later.
Various miscellaneous queries came into the RO by letter and telephone. Most of them were dealt with by Dr Atkinson when he was there, but the routing of the telephone queries depended rather haphazardly on who was on duty at the switchboard in the porter's lodge. From his remarks to us, it was clear that Atkinson gave rather sharp replies to schoolchildren who wrote in for simple facts, or wanted a project essay written for them. “You can look up the distance of Venus from the sun in a suitable textbook in any public library,” was a typical reply, and I don't blame him.
The most common telephone calls were about the time of sunrise and sunset at some distant date, and most of these came through to the Meridian Department. Sometimes the poor caller would explain his question to the porter, then to Dr Atkinson, then to a junior in the Meridian Department, and finally for a fourth time to the person who would look up the information. One caller, not surprisingly, was fairly rude to one of our SAs when told to hang on while he found the right person. Sunset was important to those arranging football matches and we became very familiar with the question: how late can we play on such and such a winter date? We usually used the time of nautical twilight to answer this question, but emphasised that a great deal depended on whether the evening was clear or cloudy. Nevertheless I was rather thrown once by the standard question in a different form. A voice with a strong nasal accent said: “US Embassy. What time do flags go?” I had to ask him to repeat the question once or twice before I could even recognise the words. In disgust at my ignorance, he eventually said: “What's the time of sunset today?”
Some people wanted special sundials designed for them, either because of special requirements or to be able to say that the most famous observatory in the world had designed their garden ornament for them. The RO dealt with such requests in a sensible way, by suggesting a fee for which one of the staff would work on the problem in his own time. Murray earned a pound or two by working on one or two of these requests, but I didn't feel confident enough of my own knowledge to take on such work; it was not a subject I had studied, or strongly wanted to study.
On one occasion we had a telephone query from Scotland Yard about a murder committed in Manchester in the early hours of 20th August 1951. The day stuck in my mind, because it was my start date at the RO; the query came through much later, of course. The question was about the amount of moonlight at 3 o'clock in the morning, and whether it was enough to recognise somebody. Symms said he would look up some information and ring back. It gave him a bit of kick to ask for Whitehall 1212, a very famous number at that time. He gave the standard warning: don't forget the effects of cloud.
After my first several months I began to feel I had served my initial apprenticeship, learning how things were done, and might now think more about what we were doing and why. In order to delve a bit, I took the conventional first step: I searched the literature. The main RO library was still at Greenwich, maintained by the RO librarian, Preston; he was amusingly malicious and told some rather salacious stories about giants of the past. However, the books were being packed for the move to Herstmonceux and were therefore not really available. I trawled back through MNRAS (Symms gave me some old issues left behind by Cullen when he retired) and visited the Patent Office Library in Chancery Lane on a few of my free afternoons. I was not sorry to meet Atkinson on the train from Maze Hill on one of these occasions and to tell him where I was going. I bought a two-volume French textbook on "Les Observations Meridiennes" second-hand. I see the books are marked as coming from the BAA Library and are dated 1909, so I assume that they were sold off as old stock.
The literature on meridian astronomy was unlike anything I had encountered before. Many of the key papers dated from the 19th century and a few from the 18th. Not all were in English. Anyway, I made a card index and read up the classical papers that were accessible to me. I read my French textbook from cover to cover. I also read "Celestial Mechanics" by W. M. Smart as soon as it was published in 1953, checked the maths and sent a list of misprints (agreed by Murray to be wrong) to the author; he was duly grateful, although he disputed one or two. All this background reading was of course done in my own time.
In my spare time I also computed a cometary orbit for the BAA (Comet Arend?). This involved solving Kepler's equation by successive approximations a large number of times. The work was done independently by another member of the BAA, not known to me. When the orbit was published in the BAA Handbook for about 1953, I found that a few of my digits had been in error but most of them were right! Shades of Jackson and his famous saying!
Symms also took me on occasional visits, when he could, to the Time Department at Abinger and to Herstmonceux. We travelled in his car and had some pleasant chats. No other observatory in the British Isles was active in meridian astronomy, so these visits provided almost the only outside stimulus. My chances of visiting the US Naval Observatory or the Pulkovo Observatory in the Soviet Union were nil; rare trips of this nature were reserved for people at or near Astronomer Royal level.
The collimation error of the Airy Transit Circle was my first subject for original research. It had been suspected for some 25 years, from observations made with other instruments at Greenwich and at other observatories, that there was a systematic error in the determination of this parameter. It occurred to me that circumpolar stars observed at upper and lower transit should provide some further evidence. If there was no collimation error, and the arc traced out by the rotating telescope passed exactly through the celestial pole, the two transits should be exactly 12 hours apart; but if there was an uncorrected collimation error, this would not be so.
I analysed a long series of observations, from 1922 to 1938, by this method and obtained a reasonable value for the systematic error, in agreement with various other clues. In all, some five methods covering various periods between 1900 and 1940 provided evidence of an appreciable systematic error. This work was written up and published in MNRAS, 114, 1954, pp. 415–432. Atkinson came close to praising what I had done. “This is much more the sort of thing we want, rather than 'Accretion and the Origin of Comets'”, he said. I thought he meant well by this remark and was duly pleased, but Symms suggested it was a bit unfair; the accretion paper had been part of my work at Imperial College. The Astronomer Royal, when commenting in writing on some of the points in my paper, could only bring himself to say that “I have read your paper with interest.” Praise was a rare commodity in those days.
Another of my analyses of the Airy observations was concerned with the diameter of the sun. An Italian astronomer, Miss Giannuzzi, claimed to have detected significant variations in the diameter, as observed from two sites in Italy. I believe she submitted a draft paper to the RAS and I was asked by Dr Hunter to referee it, or at least give an informal opinion. By this time Tommy Gold had appeared as the second Chief Assistant, based at Herstmonceux. He thought any evidence of oscillation would be of great theoretical interest. It might be that the poles came in while the equator went out, or that the globe expanded and contracted as a whole. The period might be hours or months or a sunspot cycle. Whatever the observations showed, the theoreticians would seize on it with enthusiasm.
Spurred on by his remarks, I examined the long series of observations made at Greenwich with the Airy Transit Circle. The results are written up in MNRAS 115, 1955, pp. 558-570. There was evidence of a long-term drift in the vertical semi-diameter from about 960.9" in 1918 to 961.4" in 1937, but this might well have been due to an instrumental or atmospheric effect, or a change in the mean personality. There was no evidence of any significant oscillations, and no correlation with the Italian curves. Later work at other observatories has confirmed my findings. Modern instruments can and do detect very small oscillations, well below the limit of my analysis, but no one has found large effects of the magnitude claimed by Miss Giannuzzi.
I delivered this paper at a meeting of the RAS on 14th October 1955 (see "The Observatory", 75, Dec 1955, pp.235–236). Although I carefully explained how the horizontal diameters had been measured from transit times, and were therefore subject to personal equations, I omitted to explain how the vertical diameters had been measured. Perhaps I thought this was obvious, or more likely I simply forgot. Anyway, an elderly Fellow grabbed my arm as I walked back to my seat after the only question and hissed his own question on this point. I did my best to whisper back a not very coherent answer. The incident taught me to be more careful in future. Always state the obvious!
Somehow I also found myself in correspondence with Paul Melchior of the Royal Belgian Observatory at Liege. He was a recognised expert on latitude variation and earth tides. The latitude of a spot such as Greenwich varies by about thirty feet as the whole surface of the earth moves relative to the geographic poles. The Chandler period of this change, about 400 days, is of some interest.
The letters that passed backwards and forwards were in French: Rowena Harris, a family friend, kindly translated my English drafts for me. I cannot now remember the exact subject, but Paul Melchior certainly sent me various reprints and booklets about his work. As a footnote, some thirty years later in November 1983, on a train journey from Holland into Belgium, I got chatting with a fellow passenger. He was a Belgian who spoke excellent English. He mentioned that he lived near the Royal Belgian Observatory. It turned out that he knew Paul Melchior very well and that Paul took a walk past his house every day. I asked to be remembered to him.
At some point, Atkinson and Symms asked me to have a go at designing a new eyepiece for the Airy Transit Circle. I think it was intended to be a reversing eyepiece, so that stars could be made to appear to move from left to right rather than right to left, simply by a flick of the wrist or similar action, but I cannot really remember what special property was required. I got out my templates for ray tracing and began the design process. It soon became apparent that the eyepiece would have to be about a foot long. Atkinson was not in the least bothered by this: “Don't take two bites at the cherry.” I carried through the design to something like completion, but Atkinson was chasing some other hare by then and the idea was quietly dropped. It was a bit late to make changes to, and spend money on, the Airy TC, scheduled to go out of use within a year or two and there were other considerations for the RTC (see next section), where the moving wire could be driven by motor.
I took my part in the investigation of the strange behaviour of the Cooke Reversible Transit Circle (RTC) with changes of temperature, and made a few relevant points.
The Cooke was not in use for regular meridian observations, but was destined to be moved to Herstmonceux as our fundamental instrument. Conversely the Airy was to remain at Greenwich as a sort of museum piece; it was to be abandoned because it was old and not reversible. It was therefore important to sort out any problems with the RTC while we had the time, and perhaps to have an overlap period when observations were made on both.
On August 15th 1951, a few days before I arrived, an investigation started on the RTC. The aim was to heat and cool it as rapidly as possible, studying how collimation error (as measured by reversing on a bowl of mercury) changed with time. Several electric fires were installed in the pavilion, a semi-cylindrical building. The telescope itself could be lifted out of its bearings with the help of a sort of mobile jack running on tramlines in the floor. Thus the telescope could be wheeled along to a turntable, the whole jack rotated on the turntable, and the telescope returned with its trunnions reversed relative to the bearings. It was also a relevant feature of the telescope that the tubes could be interchanged (I think), and the micrometer-end tube could also rotated 180 degrees relative to the cube. The micrometer box and the objective could also be rotated 180 degrees, but not the objective-end tube relative to the cube.
We could heat as rapidly as the fires would allow. The temperature would then fall rapidly when the fires were switched off and the shutter thrown open, particularly on a cold night. So we did our turns of duty, heating and cooling and recording the temperature at frequent intervals as we determined collimation error and level error from observations into a bowl of mercury. If the apparent error is e1 before reversing and e2 after, the level error is 0.5(e1 + e2) and the collimation error is of magnitude 0.5(e1 - e2); I will ignore the question of sign conventions.
Aled would later combine the observations from several duties into a least squares solution which expressed the collimation error (our main interest) as a function of temperature and rate of change of temperature. It was Symms who showed him how to do this; I had heard about least squares solutions in statistics lectures at college, but would have been quite incapable of translating the theory into an arithmetical routine. However, as I checked Aled's work I began to see what he was doing, and from then on I understood far more about least-squares solutions and found the knowledge very useful on many later occasions.
For Symms, one of his bibles on statistics was "Calculus of Observations" by Whittaker and Robinson. The parts he consulted most were on least-squares solutions, harmonic analysis (with a fold-out chart on how to do the actual arithmetic) and “Heads and tails”, that is, the very small errors that arise from rounding off the last figure in each of a column of digits. Naturally, a number such as 1.234 was rounded down to 1.23 when rounding was necessary, and 1.236 became 1.24. The middle case of 1.235 was rounded to 1.24 by the RO rule to make the new final figure even, thus avoiding the systematic error involved in always rounding up or always rounding down. Symms would point out that, with this rule, the errors involved in rounding time from milliseconds to hundredths of a second in long columns of calculations were very small indeed. From time to time he also drew our attention for some reason to a surveying problem, in which three or more bearings on a given landmark don't quite intersect. You can then calculate the Best Point Estimate and surrounding elliptical probability region by methods given in Whittaker and Robinson. I was glad to be familiar with this result when I first became involved in radio direction finding.
One of my contributions to the RTC study was rather elementary, but nevertheless helpful in discussions; I suggested solving for the contribution of each component by simple algebra. Suppose the reference configuration of micrometer, tubes, cube and objective is represented by
m + t1 + (c + t2) + o
and gives coefficients a1T +b1T**2
Now suppose the micrometer m is reversed relative to the other components and the new coefficients are a2, b2. Then
2m = (a1 - a2) T + (b1 - b2) T**2
By this sort of algebra, the effects of the various physical components could be disentangled. My recollection is that common sense was already being used to see which components were the important ones, but I formalised common-sense into a simple notation that proved useful.
Symms and Blackwell were very puzzled about some lack of symmetry in the results. There were four conditions for making a nadir reading: some recognisable feature of the telescope to the East or the West, and temperature rising or falling. The sequence with (say) temperature rising was Clamp West, reverse, Clamp East, wait for a few minutes, Clamp East again, reverse, Clamp West, and so on. Blackwell was maintaining plots of the changing temperature and the changing readings and was finding a curious "East minus West" effect. I cannot now recall whether it was showing up in the level error readings or the collimation error, but East-reverse-West gave systematically different answers from West-reverse-East.
I listened with half an ear to the Symms-Blackwell conversations, although I was not directly involved in this part of the analysis. There was something that didn't quite ring true about Blackwell's statements, but it took me some time to realise that he was indirectly stating a false geometrical result, namely that the diagonals of a quadrilateral with two opposite sides parallel (but not the other two) bisect each other. The word “bisect” is unfortunately ambiguous. Does it mean divide into two parts, or into two equal parts? One of my shorter dictionaries says, “divide into two (usu. equal) parts.”
One day I spoke up and said the diagonals didn’t bisect in the equal parts sense. Both of them tut-tutted: every schoolboy knew that the diagonals of a parallelogram bisected each other, which meant that the mean level reading and mean collimation error applied at the mean time. But, I said, this is no parallelogram. I drew a quadrilateral with a long base and a short (parallel) top and invited them to measure the two "halves" of each diagonal with a ruler.
Symms knew at a glance that they were unequal and (in the modern phrase) fell about laughing. Blackwell found it harder to believe. But the upshot was that I had completely explained away a quite spurious effect, the "East minus West" discrepancy, that had been puzzling them for weeks if not months.
My third contribution on the RTC investigation was a bit negative. We had tracked the main source of trouble to the two tubes and it was strongly suspected that they were badly annealed. My proposition was that, if the two tubes had a fault at about the same place when compared side by side, we could find a configuration relative to the cube that would largely cure the effect in RA, but produce a maximum in ZD, or rotate one tube through 180 degrees to get a maximum in RA and almost nothing in ZD, but we couldn't eliminate both at once. Atkinson heard this argument one day and completely rejected it, pooh-poohing my basic assumptions. I was therefore surprised and half amused, half miffed, to see at least part of my argument reproduced (without, of course, any acknowledgement, which I didn’t expect) in the 1952 report of the Astronomer Royal to the Board of Visitors. I don't know whether Symms or Atkinson drafted that part of the report.
The original RTC objective suffered from a large amount of off-axis coma, and was therefore unsuitable for its purpose; some observations, particularly of sun, moon and planets are necessarily taken off-axis. At some point, after the main investigation, a small firm, Cox-Hargreaves, undertook to produce a new compound lens for a very reasonable price, partly for the honour and advertisement of having their name on the fundamental instrument of the RGO. This was done in time for the move to Herstmonceux.
There was some dissatisfaction with the “pricker” arrangements on the RTC. Symms was trying to “automate away” the minor irritations and delays involved in observing, and was thinking in terms of a printing head to record the position of the micrometer used for measuring ZDs. I happened to mention that the old Cambridge transit instrument that I had worked on at Imperial College had an arrangement of this sort. It was part of the main telescope, which we had replaced with a much slimmer refractor. Symms was most interested, and so I contacted Professor Wright, by then head of Technical Optics, to see if it was still held by the college, and we arranged to go and see him.
The meeting went well. Symms made it obvious that he would like to get his hands on the Cambridge eye-end, if only as a model that our workshops could copy or adapt. Wright regarded various bits of the old Cambridge telescope as useless junk that he would glad to get rid of. So he made the gift and Symms came away very pleased. I was pleased that he was pleased and that I had been able to act as intermediary.
Andrew Murray and I became interested in the subject of tidal friction and its effects in slowing down the rotation of the Earth. The geophysicists had calculated one value for the likely effect in narrows such as the Bering Sea and bits of the Irish Channel. The astronomical observations of ancient eclipses and so on seemed to show an observed effect of about the same magnitude, so the astronomical establishment was complacently accepting a satisfactory agreement between theory and observation. But was the agreement spurious?
Our interest was aroused by a paper by E.R.R. Holmberg on coupling effects in the atmosphere, which could tend to "drive" the rotation of the earth. He pointed out that a major resonance in the atmospheric tides occurred at just about twenty-four hours, which seemed a remarkable coincidence. He suggested that the rotation rate had settled to this resonance. I believe we saw his paper for MNRAS at the proof stage, again through the good offices of Dr Hunter. Holmberg didn't need to query the astronomical evidence that the length of the day was decreasing by some small fraction of a second per century, which was too small to affect his resonance theory; nevertheless, he did.
Murray's first instinct was to spring to the defence of the astronomers; the evidence from ancient eclipses was pretty clear-cut. However, he did uncover a couple of minor skeletons in the cupboard as he worked on this subject. My contributions, as the work progressed, were as follows. First, I acted as a foil, a devil's advocate. Second, I checked some of Murray's arithmetic and conclusions. Finally, I offered some advice on how to prepare a paper for publication, which was a new activity for him.
The first surprise was that Harold Jeffreys appeared to have made a simple arithmetical mistake in his treatment of sun and moon couples acting on the tides, in his famous textbook "The Earth" which had gone through several editions since it was first published in about 1915. Was Murray the first person to check this calculation? Very likely! With his agreement I wrote privately to Jeffreys and he wrote back and agreed we were right.
The second worry was that some probable errors seemed to have been mis-quoted in the literature. The point was that the errors in position of the Sun and Moon, as calculated from ancient eclipses, were not independent. If you made a big correction to the Sun you had to make a corresponding correction to the moon, otherwise the eclipse would never have taken place at the date, place and time shown in ancient historical records. The AR himself seemed to have overlooked this point in a relevant published paper. We were, of course, treading on dangerous ground if we criticised our boss, but we assumed the AR was enough of an honest scientist to accept this point.
We were right technically, but wrong on human reactions. The AR rejected our first draft of a letter. We worked away on a second, sweating over the exact wording. By now Murray was sharing a flat in Brockley with Peter Corben, and I remember at least one evening session there. (Incidentally, Joy Penny made an apron for each of them, and embroidered e to the i theta on to the one for Andrew.) It is always difficult to draft a joint paper and we certainly found it tricky to find just the right tactful words, but we managed to reach agreement in the end. The AR rejected our second draft, and we certainly couldn't publish without his blessing. In fairness to him, he thought Holmberg had made a very good point and he probably saw our letter as muddying the waters unnecessarily. Once again, I detected no word of praise; on the contrary, he suggested we needed to think again and study the subject more deeply.
So we gave up. Holmberg was invited by the AR to give a talk at Herstmonceux, which we attended. Indeed, Murray and I travelled there and back with Holmberg in Dr Hunter's Rover and we all got on well together. Holmberg was working on Operational Research, probably for the War Office, and was surprised and delighted by the interest his draft was arousing.
A year or two later, this subject became topical again. Finch had discovered seasonal variations in the rate of rotation of the earth, thought to be due to the seasonal movements of air masses; others had suspected such effects existed, but his was the most convincing analysis. It was not certain that the slowing effects in any one year would exactly balance the speeding up effects. If not, there would be "random walk" changes in the earth's rate of rotation that were expected to be cumulative over the years in a statistical sense.
Sadler, as superintendent of the NAO, and his opposite number in the USA, Clemence, became very exercised by the difference in the ideal Newtonian time they were using in the calculation of future planet positions, which they labelled as Ephemeris Time (ET), and the irregular Universal Time (UT) determined by observations of the stars at transit. Could the difference between these quantities be determined? If not the very foundations of astronomy were crumbling under us.
The astronomical establishment rallied to their rescue. Markovitz invented a moon camera that would photograph the bright moon, through a filter, against a star background. The movement of the moon against the stars constituted a clock from which ET (we were assured) could be derived. All was well, astronomy was saved, we could all breathe again, and every decent observatory should have a moon camera. Official definitions were adopted at various meetings of the IAU, particularly that in Dublin in 1955. The AR's work on tidal friction was said to be “definitive”. How convenient!
Murray doubted all this. First of all there were the practical difficulties in determining a minute quantity with the moon camera: the filter had to have parallel sides to high accuracy and the moon was not a point, but a large knobbly object with an irregular (and changing) limb. Secondly, there was the theoretical difficulty of determining two unknowns from one measurement; the pundits seemed to believe that both the random walk and the tidal friction component could be determined, but the latter affected the moon's orbit and the former did not. So what assumptions were being made? Was the AR's determination of tidal friction (with its skeletons in the cupboard) being adopted as constant for all time? It was a confusing subject, but Murray was convinced, from his study of ancient eclipses, that you couldn't rely on a constant rate of change. Why not rely instead on the constancy of atomic vibrations, via atomic clocks and frequency standards? He was a sceptic, with Symms and myself fairly convinced he was right but less sure we fully understood all the arguments.
I can only say we were lone voices at the time, and not inclined to shout too hard, but that a new definition of ET was adopted after 1965, based on the caesium clock. Joy Penny told me much later that the moon camera was a success, but I still suspect that there was a logical flaw in the procedures for determining ET prior to 1965.
In the summer of 1953 I played my part in the observations of the azimuth mark at Chingford, north of the Thames. A lamp on top of the obelisk at Pole Hill was fed from a car battery, and in theory maintained by a light-keeper (and his assistant?) employed by the Ordnance Survey. The light-keeping grade was a lowly one, a sort of labourer for surveyors in the field, and it appeared that our man or men were not of the highest calibre. The light was often not visible and the excuses were varied: the battery was flat, none of the batteries would last through the whole night, a bulb had broken and could not be replaced until morning, a ladder had been stolen while a battery was being transported to be re-charged.
Symms was not impressed. He, and to a lesser extent Blackwell, began to take car trips in the evening to call on the light-keepers unexpectedly. He didn't always find them at their post. When he did, he pointed out in a constructive spirit that two car batteries in parallel would last longer than one alone; the light-keepers had never been told this before, and found it difficult to believe. I suspect Symms was rather good at this two-pronged approach, showing that he could be helpful and human and spin a few yarns with them and smoke a few cigarettes with them in the dark if they were trying, but that he wasn't easily deceived. Their performance improved dramatically.
We observed the Chingford mark by day and night, mixed in with azimuth stars after dark, in two periods from mid-June to mid-August and mid-September to mid-October. The short summer nights were a disadvantage in the summer period, while the deteriorating visibility was a disadvantage during the autumn.
Bisecting a wobbling blob of light with a vertical wire at frequent intervals is not very exciting, so Gilbert Satterthwaite began to consume large numbers of Refreshers (the tablets with sherbet) while he was working. The habit spread to the other young observers, including myself. The accurate determination of the orientation of Great Britain owes much to these tubes of sweets.
We discovered that the diurnal variation of azimuth error was two to three seconds of arc, much larger than expected and a serious obstacle to the determination of this error from the “doubling” of azimuth stars at intervals of 12 hours. I now realise this result could also cast doubt on my paper about collimation error. The results strengthened Symms' resolve that he must have azimuth marks at Herstmonceux, north and south of the RTC pavilion.
Apart from my work as an observer on this programme, I made two very minor contributions. The first was to persuade Symms not to leave the autumn period of observations too late. He had originally consulted the old visibility records, but later seemed to forget that the murks and fogs started fairly early in the autumn. When he was talking vaguely of waiting until the time changed before starting the second spell of observations, I dug out the records again and persuaded him not to wait until then; in a typical year the visibility of distant landmarks went down with a bang after the end of September.
My second achievement (with others) was to persuade Symms to write up something for publication. I thought the work we were doing in co-operation with the Ordnance Survey was interesting scientifically, and the fact that we were again observing the azimuth mark after a very long interval was historically interesting; at any time since the invention of the electric filament bulb it would have been possible to put a light there.
Symms was eventually persuaded, somewhat reluctantly, to write a short piece for the Observatory Magazine. His worries were two-fold: he thought meridian astronomy was so specialised, so unglamorous, that nobody would be interested and his draft would be refused; and he lacked confidence about his abilities as a writer. However, it was characteristic of him that the piece he wrote (Observatory vol. 73, December 1953, pp. 250–251), perhaps after much pencil-sucking and false starts, was actually very well expressed and very professional; I think he was pleased in the end to see his words in print, including a tribute to his observing team.
David was born towards the end of 1953, at the Stonefields Nursing Home in Kidbrooke. This was a private maternity “hospital” run by Dr Pink, who knew Helen and her parents. It was only a mile or two from where we lived. When Dr Pink found I worked at the RO, he asked if I knew a Dr Jones, whose wife had also given birth at Stonefields. It took me a moment to realise that he was referring to Sir Harold and Lady Spencer-Jones. In 1996 I met David Spencer Jones, who said it was his younger brother who had been born there.
Helen began to go into labour late on the night of Saturday 28th. Stonefields said it might well be several hours before the birth, but nevertheless she should come in. We had a couple of telephone numbers by the phone for taxi services, but when I rang both were busy or didn't want to know. We tried others, without success. I was dumbfounded that my planning had been in vain - what was I supposed to do now? The man next door, who was a river pilot and had a car or a van, kindly came to our rescue. I think I went with Helen, saw her settled and then walked home. David was not born until the afternoon, when I was present at the birth. In the morning I played tennis with my father, at the courts near the Ranger's Lodge in Greenwich Park. He said I was a little below my best form.
At just about this time, Dr Porter contacted me to see if I would be willing to join the editorial board of The Observatory Magazine. There were normally four editors. He was the most senior and took the final decisions on accepting papers. The second and third editors took notes of the RAS meetings. The fourth editor, the post being offered to me, was responsible for finance and subscriptions.
Porter told me that the work should theoretically be in my own time, but that the Astronomer Royal gave unofficial support to the magazine in many ways and turned a blind eye to the use of a little official time. I talked to Symms and he had no objection. Porter said he would get the AR's agreement. He also said each editor had to buy a five-pound share in the magazine, which was returned when they resigned. I accepted the offer, which I regarded as an honour. The formalities were all sorted out by early 1954, but I don't think I did much for the magazine until my transfer to Herstmonceux, in early April.
Guy Porter was an ex-schoolteacher (of chemistry, I think) who had joined the Nautical Almanac Office as a PSO rather late in life. He was a keen member of the BAA and a regular broadcaster, with a monthly fifteen-minute slot to talk about the night sky. He was a large and quiet man, with a homely line of talk about what was growing in his garden as well as what could be seen in the sky, and he was quite famous for several years. He was always kind and encouraging to me, and he shared out the editorial duties very efficiently. Once he took me to lunch in London at his club, the English-Speaking Union, and there introduced me to ‘Tubby’ Stratton, a veteran soldier and astronomer from Cambridge. He told me once or twice that he didn't get on well with the fussy and pedantic Sadler and there was little love lost between them.
The other editors were Pat Sweet and R. H. Garstang. We all met once or twice a year, usually at the RAS rooms, to discuss how things were going. Our main aim was to break even, rather than make a profit and pass some of it to the tax authorities. If things were going too well, Porter adjusted the finances by publishing another plate or two towards the end of the financial year. For an issue without plates the printer charged us about £90, with a plate about £120.
My exact position in the pecking order in the Meridian Department was a little uncertain. I wasn’t bothered, but it was another of those civil service mysteries that baffled me in my first year or two. Symms was not one to confront any difficult issues unless he had to. When he was away, I was in charge of the RA work and Blackwell in charge of the ZD work; that was good enough for Symms and a sensible arrangement.
One afternoon I was definitely in overall charge, because both Symms and Blackwell were away. At about two thirty Miss Jeffries disappeared form the room without saying a word. If I noticed, I would have assumed she was going to the loo. But a few minutes later she was seen leaving our site and walking across the park. Aled drew my attention to this with some glee, and the general comment in the office was that she was playing hookey while the bosses were away.
This presented me with the first real management dilemma of my career. I didn't feel I could ignore such behaviour, particularly as it had been a matter of ribald comment within the office. Should I tell tales, or deal with the matter myself? Should I question her in the morning, and tick her off? Careful, she might have been given permission to go to the dentist by someone more senior than me. If so, she should have told me as a matter of courtesy, but I was on thin ice.
After a little thought, I did what seemed best and what I would still do in the same circumstances: I quietly consulted Symms in the morning and made it sound like a bit of a joke rather than the end of the world. Had he given Miss Jeffries permission to go early? No? Well, she had. I chuckled at her naughty ways and he chuckled too. I left any further action to him, and I doubt if he did anything.
As the plans for the move of the Meridian Department to Herstmonceux began to harden, so Symms decided that there should be a definite planned date for the final observations on the Airy Transit Circle. He saw no possibility of an overlap with the RTC, which had still to be moved and commissioned at Herstmonceux, and no point in prolonging our reduced programme indefinitely.
The position over removal was interesting. Any individual could now opt to transfer to the new site and Blackwell, who had been house-hunting, did this when he found a suitable property in Pevensey. For a few weeks before moving day he used our office phone for all sorts of personal calls to long distances, for example to order a pre-fabricated concrete garage. Some of us were a little shocked by this, but he reckoned it was all part of the cost of his compulsory transfer and the government ought to pay. He conveniently ignored the fact that he would receive a substantial transfer grant.
For the department as a whole, however, there was an agreement with the union that it couldn't be moved en bloc until there were houses available for all who wanted them. The Herstmonceux local authority had received permission to erect extra council houses to facilitate the move, and was building in phases. Of the staff of the department, I was the only one who wanted a council house. Symms proposed to live in digs, leaving his family in Shooters Hill. Murray was going to have a house built, designed by his father. The Jeffries were not coming to Herstmonceux.
Some of our junior staff would probably also drop out. Aled had gained his qualifications for AXO and had then failed a promotion board; in disgust he had resigned in order to train for school-teaching (we were all very upset that such a model employee had been badly treated and Symms tried to persuade him to wait for another interview). Gilbert Satterthwaite and Virginia Papworth wanted to live in the hostel at the castle. So everything depended on me. Several of the staff hoped the move would be delayed as long as possible, but I was quite keen, after the great smog, to get out of London; it was not a healthy place for a small baby.
I think I must have seen George Wilkins in late 1953 at an RAS meeting, or perhaps on one of his rare visits to Greenwich; he told me that he would shortly be moving out of a rented bungalow at Pevensey Bay and into a house that was being built for him at Gallows Lane, Pevensey. This seemed a good opportunity for the Gethings to take over his bungalow. So in about February 1954 Helen and I went down to see the bungalow, Happidaze (214a Camber Drive, Pevensey Bay), and talk to the landlord. I remember the day as beautifully sunny; we certainly walked along on the shingle with George and I thought how nice it would be to live by the sea and work at Herstmonceux.
The bungalow was semi-detached, had a large living-room at the front, one bedroom behind and reasonable bathroom and kitchen. There was a garage and largish back garden, mainly grass. The landlord, Mr. A. Geech, lived near the centre of Pevensey Bay with his wife, at 3 The Promenade. He was the drummer with a local orchestra and needed the rent from the bungalow to supplement his low income. He also suffered from asthma, and was anxious that any tenant should help him to some extent with the garden. The rent was three guineas (per week?). Some of this I could reclaim as Excess Rent Allowance (ERA) after my compulsory transfer.
Everything seemed fine. I checked with Atkinson that I would not prejudice my claim for the very next council house to become available at Herstmonceux and he assured me that I was top of the list, because of the need to move the whole Department. He also assured me that my move would be compulsory, with expenses paid, even though I was volunteering to move into temporary accommodation. He, and other colleagues, said it was essential to have an accurate rent book, with dates and signatures, to support my ERA claims. Geech reluctantly agreed, but was very slow to produce such a book after we moved in. One day he confessed that he was not declaring his rental income to the tax authorities. I assured him that the Admiralty was not likely to tell tales to another department, so a rent book was purchased and brought up to date, I successfully claimed ERA and in fact he had no problem.
Gilbert Satterthwaite made the final observations on the Airy on 30th March 1954. Symms had simply decided to stop the observations at the end of March. Of course, weather had an influence and 31st March (when he himself was on duty) turned out to be cloudy. Fig 43 in vol.3 of the book “Greenwich Observatory” shows the final published results, ending with Gilbert's observation of Jupiter at 17hr 16m on 30th March. Four entries for the observer PG appear on the same plate; my last was Venus on March 12th. I moved with Helen and David to Pevensey Bay on April 4th. Thus ended my association with Greenwich.
I successfully arranged to be given an official written instruction for a compulsory transfer to Herstmonceux; Helen, David and I moved into Happidaze, a bungalow at 214a Camber Drive, Pevensey Bay, on 4th April 1954. That date really represents the final break from our childhoods in Luton.
The Meridian Department was due to occupy two large rooms on the ground floor of the north wing of Herstmonceux Castle, with a lobby between them. The more westerly of these rooms, intended eventually for ZD work, was already available and the splendid bay window was occupied by Walter Grimwood, who had been transferred from the NAO to work in our department. He was a middle-aged XO (I have used XO as the abbreviation for Experimental Officer, as distinct from Executive Officer. AXO is then an Assistant Experimental Officer) and a member of the Plymouth Brethren, although he kept fairly quiet about his religious views. Kenneth Blackwell had a large desk up against the partition and I was given a temporary desk near a window on the other side of the partition.
The other room was not yet ready; it needed lino to be laid and a partition erected. These partitions were to deaden noise in a large communal office and to separate the more senior staff from the juniors. The lino was thick grey stuff that took a beautiful polish; it was stuck down in a major operation with black tarry adhesive.
Between the two rooms was a lobby, with large wooden doors opening on to the formal gardens. The floor was of paving stones and the walls were rough bricks. Mr Symms thought this was an ideal place to hang our overcoats, where they could drip on wet days, so he arranged for the carpenter to put up two rows of pegs, with large sheets of hardboard attached to the walls to protect the coats from the roughness of the bricks. I think we kept these pegs and used them for several months until the Astronomer Royal (AR) noticed what had been done, or perhaps the arrangement was criticised by some visiting expert. Sir Harold sent Symms a stiff note, saying the pegs must be removed immediately and that he should never have touched the ancient fabric of the castle walls, which were subject to a preservation order, or ruined the vista from the inner courtyard to the outer gardens when both sets of doors were open. So the pegs had to come down.
Right Ascension (RA) ledgers were sent to me in parcels from Greenwich. I checked the arithmetic and returned them in other parcels for the next stages in the calculation. My parcels were wrapped by the two very pleasant and efficient clerical assistants in the general office (Secretariat). I dealt mainly with Barbara Carey, but sometimes with Jennifer Morris. Blackwell tended to regard himself as in charge of my work, both as regards working hours and the quality of my output, but I was a good timekeeper without his supervision and simply ignored him on the arithmetical work, sending off my parcels when I was ready.
There was a social club housed in some temporary war-time huts, where we could play billiards and snooker, table-tennis and darts; there were also a number of fireside chairs and piles of old magazines. During my first few days at Herstmonceux, I had occasion to queue up for a cup of tea at a hatch in the entrance lobby to this block. Queuing with me was a girl who introduced herself as Virginia (Jinny) Knight, an AXO in the NAO. She welcomed me to Herstmonceux, told me about the club and its activities, and offered to show me round. I was grateful for this warm welcome when many of the staff were still strangers to me. The RGO Club ran Christmas parties that Helen and I attended each year we were there.
Very soon after I arrived, bunches of daffodils were laid out on the verges at the Castle, picked by the gardeners, and we were each allowed to take one bunch. Helen and I greatly appreciated this (to us) unexpected gift; life in Sussex suddenly seemed more gracious and pleasant than in London. There was an RN bus from Pevensey Bay every morning, returning at night, but it was my intention to cycle to work, at least on fine days. The bus was, I think, free. Whether I wanted to get some exercise, or be more flexible about my working hours, I cannot now remember. Anyway, there was a touch of spring in the air, the smell of grass and trees, and glimpses of rabbits and hares on Pevensey marshes.
All went well for a few days. The journey of about six miles each way was hard work, but well within my capabilities. I arrived home each night pretending to have enjoyed it. Then one day the wind blew. The marshes were flat, without much in the way of trees and bushes, and very near the coast. The wind was strong. It seemed to be hindering rather than helping on my way to work, and was dead against me on the way home, whatever the textbooks may say about off-shore breezes in the evening. I stood on the pedals, bending over the handlebars and had to struggle hard to make any headway at all. I arrived home white, panting and shaken and had to collapse into an armchair for a few minutes before I could even swallow a cup of tea. Over the next few days the winds came and went, and I very quickly realised that I could not cope with this sort of battle each day, particularly on the way to work. Blackwell was a great believer in lightweight motorcycles for observers, and I was expecting to have night duties again in due course. So I looked at the adverts in the local papers for a suitable second-hand motorcycle. Accompanied by Ken Blackwell, I went into Eastbourne one evening to see a lightweight Francis-Barnett Falcon advertised for seventy pounds. The machine had belonged to a man who had died, and was now being sold by the executors. After a show of reluctance my offer of £60, all I could afford, was accepted.
Blackwell rode the machine back to Happidaze with me on the back. I think he had left his own machine there and I had gone into Eastbourne with him on the bus, paying his fare. I was grateful for his help. On another occasion he acted as baby-sitter for Helen and me while we went to a cinema in Eastbourne. He was one of the very few people we knew locally at the time.
The position quickly improved. Soon after we arrived in Pevensey Bay, a new recruit called Bill Nicholson started work in the NAO as an established SO.
I suppose George Wilkins must have told me he had moved with his wife and family into a bungalow on the same estate as us, and I suppose Helen must have called on Jean to welcome her. However the initial contact was made, Helen and Jean soon became very firm friends.
While we were living in Pevensey Bay I generally had lunch in the castle dining room, gradually getting to know more of the staff. As the size of the staff built up, it later became necessary to arrange two sittings for lunch each day. There was one circular table in the chimney alcove reserved, by unwritten law, for the bigwigs, that is the AR, Sadler, the Chief Assistants and any important people visiting them. A rather bolshie SSA called Barry once sat there to see what would happen. He was a big man who had been through the war in the RAF (?) and had a fairly scathing way of dealing with people he didn't like, so he was allowed to eat his meal in peace. But he received a note from Sadler, his boss, saying he was not to use that table in future.
Mrs Marples who ran the hostel and the kitchens, usually hovered round the top table to enquire frequently whether everything was to their satisfaction, to remove dirty dishes and to bring the sweets and the coffee, while the rest of us had to fetch our food from the serving tables. I wasn't bothered, but in a small community of scientists this sort of distinction was resented, and not just by the most junior staff.
On 8th June 1954, I and the other young SOs and SSOs were invited to have sherry and then lunch with the Board of Visitors at their annual visitation. Sherry was served in the AR's drawing room. I can't remember much about the event, except that I and the other young staff members congregated at the AR's front door to ring the bell and go in together. I saw the inside a small bit of the residential wing for the first time. At lunch I sat opposite Professor Greaves from Edinburgh and he kept my part of the table amused with a fund of good anecdotes; I had previously regarded him as a remote figure, perhaps a little austere, but far from it.
The people who ran the chronometer department took me down into the cellars to see the famous process of rating the chronometers and deck watches that were laid out there, on test. Every day, two SAs came down with a ledger, in which they entered the error of each against a master clock that was ticking away. One assistant called out the figures, the other wrote them down. The remarkable thing, which made this operation into a showpiece, was the speed at which it was done. There was no pause for thought. The caller listened to the tick of the master, visualised the position of the seconds hand and mentally compared it with position of the seconds hand of the test item. I think the numbers were called out to a tenth of a second in a steady stream: twenty-four two, nineteen seven, forty-six three and so on. Major mistakes could be spotted by comparison with previous days, and were very rare.
Damaged deck watches from the navy and air force, used for navigation, were repaired in the chronometer workshops by David Evans and his mechanics without question or criticism; what the department hated was officers who took their watches to the local watchmaker for repair when they felt guilty about some accident or carelessness. The botched repairs and wrong replacement parts caused much more work in the end.
Each mechanic had access to a machine that gave a good quick estimate of the rate of a watch; I think it was an electronic device that listened to the ticks for a few minutes and compared with a master clock. The results came out on a roll of paper, with the ticks drifting left or right if the rate was not quite correct. The mechanics had to achieve a certain standard with the watch in specified positions such as face up and face down.
In my first winter at Herstmonceux I entered for the knockout handicap for indoor games. The handicappers, knowing nothing about me, assumed I had no special ability at darts, table tennis, billiards and snooker and gave me a generous starting score in each. In fact I had played a good deal of billiards in my youth. I was very soon eliminated from the darts and table tennis, but I won the billiards tournament by beating Jim Clarke, one of the two official drivers, in the final.
I lost the final of the snooker tournament to Donald Sadler, head of the Nautical Almanac Office, although I should have won. I went in off one of the few remaining balls, perhaps the pink, when I was otherwise bound to win. Sadler was noted for his competitiveness; he certainly enjoyed beating me in this way. Jim Clarke, on the other hand, who was watching, was disappointed I didn't win.
A very detailed obituary of Sadler by George Wilkins was published in the RAS Quarterly Journal (March 1991, pp 59-66). As I read through it, I told myself it mentioned everything except his snooker win against me. Imagine my surprise when I found an indirect reference: "He also enjoyed billiards, snooker and darts, and he won the Spencer Jones Indoor Sports Trophy in the RGO club in 1954." I think the cup was presented at the Christmas party that year.
Next year my handicaps in billiards and snooker were very unfavourable and I got nowhere. In due course the temporary huts were removed and the RGO Social Club no longer had the same facilities. People played stool-ball and hockey instead, the former in the summer and the latter in the winter. Stool-ball had the advantage over cricket of not requiring a level pitch. I was included in a stool-ball team once and scored a duck; but it was a pleasant family occasion on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I played hockey for the RGO a couple of times, against Heathfield home and way. This was mixed hockey, a notoriously rough game, and so I found it.
There was a hard tennis court in the castle grounds and I played a little tennis each summer, usually in the knockout mixed doubles. Partnerships were selected by drawing names out of a hat. I don't think I ever survived the first round; my game tended to go to pieces when playing with a girl who was almost a stranger and my partners seemed to suffer in the same way. I didn't have the knack of making the whole thing into a joke and getting my partner to relax. Once Virginia Papworth and I lost narrowly to Woolley and partner, when he was AR; we put up a good fight because we knew each other and got on well together. Of course, these social activities achieved their main objective of getting people to mix and play together. They certainly helped me to get to know more of the staff.
Derek Harragan was an AXO who lived in Pevensey Bay and worked at the NAO. He was a short, broad-shouldered and energetic man who owned his own house, built on what was almost pure shingle near the centre of Pevensey Bay. He was quite a keen bridge player and invited me to join his regular bridge evening. Mike Candy usually played, and Bill Nicholson after he arrived in the area. I think a man who worked in a motorcycle shop in Eastbourne also played occasionally, if one of us was unable to come; I certainly met him at the Harragan house. We had some enjoyable evenings, during which we usually took a break to listen to the Goon Show on the radio.
Our bungalow was about half a mile east of the centre of Pevensey Bay, which was a very small place with half a dozen shops, a hotel and a cafe. We could walk along shingle tracks to Camber Bay and beyond, through strange little isolated communities where only a few tufts of grass grew through the shingle. The railway line running parallel to the coast could only be crossed at a few places, thus almost cutting off these coastal hamlets from the rest of Sussex. A building firm was active on our own estate, with new concrete roads spreading rapidly across the flat fields and clumps of new bungalows springing up; they cost about £1400-£1500 and seemed too good for summer holiday homes and not good enough for permanent homes.
Many bungalows were unoccupied for much of the winter. A man from the water-board used to cycle round and listen at the water hydrants with a kind of ear trumpet, to prevent waste. One day he knocked on our door and accused Helen of having a tap running. "Yes," she said, which rather ended the conversation.
We entered David for one "best baby" competition in a local village show and he won first prize, which consisted of a spoon and pusher (an alternative to a fork, not a buggy). This was an impulsive action on our part, so unplanned that we both left our door keys at home. We called on our landlord, Mr Geach, but he had no spare, so I had to break a glass panel in the back door and replace it later.
Dr Porter passed me all the correspondence to the Observatory Magazine that related to subscriptions. Suppose, for example, that Mary Smith wrote in with a cheque for a year’s subscription, the magazines to be sent to her boy friend John Brown and the first issue to be sent as near to Christmas as possible. It was my job to send her a receipt and add John Brown to the distribution list, perhaps making special arrangements for the first issue. I tried to deal with the routine work on receipts and subscriptions in my lunch hour, doing a little each day so as to keep up to date.
In between each regular issue, Joan Perry was writing out envelopes from the master list. She was a clerical officer employed as secretary to Sadler, lived on the council estate in Herstmonceux with her mother and was glad to earn a little extra money from the magazine. She was rather a large woman who always wore a headscarf.
When each issue was printed, a block allocation of perhaps 900 copies went to the RAS for them to distribute. Another 300-400 were sent to the castle for individual subscribers, which included many university libraries and research groups. I am guessing at numbers, but I think these are about right. One or more large cardboard boxes were picked up by our official drivers, with other post and parcels, from Hailsham station or Polegate station, and delivered to me at the Castle.
Porter, Miss Perry and I would then arrange to work late at the Castle, after an evening meal, and spend a few hours stuffing magazines into envelopes; we ended by checking against the master list. Porter, as a PSO, had sufficient clout to persuade Mrs Marples to organise the meal. He lived at Carter's Corner, between Herstmonceux and Hailsham, and could therefore drop off Miss Perry in the village on the way home in his car. I never saw the inside of his house, but the large garden was certainly beautiful with flowers in the summer.
One of the messengers, Wemban, was used by Porter to make up open-ended parcels to conform to GPO regulations. If, for example, Jodrell Bank wanted six copies, this was a parcel rather than an envelope. Wemban did a beautiful job, with a wrapping of corrugated cardboard, a wrapping of paper, and coarse string going through a hole in both at each end; the ends had to be open to take advantage of a cheap rate for books and magazines.
Wemban was a quiet and helpful man, working mainly in the NAO, and did the parcels as an unofficial part of his duties; I think Porter gave him a Christmas box, but there was no other payment. Our normal messenger in the castle was a younger man called Hill, who was not inclined to volunteer for extra work. The head messenger was Langford, an imposing man with a waxed moustache and the manner of a sergeant major; he strove for high standards from the messengers and cleaning staff.
After helping with my first one or two distributions, Porter made it clear that I had now mastered the system and he would leave it to Joan and me in future. This left Joan without her normal car lift. I transported her on the back of my motorbike a few times, but it was really too lightweight a machine to carry two easily. After Helen and I moved to a council house in Herstmonceux, very near to Joan, I arranged for the boxes from the printers to be delivered to the house and we did the work there.
One useful source of new subscriptions was a certain Captain I. R. Maxwell, a bookseller with an address near the British Museum. He seemed to secure subscriptions from places in the USSR and China that we would not have got otherwise. This ability, at a time of strained relations with communist countries, made us raise our eyebrows. He also tried for big discounts from us, and we had to watch his order forms, but his cheques never caused us any problems. We were glad to have the extra subscriptions.
Maxwell, famous later as Robert Maxwell, sometimes complained that a particular issue had failed to reach the address of one of his customers and we would send out a spare, either direct or through him. After a few requests on behalf of one particular Chinese university, Porter said: "This once and no more. I don’t know what's happening, but we can't keep on." I sent the spare to Maxwell and told him of our decision.
All four editors commented on manuscripts submitted for publication, unless Porter thought the decision to reject or accept was absolutely obvious. We also each proof-read each issue independently, and submitted our marked proofs to Porter for comparison. This was a good arrangement; I was certainly keen to spot things that others had missed.
Each author received a standard number of free reprints and there was a published scale of charges for extra copies. Some institutions, particularly Jodrell Bank, asked for hundreds of reprints in special printed covers, with titles such as "Contribution number 234 from the Jodrell Bank Radio Astronomy Department..." Our printer produced these covers at modest extra cost, to which Porter then added a very large mark-up, arguing that the customers could afford to pay for their public relations exercises.
On Sundays I began to attend the Quaker meetings in Eastbourne. I had previously attended an enquirers' meeting at Friends House in London, while we were living at Greenwich, but had been advised that my nearest meeting was at Sydenham. This might have been true for a crow, but it was very difficult for me to reach by public transport, and after consulting a few bus timetables I never even tried. It would have been easier to travel to Friends House, opposite Euston station, instead.
I was admitted to membership in March 1955, continuing to attend at Eastbourne until we moved to Herstmonceux, which had its own Meeting House. This stood in a small plot on a main road out of the village, with a cottage on the same site but set back slightly. The average Sunday attendance was about five adults and thirty children. It was not that we were all fecund, but that many local Church of England families refused to let the local Rector get anywhere near their children. He was in his eighties and distinctly eccentric, so people said. The parents went to church, but sent their children to the FMH.
The woman who lived in the cottage, one of the Penrose sisters, took charge of the children and generally taught them in her cottage. She was married to an ex-German POW called Hans. He had worked on the Penrose farm, which was very near the village, during the war, had been well treated and had become friendly with the whole family. There were two or three other sisters, unmarried and still living on the farm with their elderly father.
The oldest sister was particularly kind to us, and invited us each Christmas to saw a branch off one of their yew trees to make a cheap Christmas tree. We also went to one family party at the farm. It was the sort of place that had a large kitchen with red stone tiles on the floor, and a large dining room with a grandfather clock. The sisters worked on the farm and I had the impression it was hard work and not glamorous.
I cannot remember exactly when Symms, Murray and the rest of the Meridian Department arrived from Greenwich, but it was only a few months after me. Symms moved into digs in Eastbourne; he was said by Blackwell to be lodging with an “old flame”. Whether this was true I don't know, but Symms was certainly uncommunicative on the subject. Gilbert Satterthwaite and Virginia Papworth lived in the hostel; I think the girls were in attic bedrooms within the castle and the boys were out in the huts attached to the social club. Andrew Murray, now married to Mary Nason, moved into a house specially designed for him by his architect father as soon as it was ready.
We were soon installed in our new RA office, with Symms in the huge bay window and my little desk near a much smaller window, with my back to the partition. Initially I put a few of my books on the wide window ledge between book-ends, with a sheet of brown paper to protect the paint, but Symms agreed I could ask the carpenter to build a shelf on the partition and this he did, with ends of a much fancier shape than I expected.
Soon after Hunter moved down from Greenwich, he invited me and the family to visit him and his wife in their new home near Battle. I think we cycled across, with David on the folding seat behind my saddle. The Hunters had at least three sons, possibly four, and they had bought a big old house on a hill, with grounds that they intended to cultivate almost as a smallholding to feed the family. Dr Hunter had invested in a mechanical rotovator and was pleased to show off his new toy. He was always very pleasant and encouraging, and his wife was also very nice to us.
Atkinson was still at Greenwich for a few more months. He sent down a draft paper on the (R - D) residuals in the old Airy TC observations, for comment by Murray and me. He claimed to have taken account of our previous comments, but he was still stating that certain harmonic terms present in the observations were theoretically impossible. I thought he was wrong and after discussion with Murray sent back my comments by post. Atkinson was soon on the phone to me, very argumentative and shooting down every remark I made. It was clearly time to drop this subject. He went ahead and published his paper, perhaps slightly revised, in MNRAS 115, 1955 pp. 427-442. My impression now is that he toned down some of his ruder remarks about the old observers, describing their results as "unacceptable astronomically" rather than theoretically impossible. The paper was, as usual, "communicated by the Astronomer Royal", who may have asked for changes.
A new Photographic Zenith Tube (PZT) was about to be installed at Herstmonceux, and I was given the job of studying the design of this instrument, supervising the installation and bringing it into use. It turned out to be a most interesting job, a pleasant mixture of practical and theoretical work with a dash of management, and a welcome change from the routine chore of checking arithmetic.
There had been Reflex Zenith Tubes in the 19th century, fixed tubes pointing upwards to avoid the problems of flexure in a moving tube and refraction at low elevations. Now Dr Perfect, a PSO at Abinger, had designed a more modern version, automated and with various flashing lights and moving photographic plates. The basic idea was that the observer would sit at a console in a warm room, punch a button at the right moment, and the PZT would go through an automatic cycle on one star in the catalogue. The observer would then press the button again a few minutes later, and the PZT would go through its cycle on the next star. The next morning the photographic plates would be developed (star plates and timing plates) and very accurate clock errors and latitude deduced. As well as the main console, there was a small pedestal of electronics in the pavilion, with a portable control panel of half a dozen buttons, so that we could conduct tests while watching the instrument.
Unfortunately Dr Perfect was very ill with cancer, and on indefinite sick leave with no likelihood that he would return. I was told very firmly that it was not possible to put minor technical questions to him, although the possibility of asking one or two major questions was not entirely excluded. A pile of papers perhaps four inches thick was handed to me and I was told to get on with it.
At first sight these were rough notes and calculations, with very little in the way of explanation, and I lacked any clear understanding of how the PZT was intended to work. But gradually the pieces of the jigsaw began to fall into place and my respect for Dr Perfect went up and up. He was clearly a talented design engineer with a much wider knowledge than I possessed. The calculations of various very small mechanical and astronomical effects were clear and accurate, as far as I could tell.
A few examples from memory are as follows. He looked at the torque required to rotate the main plate carriage within a given time interval, the accuracy of the 180 degrees of rotation, the damping effect of oil dashpots, the hardness of the metal stops that defined the limits of the rotation and whether they would become dented, and so on. He showed that the images of stars projected on to a moving plate would be pear-shaped, and calculated the centre of gravity of each off-axis image. He looked at various minute effects such as backlash and shake in bearings, to see if they were significant. In many cases they were not, but I was impressed by the fullness of his treatment.
Each of our zenith stars would produce a parallelogram of four images on the star plate. If the observer pressed the button a shade early the parallelogram sloped one way, if a bit late the other. It was the first clock pulse after the button was pushed that counted, and with pulses two seconds apart this might be up to one second early or late compared with the ideal time, so a slope was normal. The timing plates showed where the moving star plate was at a given moment, by flashing a light through a pinhole.
The instrument and console had been built by Sir Howard Grubb Parsons and Co. up in Newcastle, to Perfect's design. Although a well-known firm of telescope makers, they were more at home with large equatorials and had simply built the PZT to a specification; their contacts with Dr Perfect had naturally tailed off as his illness developed.
One day in November 1954, a small team of engineers/scientists and mechanics (mainly the latter in this initial party) arrived from Newcastle to lay out the base plate on a slab of concrete that was already in place. Winter was coming on fast and I put on my overcoat to go and watch them at work. Not for long. No sooner had I introduced myself and been introduced than they asked me an awkward question. Where was due North? They expected the most famous astronomical observatory in the world, the custodians of the prime meridian, to know the answer. I waved an arm in roughly the right direction, but this was not what they had in mind. It was our responsibility to give them a very accurate north-south line. I replied that I was under very strict instructions to watch, but not to participate in, the actual installation.
The background to my statement was that Atkinson was rightly very concerned about the contractual aspect: it was for Grubb Parsons to get the thing working without being able to blame me for a faulty adjustment or a dropped lens. The team looked very fierce and said in strong Geordie accents that they were under strict instructions to do nothing until we provided the N-S line. So I trudged back from the exposed ridge that was destined to be the site of the meridian group of instruments and reported the confrontation to Symms, feeling rather crestfallen that I needed help and advice within the first few minutes.
His chuckle cheered me up. "I don't blame them" was his attitude. He managed to get hold of Dickie Leaton in the Mag. and Met. Department, who for some reason was the holder and user of a theodolite. Dickie readily agreed to lay out a north-south line and proceeded to do it immediately. I was impressed, as always, when somebody takes a confident action of this sort, without fuss or complaint. He came, set up his theodolite, and did it. Whether he observed the sun or the pole star or both I'm not now sure. Presumably the sky was reasonably clear, or perhaps he used local landmarks. Whatever the technique, a few smiles appeared on the Newcastle faces and figuratively they picked up their tools again.
From then I became good friends with the Newcastle team and came to appreciate the strange lilt in their voices and their dry humour. During the working day we camped in the partly completed building that housed (or would house) the console (one room), the observers' rest room (a separate room), the kitchen, dark room (little more than a cupboard for loading plates) and lavatory. There was a single-bar wall-mounted electric fire in the observers' room, which was otherwise bare. It had a wood-block floor, large windows on two sides, no curtains or blinds and a few wooden chairs. Developed photographic plates (when we got to that stage) were propped on the top of the fire surround to dry; they were only about two inches square. The winter was very cold, and the single bar made no impression on the frost on the windows. I generally wore my white lab coat under my overcoat and was still cold.
The scientists/engineers from Grubb Parsons had a good background in optics, electronics and astronomy, but did not entirely understand the instrument they were building. They knew the tolerances that they had to meet, but not why, and were rather suspicious of the high standards. Why, for example, did the photographic shutter have to open and close at exactly the right moments? By chatting with them and sharing some of my knowledge, for example about pear-shaped images, I think I changed their attitudes for the better. They began to see that the tolerances were by no means arbitrary. As another example, they knew that the flashes on the timing plate should come out in sharp focus, and in a certain pattern such as groups of four, but they didn't know why the pattern was useful and had to be right. It was because we needed to identify the flashes correctly.
It took several months for the team to install the PZT and it was November 1955, a year after they started, before it was in routine operational use. There were many interesting problems along the way, as described in Chapter 5.
Early in 1955 I decided that I wanted to buy a motorcycle with sidecar, so that I could transport Helen and David. A reliable car was financially out of reach. I could take Helen for short distances on the back of my lightweight motorcycle, but only when David was being looked after. This had its dangers: one dark and wet night we almost crashed into the closed level-crossing gates at Pevensey Halt because I did not see a dim red light in the blinding rain until the last moment. Fortunately the gates were not square on to the road and I skidded and slithered in the right direction, roughly parallel to the gate and on to the verge, without any damage.
I talked to Derek Harragan, who owned a combination, and he said that, by a remarkable coincidence, he knew a man who wanted to change in the opposite direction. This was the bridge-player from the Eastbourne motorcycle shop, who had a twin-cylinder Triumph with sidecar, and wanted something like my Falcon. After some very mild bargaining we struck a deal and made the exchange.
It never occurred to me that driving a combination held any particular terrors and nobody warned me. One morning I set out confidently for work. The first few miles passed without incident. In the middle of Pevensey Marshes were some bends and I was unlucky enough to encounter a parked car on my left. I had to brake, and swerved right as the road bent left. I hit the grass verge on the offside and lost control. The machine careered across the verge and down into a dyke.
Now a dyke on Pevensey Marshes is not to be confused with a ditch. The dykes are four to five feet wide and about as deep, depending on how much rain has fallen. My head surfaced with my right foot trapped under the bike, which had fallen on its side under water. Fortunately my face was just above water, and within a moment I had managed to push at the saddle with my left foot and free my right foot.
A kind passing motorist offered to take me home, ignoring any worries about my dripping clothes. The bike was almost completely submerged. I think the driver, a complete stranger, waited while I changed my clothes and then took me to work.
A local garage hauled the machine out of the dyke. Over the next few evenings, and at the weekend, I worked to put the Triumph back into order before everything went rusty. Derek came round to help me; a capable and self-confident man, he made something of a joke of what we were doing.
The work to be done was quite substantial, but we eventually got the engine running again on the Saturday afternoon. I was agreeably surprised and Helen was probably surprised too. Derek drank a pot of tea with us to celebrate our great success. I had certainly been glad of his willing and cheerful help.
I was determined not to be beaten and did ride the combination for several more weeks. Sometimes Helen and David rode in the sidecar; we used it to go to events at the Castle and for shopping in Eastbourne. I mastered the knack, but never felt entirely happy. Moreover, the sidecar was not very comfortable, giving a bumpy ride, and would soon be too small to hold Helen and a growing infant. We were likely to move into a council house in Herstmonceux with a narrow front gate, not nearly wide enough for the combination. So in the late spring of 1955 we all went over to Hastings, to a very big dealer with a mixed reputation, and traded in the combination for a new Francis-Barnett Kestrel, slightly smaller than the Falcon.
Flora McBain was a PSO in the NAO, a thin, quiet, unmarried woman who smoked a good deal. She was somewhere in her forties. She had been one of the secretaries of the RAS for a few years and was well known there. When she became engaged to an unknown man from Bath, probably an Admiralty man, what could be more natural than for the President of the RAS to announce her engagement at the very next meeting and offer his congratulations from the chair?
One month later the President rose again and congratulated Miss McBain on her marriage - to Donald Sadler! This was a sensation. We learned later from our friends in the NAO that Sadler had been very upset by her engagement and had literally been down on his knees in her office to plead his own case. The knees part of the story may be apocryphal.
Their marriage was in very late 1954. The relevant RAS meetings must have been in late 1954 and early 1955, but the remarks by the President do not appear in The Observatory.
We moved into a council house at 12 Fiennes Road, Herstmonceux, at the end of June 1955. I don't seem to have a note of the exact moving day, but we paid our final rent for Happidaze on Sunday 26th June. My father came down to stay with us in Pevensey on that day, and was distempering with me at Herstmonceux on Monday 27th. I think we cycled across together.
The house had been occupied by the Carters, who were now moving into a bungalow they had bought in the village, in the lane leading down to the Castle. Mrs Carter was not well - heart trouble, I believe - and her husband (who worked in the NAO) had been doing a lot of the housework. Consequently, he had neglected the small back garden, which was in an overgrown state, with weeds about waist high.
Gilbert Satterthwaite, with Rodney Jackson from the chronometer workshops, took over the bungalow in Pevensey Bay. They both had the best of intentions about sharing out the cleaning duties, but Gilbert was soon complaining that Rodney slept late at the week-ends and tended to postpone his part of the work. They also got on bad terms with an elderly neighbour at the back because their weeds were spreading into his garden and he dumped his dug-up weeds back on to their growing weeds to discourage them; a sort of poetic justice.
The council house we occupied from July 1955 to March 1957 was modern and of a good standard, with three bedrooms, two reception rooms and an outhouse. It was therefore significantly larger than our first flat, or the Pevensey bungalow. There was an Aga solid-fuel stove in the dining room, intended to give heat, cooking and hot water. There was a single-storey outhouse along the left side, where I could keep my solo motorcycle and have a work bench; there was also a W.C. and a fuel store.
Many of the other council houses on the same estate, Deanfield, were occupied by RGO staff. The Leatons were in the other half of our semi-detached pair in Herstmonceux and were good, friendly neighbours. B. R. Leaton tended to be called Brian at home and Dickie at work. He and Olive had a daughter Christine and a younger son Tim. I think an elderly mother also lived with them for a time. On our other side were the Cooks. Mr Cook worked in a local engineering firm and was a keen gardener. Their only daughter, Pat, went to work in the local council offices when she was fifteen and sometimes put notices through our letterbox about such matters as increased rates. It was Mr Cook we saw mostly, and he gave a jolly shout and wave whenever he saw David in our garden. He was a good sort and once did a little welding job at work on one bit of our mangle, without charge.
Round the corner, but visible from our back garden, was the house of Jim Clarke the driver and his family; he was a delightful quiet man not much older than me, with whom I got on well. Our other official driver, Johnny Manser, did not live on the estate. He was a more flamboyant character, a short and cheerful man in his forties who rode a motorcycle and ran a little sideline by dealing in cars and motorcycles for the staff. There was great amusement once when he was presented with a safe driving award by the AR: we all knew he had just been fined for speeding on his motorcycle.
Backing on to our garden, and virtually invisible through our hedge, was the home of Joan Perry and her mother, with Philip Laurie and family next door. Whale and his large family were in Fiennes Road, nearer to the main road. It was pleasant to be part of this community; apart from the Cooks, everyone mentioned above worked at the Castle.
Hailsham RDC proved to be good landlords. I asked for permission to do some internal decorating and was agreeably surprised when they not only said yes but offered to pay for the materials. I accepted their offer, although money was now a little easier; through a combination of pay rises for mild inflation, normal increments and some exceptional increases for the scientific grades won by IPCS at arbitration, my salary was now about £800 p.a. compared with the starting figure four years earlier of £475.
My only criticism concerns the way in which notices of rent rises were given to all tenants. I think this happened only once in our comparatively short tenure of less than two years, and we knew it was coming from various news items. Nevertheless, I had a shock when I opened a letter and found a notice to quit within one week. For legal reasons the old agreement had to be terminated in this way before it could be replaced by a new one, but for a few moments I did not make the connection and was quite startled.
When we first arrived we had a view over empty fields from our front windows, but the council estate gradually grew in the time we were there. We were delighted when the Nicholsons moved into one of the new houses and our David could play with their Susan. The Whitakers also moved into one of the houses and Jack Johnson and his family had one on the other side of our road, almost opposite us. Strange and Lacey, two of the skilled instrument makers from the workshops, had two of the houses. Strange's first wife had committed suicide in London, so we were all glad to see him re-marry and settle happily into his new surroundings.
We were keen to own a car as soon as possible, so it seemed sensible for me to take driving lessons (Helen already had a licence). I registered with a school in Eastbourne and took eight one-hour lessons, with the ninth used for the test, which I passed. Each time I rode my motorcycle into Eastbourne and put my helmet and gloves in the back of the school car.
One Saturday afternoon in winter, probably in late 1955, I went across on my motorcycle to a farm near Robertsbridge to see a man called James Todd. He was an important man in the City who was a member of the Public Works Loan Board (advising on government loans) and knew my father, a civil servant who assisted the Board. Todd wanted advice on good astronomical books and my father had said I could help, so I arranged to go and see him without any great enthusiasm on my part. I understood him to be James Ellerman Todd, connected to the family that owned the shipping line. From a later study of Who Was Who, I think he must have A.J.S.Todd, born1895, died 1978, whose mother was Emily Mary Ellerman.
Anyway, I found the right place, with very smart brick cowsheds in beautiful grounds and a house surrounded by terraces and shrubs. I was admitted, divested myself of my motorcycling kit and sat down to a pot of tea with the family. This was clearly a family home, with grown-up sons and daughters dropping in for a short visit or to spend the weekend. I'm not sure whether a maid brought in the tea, but it seems likely. The sandwiches were thin, the crockery of the finest china and the conversation elegant. Christmas was approaching and we all agreed how important it was to get away early in the New Year to a warmer climate. The winds could still be very cold in March, so one really needed to book a three-month cruise to do the job properly - on the Ellerman line, no doubt.
Todd told me as a fact that he had already made one fortune in the city. Now he had become interested in the breeding of pedigree Jersey cows. He was keeping careful records of milk yields, applying his management skills to all aspects of the herd, and had no doubt that he was on his way to a second fortune from what was more than a hobby, but not his main job. No doubt he also had expectations from the Ellerman line.
Yes, they were going away on a cruise and he had set himself the task of mastering astronomy, as he had mastered so many other things in the past. He assured me that he would succeed. Yes, he did want to include radio astronomy. I produced my list of recommended books and said a few words about each and why they were good. He listened, took the list and said he would buy the lot from his bookseller. Well, I didn't expect him to use the public library.
I never heard any more from James Todd and he didn't achieve any fame in astronomical circles as far as I know. I hope he enjoyed the books.
After I and the family moved to Herstmonceux village, in June/July 1955, my work at the Castle continued much as before and it is therefore convenient to continue the technical story, particularly regarding the PZT, in this chapter.
There was one significant change in working conditions, probably in 1956. We were asked to vote on a proposal that we work slightly longer hours from Monday to Friday, in order to stop working on Saturday mornings. This proposal for a five-day week was overwhelmingly supported by the voters and introduced soon afterwards.
The International Astronomical Union held one of its regular meetings in Dublin from August 29th to September 5th, 1955. I attended, with several colleagues from the RGO. I think the IAU met about once every three years in widely scattered locations such as Moscow and Tokyo, so this was a good opportunity to attend when it was comparatively near to us. Moreover, I had been elected to one of the commissions, that on comets, because of my published paper on accretion and the origin of comets, and I was an editor of a magazine that would be reporting the sessions.
I tried to get a grant for expenses out of the Astronomer Royal, but he refused. However, Porter offered five pounds to each editor who attended, provided we reported the main conclusions of any meetings in our field. This I accepted, and the money was quite a useful contribution to my expenses.
I travelled by train to Holyhead and then by overnight ferry to Dun Laoghaire. I think Andrew Murray may have been on the same train, but not in the same compartment because of a shortage of seats. I had booked a berth on the boat in a shared cabin. I think another man looked in to claim his berth but didn't appear for the rest of the journey.
In Dublin I shared a room with Andrew at Jury's Hotel, near the centre of the city. Andrew was restless, and seemed to find the room unbearably hot at times when I thought it was comfortable. This was before he had his thyroid operation. Symms shared another room with Harold Ridley, an enthusiastic amateur astronomer who was a schoolmaster by profession. The four of us often had a drink together in the evenings and the three of us who were colleagues did our best to make the fourth welcome. I thought we got on well together, but Symms made a few private comments about Ridley being a fussy old woman.
Drinks were cheap. Symms contacted an old friend called Nathy O'Hora and we went out for one evening spree together in his car. The three of us also went on some of the excursions together and often had afternoon tea together at various cafes. Sometimes we bumped into David S. Evans, a Welshman then working in South Africa at the Royal Observatory in Cape Town. Symms was quite good at getting into conversation with the waitresses; he told one (correctly) that we had just met Mr de Valera at a reception. Then, when she said he was a fine man, we began to pull her leg that Churchill was even finer. There was an IRA problem even then, which I remember discussing with Professor McCrea once in a university snack bar, when he said he came from Ireland. He teased me that he might be a member of the IRA.
I particularly enjoyed being in the company of Symms and Murray at this time. We knew one another well and were fairly relaxed, being away from our normal surroundings and duties. I have a happy photo somewhere of the three of us lying on a grassy hill overlooking Dun Laoghaire harbour.
Some problems arose while the Grubb Parsons people were still installing the system, and some more when it was nominally in working order and we tried to reduce our pilot observations to get sensible answers. It is convenient to group both phases in this chapter, although some of the problems may have appeared while I was still living in Pevensey Bay.
It must be borne in mind that initially we had no established observing routine, no laid-down procedures for collecting, developing and measuring the plates next morning, and no printed forms for the arithmetical work unless and until we designed them and sent away for them to be printed. Everything had to be thought out from scratch.
The large console displayed green lights, some flashing, for equipment that was functioning correctly, amber informative lights and red lights when something was amiss. The timing sequence was controlled by a continuously rotating electric motor visible from the front of the console through a perspex cover. A clutch engaged as soon as the button was pressed for the next observation, causing a shaft to rotate; the shaft carried various cams to open and shut contacts.
For example, the shutter in the pavilion might open twenty seconds after the button was pressed, close again twelve seconds later, open again fifteen seconds after that, and so on. When the sequence was complete, the clutch disengaged and the shaft ceased to rotate until the next observation. It was soon found that a variable power supply caused problems. This was a period when power cuts and voltage reductions in the public supply were fairly common, so we installed a large Variac transformer and a voltage meter to compensate for the reductions.
Light from each zenith star was reflected by a floating dish of mercury at the base of the tube. This dish had three legs going in to three cylindrical mercury dashpots, to prevent it floating off out of sight. However, it seemed to twist and oscillate, which produced vibrations across the surface of the mercury, far more than we wanted. Symms suggested putting strips of plastic foam rubber into the dashpots, to discourage movement without entirely preventing it. Sissons, the project manager from Newcastle and hence the decision-maker while the telescope still belonged to them, looked at this problem on one of his visits. Initially sceptical of such a simple and homely solution, he became convinced and agreed to this small modification; it worked well during the whole of my time at the RGO.
At some point, the Grubb Parsons people looked at the hardened metal stops that controlled the rotation of the plate carriage and said they were damaged. They darkly wondered who had been interfering with their beloved and delicate machine while they were not there. The answer did not become apparent until later. The rotation of the carriage was slowed down at the end by an oil dashpot, in much the same way as some doors close slowly over the last few inches because of a dashpot. One day I was in the pavilion while the PZT was going through an automatic cycle. It crashed round into the stops with a tremendous bang. It was clear that the dashpot had failed to work for some reason, but exhibited this fault only occasionally. I deduced (correctly) that the plunger had failed to rise from the previous rotation and could not, therefore, be driven down into the oil again to exert its braking effect.
We told Grubb Parsons about the explanation of the damaged stops, to restore our reputations in their eyes and help them on the design of later instruments, but the PZT now belonged to us. An electronics expert, John Pope, was summoned from Abinger and brought with him a young assistant called Eric Shepherd (who later worked with me at GCHQ and rose to be an SPSO). They fitted a micro switch to the dashpot plunger, such that the power supply causing the rotation was cut off if the plunger had not risen to its proper position. This cured the damage problem, but presumably led to an occasional aborted cycle - I cannot now remember.
When we came to try to measure the plates and deduce clock errors, we used star positions specially calculated for us by the NAO. The faint stars transiting in our Herstmonceux zenith formed our own PZT catalogue, not available in any published catalogue of bright stars, and had been observed over a period with the Airy Transit Circle. So the NAO kindly worked out the daily positions for us with their punched-card machines. However, the NAO said we would have to add in the nutation terms, which for some reason they had not included. Murray, however, reckoned that these daily positions exhibited just the variations from day to day he expected from nutation, and he warned me that my clock errors might turn about to be (say) 2.4 seconds in error. Three times the NAO assured us this was not so, so we went through the labour of applying nutation.
They appeared to be right when the clock errors turned out to be (say) 0.3 seconds (I forget the exact figures), but this was a worryingly large quantity. We had used an assumed longitude for Herstmonceux that could be very slightly in error, but surely not by this amount. We thought about our clocks, the delays on landlines etc., and huge gravity anomalies. Various wild theories were put forward, but nothing seemed to fit. In the course of these discussions we rather forgot about the nutation terms. Then I found the answer.
I carefully timed all the key events in our automatic cycles, by displaying the opening and closing of various contacts on chronograph tapes. Some of them appeared to be slightly in error, by (say) a tenth of a second, but the major error, which I missed for some time, came on the very first contact, when the clutch engaged. The handbook said this happened 16 seconds after the first clock pulse following the button being pressed. Each two-second pulse stepped a uniselector contact round to the next position, until it reached the clutch contact. The true delay was fourteen seconds, not sixteen. When we applied this correction, and took out our nutation terms, the clock error of nearly 0.4 seconds was very largely explained and only a very small quantity, perhaps a few milliseconds, remained. We all heaved a sigh of relief. Herstmonceux was roughly where we thought it was; it was the NAO and Grubb Parsons who had made misled us.
However, the chronograph tapes still showed some worrying little errors in the timing cycle. Symms came and helped me, perhaps expecting to spot what I was missing or doing wrong, but the mystery deepened. The clutch engaged at exactly the right moment, the cams on the shaft appeared to be tightly attached to the shaft, yet the times of other contacts varied from cycle to cycle. In the end I spotted a pattern, not immediately obvious because of the measurement errors of the very small quantities we were trying to measure: on any one star, the contacts tended to be all early or all late by the same amount, but the amount varied from star to star.
An explanation then occurred to me that was absurdly obvious, once you knew the answer. We had been carefully timing the moment at which the clutch engaged. What about the disengagement? This was controlled by one of the cams on the shaft and, in theory, had to be right if the engagement time was right. But suppose the clutch plates stuck together for a moment on disengagement? Then the shaft would rotate a little too far and come to rest in not quite the right position, ready for the next cycle. Sure enough, we were able to gather evidence that the clutch was sticking. The problem was mechanical rather than electrical and was largely cured by cleaning the clutch plates and the splines on which the moveable plate ran. I don't think any other actions were needed.
All this was rather fascinating and I was enjoying myself. To set the more baffling mysteries in context, it has to be appreciated that we were struggling at the same time with normal unreliabilities on a strange instrument. Sticking relay contacts were something of a problem, particularly in the cold pavilion, and I sometime had to poke about with a ruler inside the control pedestal to get the relays working correctly. Since some of these controlled high-voltage supplies (2000 volts?) to the flashing lights, there was a safety cutout on the pedestal cover to cut off all power if the cover was removed. But this left us with incurable problems, and on one of his visits Pope made up a "cheater cord", a well- known device among test engineers, to kid the equipment that the cover was still in place; it was the only way he could take voltage readings, for example, inside the pedestal.
I sometimes used the cheater cord when I was on my own at night, in the early days of the PZT, to cure some fault. I shudder slightly now at the risks, but I was pretty careful to use a wooden ruler as my probe, and to follow the classic advice to keep one hand in my pocket. To be a solitary observer, at night, using high-voltage equipment is slightly risky, but we often do it with TV sets; it is poking about inside that raises the risks appreciably.
The phonic motors that drove the plate carriage across the meridian also caused some trouble. There was one fixed motor to the east and one west, so that the clutch could engage one or the other after each reversal; they ran from a 400v, 1000 cycle supply and had to be started with a sort of bootlace at the start of each observing duty. The first problem was that the tuning fork controlling the thousand cycles had been tuned to a thousand cycles per solar second rather than per sidereal second. Who discovered this I don't know, but it was thought to be sufficient to cause blurred images and had to be changed.
The motors were difficult to start correctly; they could slip into a mode of rotation at the wrong speed. As a hazard, the motors had bare screw terminals; I was told by Blackwell that he had received a nasty electric shock of a burning type once or twice, so I tried to keep my fingers well clear and was never caught. I wonder now, more than fifty years later, why was there no cover over terminal screws carrying such a high voltage.
One very cold night the photographic shutter, a part-cylinder driven by electric motor, was too sluggish (because the oil was thick) and refused to rotate right round to the open or closed position and catch in its correct position. Perhaps I would have been justified if I had given up under this fault condition and gone home, but since the PZT was my baby I didn't want to be beaten. So for each star I pressed the start button on the console, then dashed across to the pavilion and up a ladder resting on a girder near the roof. There I waited to assist the shutter round to its stops; there were four opens and four shuts during the cycle, to get the four images on one star. As soon as the cycle was finished, I dashed back to the hut to press the button for the next star. There was no time in the hut to eat my sandwiches or drink from a flask of tea, so I carried these across and rested them on the shutter disk attached to the girder. It was hectic work.
There was a rather smart wooden box with baize-covered recesses for the plate holders, small silvery cylinders like pistons in a car. I believe there were several unexposed plate holders in the top row at the start of an evening duty and the exposed plates were put in the bottom row. In theory we changed the plate holder about once an hour, so there were three plates from a three-hour duty. At four images per star and (say) nine stars per hour, that gave us 36 images on each plate to sort out, and group into parallelograms, the next day.
One morning, after about two hours of clear weather the previous night, one of my two plates had no star images at all, and we wondered what strange fault had developed. Then double the usual number of stars was found on the other plate. I have no idea how the mix-up occurred, but there was no doubt that I had removed a plate holder half way through my duty, then put it back in error. My face was a bit red over boobing in this way, which was inconvenient rather than fatal.
The first task the next morning was to develop the plates. Virginia Papworth normally did this in a darkroom in the castle, round towards the kitchens. One interesting feature of this room was that, if you were working in total darkness to handle very sensitive panchromatic plates, you could turn on a loudspeaker that gave out two-second pips, which could be counted for timing purposes.
One of the clerical officers in the General Office, J. H. Whale, claimed that he had shown how to do this. Time signals were distributed to all domes, but the experts said they could not be offered to the darkroom, because turning the loudspeaker on and off would present a variable electrical load and hence affect the accuracy of the service. To which Whale said, why not switch to a dummy load of the same impedance when not using the loudspeaker? Oh yes, said the electronics experts, we could do that.
Early on, Virginia complained about the difficulty of lifting small wet plates out of dishes at exactly the right moment. They were thin and difficult to lift by the edges from a flat dish. Could she please have a dimpled bottom?
She said this with a twinkle in her eye and was probably not surprised to be teased over the next few days about dimpled bottoms and flat bottoms. I suggested a piece of reeded or crockled glass would do the trick and would be chemically inert, not affecting the developing. So pieces of reeded glass were cut to size for the developer dish and the fixer dish and proved to be a great help.
One day one of the assistants brought some plates into the office that she had developed and said they exhibited blisters. We were a bit surprised. Symms had a look at them and was puzzled. I then asked her the vital and embarrassing question: had she made up some new developer that morning? Yes she had. Did she have to use hot water to make up the solution? Yes. Had she let it cool? Well, she thought she had. Perhaps she had used it while it was still warm. We teased her a bit after that by asking for a few mornings whether she had boiled the plates yet.
It was primarily my job to devise a routine arithmetical procedure to reduce the observations and find two unknowns, the clock error and latitude variation, but Murray took more than a passing interest. He was fascinated with the properties of the parallelogram of four images on each star and was convinced that the unknown quantities could be deduced from each star by measuring the lengths of the two diagonals only.
My own method, in which the best scale factor was deduced from all the stars on the plate, was working by this time and producing reasonable results, but Symms was not averse to a little healthy rivalry and an independent method; I also was interested and saw the merit of an independent check, although I thought my method was sounder. Murray duly proved his theorems and was rightly pleased with the elegance of the maths. So we devised forms for both methods, and these were printed up for us by the Varitypists.
Two Eastbourne girls, Valerie Page and Maureen Harmer, had been recruited together as SAs and we put them on to the new work involved in the plate measuring and the calculations. Pat Scott, the quiet and pleasant daughter of a man who worked in the NAO, also helped sometimes. Incidentally, I took Pat to the RAS at least once, and Virginia once or twice. Pat married Brian Scales just before I left the RGO and died a few years later of a brain tumour. I was saddened by this. I bumped into her father once by chance, in the departure lounge at Heathrow, and offered my sympathies.
On the PZT work, it was Valerie Page who used my method and Maureen who used Murray's. Valerie was thin, bright and sharp at her work. Maureen was plumper and suffered from mastoid problems in her ears that made her a little deaf to an extent that varied from time to time. Andrew Murray was very patient with her. We hoped that both would become observers on the PZT soon, but there were transport problems for girls of sixteen or seventeen who travelled to and from work on the bus.
In addition to two methods and two SAs, we had two measuring machines. One was a straightforward machine of the travelling microscope type, which (I think) merely measured the distance between any two images; we could certainly use it on the timing plates. We also brought a Zeiss measuring machine into use; this was a very high precision machine that the AR had acquired from Germany, for measuring in two dimensions. He saw it as the main RGO plate-measuring machine of the future. The plate-holder could be moved in any direction over a very flat circular disc of plate glass. Two glass bars mounted at right angles to each other moved with the plate holder and were accurately marked with engraved divisions. The small distances between these divisions were measured somehow in the viewing microscope of the system.
Walter Grimwood had been spending most of his time for several months investigating the supposedly small errors of this machine. He had worked on his own with the machine up in the ballroom, above our heads, under the general direction of the AR; his intended replacement by Rudd from Abinger had not taken place, because of Rudd's death. He had taken notes of the temperature and had measured small distances and large distances on test plates, coming up from the left and then the right to test for any backlash. He had rotated the plates through 90 degrees and measured the distances again, then another 90 degrees and so on. He had moved the plate to test and compare different parts of the scale bars. In short, he had undertaken every test that man could devise and repeated them umpteen times. He had kept careful notes and plotted various graphs to show the AR.
In due course the Zeiss machine was very carefully brought downstairs and installed in our office, on the other side of the partition from me. We began measuring the PZT plates on both machines. It soon became apparent that there was a major discrepancy. Everyone who heard about this was surprised, but assumed that the travelling microscope machine must be the more inaccurate. It was another mystery. In a practical sense it didn't greatly matter, because we were converting units of length into arcs in the sky with a scale factor deduced from the plates.
One day when I was struggling with this problem I looked at a few comparisons between the same plate measured on the both instruments. I will invent a couple of figures to illustrate the magnitude of the discrepancy. A distance of 1.214 units in the plate co-ordinates on the travelling microscope was coming out as 1.297 units on the Zeiss. We generally worked in terms of these units and converted them from distance to right ascension and declination without thinking about the original units, but surely they were inches? If so, the discrepancy was nearly a tenth of an inch. A tenth of an inch on my wooden ruler looked an enormous quantity. I held the plate up to the light and put the ruler against it to make a rough measurement. It came out nearer to the travelling microscope version of the truth than the Zeiss.
Yet the scales on the Zeiss were clearly calibrated in centimetres. It turned out that there was an optical system inside it that was reducing the image size by a factor of about 2.54. But only very roughly. It was producing quite substantial errors by our standards.
Symms was greatly amused, and relished the thought of breaking the news to the AR. Months had been spent investigating minute errors of a ten thousandth of an inch or less, and yet the incorrect scale factor of 2.54 and the tenth-of-an-inch errors had been missed.
Tommy Gold appeared as an SPSO and Chief Assistant at Herstmonceux in about 1953, but stayed only about four years and had left by early 1957. He was in his early thirties when he arrived, not much impressed with pomp or bureaucracy and inclined to put his feet up on the desk when talking to you in his first-floor office, above that of the AR. This informality could be refreshing, but I don't think he settled at all into the civil service way of doing things. He was also rather inclined to assume that we were doing everything wrong.
In anticipation of commissioning the Cooke RTC, we had to look at how we would measure the photographs from the cameras that recorded the circle readings. These frames on 35mm film would typically show one or more wires, fixed in the camera, and a few divisions on the circle. If a wire totally or partially obscured a division, we needed to use another wire. I drew out the divisions on a large scale on a sheet of paper, slid imaginary sets of two or three wires over them and depressed everyone by showing that two wires at any spacing would not do and we needed at least three.
Gold, meanwhile, was full of enthusiasm for a new method of measurement, not particularly relevant to this problem. He wanted to blow the photographs up to a large scale and measure with an accurate pantograph, the movements of which would be measured by a photographic grating moving over a fixed grating; if the rulings on the gratings were slightly inclined to each other, moiré fringes would be generated that moved rapidly for small movements of the grating. The moiré fringes could then be counted electronically.
He put all this to Symms, and I was instructed to think about the design of such an instrument. A key component was a miniature precision ball-bearing pivot, to be used in each pivot of the pantograph, so my first task was to enquire about such bearings. We had some dealings with Hoffman, a maker of such devices, but I think their information and advice was not particularly favourable, so Gold's idea was not pursued with any great vigour. The RTC was not yet in use and Symms was not enthusiastic, in the sense we would save very little labour compared with normal travelling-microscope methods of measurement.
Gold originally drove a little old Hillman Minx that had done some huge mileage and had cost him only thirty pounds. He sold it for twenty pounds or so much later, after doing thousands of miles, and was proud of this low depreciation. Once he had an accident in this car in Sweden or Finland. The car ended up in the ditch and he hurt his arm; a blood vessel ruptured and the whole upper arm turned into a swollen purple bag. Everyone who came along was keen to help him get the car out of the ditch, but not very interested in his injury. His attempts to explain the low value of his car and the high value of his arm ran into a language barrier.
Gold took a few of us to a series of afternoon lectures at Oxford, once a week, given by Jan Oort from the Netherlands. These talks, perhaps entitled Gas Dynamics and Galactic Structure, were on the large-scale structure of the universe. By now Gold had a more powerful Standard Vanguard, but it still took us about three hours each way for a one-hour lecture. On the way home we usually stopped at a hotel in Guildford, where you could get a buffet meal in the bar. Sometimes, when Gold was too busy to attend the Oort lectures, Wayman drove his car to and from Oxford.
I recall that Woolley also attended one of the lectures, probably the first, and we all went out to a restaurant in Oxford for a curry. I ordered a mild one on the advice of my friends and was staggered to find how hot it was. The new AR was much less remote than his predecessor, and quite willing to debate any astronomical issues, but he was rather a strong character, with very firm views, so it was not easy to make small talk. The usual passengers in the car were myself, Murray, Wayman and (I think) Bill Nicholson. We had some interesting conversations, but on the whole I didn't enjoy six hours of travel for a one-hour lecture.
One day, on a hectic journey towards Oxford, I saw a signpost with a mileage flash past. I did a little calculation and announced that we were winning. Gold was scathing about this comment, which he said was no more sensible than those of politicians who said that the threat of war was greater today, or conversely that it had receded. I defended myself warmly: whatever the faults of politicians, my phrase had a precise meaning. The ratio of time available to miles still to go was gradually increasing, so the average speed required to arrive in time was dropping slightly. Gold thought about this for a moment, climbed down and said in that case he understood my statement and it could have a precise meaning in that sense.
On one or two of our journeys, we managed to draw Gold out on his wartime work. My recollection (not entirely consistent with Hoyle's autobiography) is that he had shared a house in Guildford with Bondi and Hoyle, from where they had all travelled to various scientific jobs. Gold had worked for one of the service ministries in London on the problem of developing photographic film at very high speed, to gain quick intelligence from (say) aerial photographs. He had shown, not surprisingly, that the chemical process could be greatly speeded by using solutions at high temperatures and by spraying them in tiny particles at the film. The films could be developed after a fashion in seconds, rather than twenty minutes.
It was apparently normal, in those hectic days, for the members of the team to arrive home late and tired to a cold house. So they tackled the scientific problem of getting a coal fire burning quickly on winter evenings, mindful of Gold's work on film development. They made a metal sheet to hold up in place of the usual sheet of newspaper over the chimney opening. They impregnated their kindling wood with paraffin under pressure. They put their vacuum cleaner to blow rather than suck and applied the nozzle under the fire basket. As they introduced these ideas, one by one, their performance improved. Finally they were too successful: the fire basket melted in the furnace they had created and ran out as molten metal on to the hearth. Or so he said!
One of Gold's initiatives was to set up an apparatus in the castle for counting the arrival of cosmic rays; the idea was to give warning of any abnormal geophysical events that produced large changes in the rate of arrival, signifying huge showers. Wellgate and the other electronics experts at Abinger said it was possible to count upwards on dekatron valves (a line of valves actually displaying the number in units, tens, hundreds and so on by the position of a light in each) but not count backwards. That is to say, it was possible to "carry " from units to tens, e.g. 7+4=11, but not to do the opposite in counting down, e.g. 13-5=8.
Gold wanted to count events as positive if a cosmic ray particle arrived first at the upper bank in an array of detectors, but subtract if the particle arrived (from the ground rather than the sky) at the lower layer first. He got hold of an XO at Herstmonceux, Palmer, a quiet man with some electronics experience, and told him how to build the circuits. When this was done, Gold demonstrated success to a few of us, using a crude set-up in which he had a metal ruler and two crocodile clips attached to wires. He showed that, if he touched the ruler with clip one, then clip two, he incremented the count and if he touched with clip two, then clip one, the count decreased by one. The problem was solved in principle. Gold, very much an ideas man with a deep understanding of what interested him, was delighted that he had beaten the professional experts such as Wellgate. I was impressed in the sense that electronics was almost a closed book to me.
On one train journey with Gold, either from Oxford or London, a few of us played bridge. He was too immersed in science to waste time on such a trivial pursuit. He was skimming through a large textbook on geology and complained from time to time that it was all a matter of remembering names for different periods. He could find no interesting ideas and regarded the subject as no more inspiring than a set of cookery recipes; the subject was "all cookery".
He owned or rented a converted stable block of Lime House and was troubled by moles in the garden. These creatures not only throw up unsightly mounds of earth; they bore long tunnels between the mounds and these eventually collapse and have to be filled in by anyone wanting to keep a level lawn. Gold put up an advert in one or two local shops, asking if any of the countryside experts knew how to get rid of moles. One solution offered was to stand waiting with a gun and fire at any surfacing mole. You are unlikely to hit him, but he dies of heart failure.
Receiving no reply that he regarded as convincing, Gold devised his own experiments. He stuffed rags soaked in petrol into every hole he could find, blew the petrol fumes into the tunnel with his vacuum cleaner and then threw in a match. The resulting explosion made the whole ground shake. No doubt there were a few heart failures among his current underground lodgers, but others would take their place.
He was planning to move out of his house in Lime Grove, and sell some of his possessions, before Helen and I left Herstmonceux in March 1957, but I am not sure of exact date of his departure for a new post at Cornell. We bought a pedal car that both of our children used.
Richard Woolley arrived as the new Astronomer Royal in January 1956. Originally from South Africa, he had come to us from Australia. After a long and tiring journey from there, he was met at the airport by a bevy of reporters. He hadn't expected this. They handed him various written questions and he now assumed they would be asking about his plans for the RGO and so on. But the questions were mainly about space travel, which annoyed him. When he got to the umpteenth question on the same subject, he held it in his hand and said "This is utter bilge," meaning the question. The reporters got their own back for his lack of cooperation by quoting him as saying "Space travel is bunk."
Woolley was a big and tough man who bore no malice about this incident. He never complained, but he told a few of his friends at the RGO, including Symms, what had happened. A Giles cartoon appeared in the Evening Standard poking fun at his remark. He wrote in, congratulated the artist and asked if he could have the original. Giles agreed, and the cartoon then hung in the AR's office for all to see.
Symms told us that Woolley would wake the place up and introduce various overdue changes. We therefore awaited his first appearance in the Meridian Department with more than a little interest. Two or three days after his arrival, he strode in and demanded an unexpected piece of information.
"Morning Symms. Do any of your people play tennis?"
"Er, yes, one or two. Gething here, for example."
Woolley turned to me. "Got your kit here?"
"I'm afraid not. But Virginia Papworth plays, and she lives in the hostel."
"See if she could be out on court in fifteen minutes. I badly need some exercise.”
He told Symms later that he couldn’t sleep and his bodily functions are all out of kilter. So I need to tire myself out." He strode out and we broke the news to Virginia, who was a little surprised to be ordered to play tennis in official time.
Mrs Woolley was reputed to be suffering from some mental illness and had become a recluse. She was very rarely glimpsed in the living wing and never attended any social functions. When I played bridge occasionally in the AR's study in this wing, he always answered the door himself and, later in the evening, brought in a trolley of drinks and sandwiches. He was keen on most sports and had run a flock of sheep as a hobby in his previous job in Australia, herding them on horseback. He was a tough nut with strong views, but not unkind and anxious to help good graduate staff make rapid progress. He dropped into our office more frequently than his predecessor. However, some of the junior female staff found him rather abrupt and dictatorial.
He began to play bridge regularly with Donald Sadler and his wife Flora, initially at their flat on the seafront in Bexhill. He drove me there at least once to make up the fourth, as his partner. I remember an inquest when I laid down a good hand as dummy. "You were rather cautious in your bidding," said Flora. "But my values seemed to me to duplicate those of my partner," I said. Sadler chipped in, also criticising me for lack of courage. After a few moments, Woolley took his pipe out of his mouth and said four words that have stuck in my mind: "I support that bid." He returned the pipe to his mouth. Good for him: there were no further criticisms. We had an interesting conversation during one break about inflation and the difficulty of safeguarding one's savings. I made a few remarks about the merits of equities that seemed to surprise the rest and to go down quite well.
Because of my responsibility for the PZT, I was only slightly involved in installing the Cooke Reversible Transit Circle on a neighbouring site. Symms had already taken most of the design decisions and Blackwell supervised some of the work.
Symms had asked for a double-skinned metal building, painted white; the aim was to keep the inside air down in temperature during a hot day, so that there was as little thermal disturbance as possible when we opened the shutters in the cool of the night. He also asked for a large diamond-shaped slab of concrete to carry the collimators as well as the telescope. Piles were sunk under the slab to support it, but a consulting architect who was involved amused us by saying that the piles would probably be hanging from the raft after a few years, with a gap round them. The raft was on top of a slight ridge, and he reckoned the important question was whether it would float level in the mud or slide off the ridge (however imperceptibly) in one direction or the other.
The main RTC was supported on an adjustable base plate that sat on top of a fixed base plate. These plates were lowered into place by Westcott and his team from the workshops, using only sheer legs. I have a few interesting photographs of this process, taken by Blackwell.
We had some discussion about whether a grating could be mounted to cut down the light of bright stars, which tended to give big disks to bisect. Gratings over the object lens were used in some observatories, but Symms hated the idea of having the extra weight for bright stars only; there might be a systematic flexure effect. He also distrusted any filter at the eyepiece end, but on the sky side of the wires, and a lesser weight problem might also apply.
I wondered whether a grating could be mounted in the central cube, thus largely avoiding the problem of flexure. For a seven-inch objective, we were talking of something about four inches in diameter. Now Helen had a mincer-grater with assorted disks about four inches in diameter that could be rotated by means of a handle. I took a disk in one day to show Symms, pointing out that it was very light in weight, yet rigid because of its rim, and it had holes in it. Perhaps something on these lines could be tried or considered?
The diffraction effects of a grating half way between the objective and the eyepiece were something of an unknown, and I don't think I pressed the case very hard; I was merely pointing out that flexure would not be a worry with a very light disk in the middle of a massive cube. No change was made in my time at Herstmonceux.
We all missed the obvious solution to the opposite problem, that of seeing faint objects by day. We sometimes wanted to time the transit of stars in daylight, and Mercury was also a very difficult object against the bright sky. One day Arthur Milsom, an AXO who worked in the solar department, suggested that a polarising eyepiece might help. The light from the blue sky was heavily polarised and could be cut down considerably by rotating the eyepiece. This was tried, perhaps after I left the RGO (I think I heard the story later) and was a great success: Mercury came leaping out at the observer. It was a bit embarrassing that no meridian astronomer had thought of this over the past hundred years!
The RAS was due to meet in Bristol from July 8-11 1956. Helen and I saw the chance to combine this with a holiday, probably our first real break since our honeymoon in 1953. In 1954 we had had a week with my parents in Blackheath and in 1955 I had been to the Dublin I.A.U. meeting. Helen's friend Marion Caws lived in a large house in Weston-super-Mare with her mother and sisters, with a large flat up in the attic that we could use for a very nominal charge.
The three of us travelled down in the car of Gordon Taylor, who was an SSA with the NAO and very active in the BAA. Gilbert Satterthwaite was certainly another passenger, and perhaps Valerie Terry, his girl friend who became his wife; she certainly appears in photographs taken in Bristol.
Gordon had a reputation for slight eccentricity. At one time he owned a powerful motorcycle, a Triumph speed twin. He planned to make a long journey with his wife on the back and his baby in a cardboard box, strapped to the petrol tank. He was surprised when colleagues thought this was unwise. There would be air holes in the box, he assured them. But he was persuaded to make other arrangements.
We had a good holiday. I travelled into Bristol by train each day. Marion had a car and took us on one or two excursions. Her sister, who ran a wool shop, was friendly and they had a television set that we were invited to watch.
The 21st July 1956 was a Saturday. We planned to go out on our bicycles to some sort of local summer fete, or it may have been a garden that was open to the public. David and I were kicking a ball about in the back garden, waiting for Helen to be ready, when David stepped awkwardly on to the football and his left leg went out to the side with a nasty snapping noise. I was in no doubt he had broken a bone.
Helen agreed, even though the textbooks say that a child of two and a half can only suffer a greenstick fracture. As a trained first-aider, she used a walking stick as a splint and also tied the leg to the other leg, ankle to ankle, so that it would not shorten. Dr Robson came in answer to our call, congratulated Helen on her work, sent for an ambulance to take us to hospital in Eastbourne and said David might have to stay in overnight. In fact he was there for about eight weeks, with his plastered leg in traction for the early part of that period; he came home in about the middle of September.
Jack Johnson over the road said his seven-year old boy had cried when he heard the news. He also showed great sympathy, which is why I think his rough exterior hid a kind heart.
Andrew Murray went into the same hospital a month or so after David was admitted, to have part of his thyroid gland removed. Apparently he had been showing all the classic signs of an over-active thyroid. The operation was a success and Andrew was soon back at work.
E.D. Clements, an AXO always known as Clem, joined our RA team in 1956. He was a shy sort of bachelor with a nervous laugh. He cycled everywhere and was brown from the sun, with thick, strong arms, black hair and wire-rimmed glasses. I have a vague feeling that he had been moved from some other establishment where he had not been entirely happy. We made him welcome and I think he quite enjoyed the new work. He was very much an open-air man, always smiling, and the prospect of being an observer pleased him.
Philip Sykes joined from the Merchant Navy as an AXO, and worked mainly in the ZD team. He had been an officer who had sailed all over the world and had a fund of interesting stories. He left a few years later to join a company laying underwater cables.
As an aside, Virginia Papworth was very upset by something Symms said on one occasion. She and her colleagues had been sweating for days to get a certain job finished on some of the old RA ledgers. Symms walked in a few minutes late one morning and she proudly told him as he passed her desk that the work was complete. He gave one of his grins and said something like: "Who cares? It'll all be the same in a hundred years."
This was one of his favourite sayings, but very tactless in the circumstances. She fled in tears from the office, up to her bedroom. Murray and I agreed in private that Symms could be a tactless old so-and-so at times.
In about 1956, Gilbert Satterthwaite left for a post with the British Scientific Instruments Research Association, where his prospects appeared to be better. Perhaps it was at about this time that we recruited Sheila Osbon as a new SA.
I had joined the RO as a temporary SO and was apparently on probation for one year, which Atkinson extended for a second year. He recommended that my increment should be paid, but pointed out that he could have recommended the opposite.
Establishments such as the RO could recruit their own temporary staff, but establishment was a matter for the Civil Service Commission. It was vaguely suggested to me by colleagues that establishment was a necessary step on the road to promotion; on the other hand, some literature suggested that people on the SO ladder might prefer to remain as temporaries on the FSSU pension scheme, with greater freedom and mobility. It was all very confusing.
The Open Competition was an annual event and I applied in 1953 and was interviewed, but was turned down. Tommy Gold was on the board and I did badly on a statistical question that he asked. Shorn of some red herrings about Professor Besicovich walking along a street in Cambridge, the question is as follows: a large number of people, seeing an old man in the street, try to estimate his age. Will the average of their estimates converge to exactly the right answer as the size of the sample of estimators increases? If so, a large enough group can determine his birthday.
I was sure this conclusion was not correct, and did my best to suggest that the precision increases so long as the sample can use fresh, independent, reliable evidence, but in practice they cannot get rid of the systematic errors and uncertainties; for example, a man with grey hair may be quite young. Somehow I didn’t express this clearly enough.
Many years later, I saw statistics about establishment, plus a statement about the very low numbers for a period round about 1953 and 1954. Apparently the country was in severe financial difficulties, on the verge of bankruptcy, because of the high cost of the Korean war (June 1950 to July 1953). As a result, very few applicants were successful in 1952 and 1953.
Fairly soon after my transfer to Herstmonceux, Harold Newton, head of the solar department, invited me and Helen round for dinner in his house at Hailsham. Finch, head of the magnetic department, was also there, probably with his wife. Their major topic of conversation was the need for me to apply for establishment! No doubt this was well meant, but I needed no convincing and explained my difficulties to date.
Newton was approaching retirement, had very poor eye-sight and was rather a fussy man. He was also a bit notorious for massaging some of his data on solar flares. He had a card index of big events, classified as grade one flares, grade two and so on. These he would try to correlate with other events such as magnetic storms, to write another little note to The Observatory. Nobody doubted the correlations anyway, but he "improved" the data to improve the correlation. "Ah, I remember that flare well; it was really grade one, not grade two as the card says." Wayman, by now an SSO, reported this sort of remark to us with some amusement.
Finch was a quiet, neat man with a small moustache, probably in his middle forties. He was pleasant and seemed to run an efficient department, with Dickie Leaton as his right-hand man. Finch once had to deal with a rather irate mother, who stormed up to the castle to find out why her son, an SA, had not been promoted. In her eyes, the fact that her son was interested in the weather, had a Stevenson screen in the garden and read his home thermometers every night should have guaranteed rapid advancement. There was some sniggering about this episode, with a general agreement that mother's visit had done her son no good at all
In 1955 I filled in my application form again, attended a brief interview that seemed to be something of a formality, and was declared successful. To accept establishment I had to pay a fee, in the form of a large-denomination stamp to be stuck on a document. This had to be done at a main post office, the sooner the better, so Helen travelled into Eastbourne to sort this out for me. This was while we were still at Pevensey Bay. My date of establishment was finally shown as July 6th, 1955. From this date, I qualified for a pension under the civil service acts, as explained in an earlier chapter. Years later, I was able to “buy back” the missing years so that my pensionable service dates from my starting date at Greenwich. Even so, I cannot look back with any pleasure at the way in which the FSSU scheme operated.
When we were safely installed in our council house, we began to think seriously about buying a house. Patrick Wayman and his wife Mavis (neé Gibson) had bought a house in Bexhill, George and Betty Wilkins had a bungalow near Polegate, and Andrew and Mary Murray had a house in Herstmonceux, on the lane down to the Castle. We were beginning to feel that time was slipping by.
Herstmonceux had a good village primary school and (surprisingly) its own tiny cinema, but not much else. The small public library in a hut was open on only one or two afternoons a week. The last bus from Eastbourne left at 8.40 p.m., so there was no chance of seeing any films or shows in the evening there unless you had your own car. If we wanted a decent hardware shop, or a few planks of wood, or new curtains, we had to take the bus into Hailsham. More than once I brought long planks of wood home on the bus, propped under the stairs. Hailsham seemed to be the place to go. It was a small and rather sleepy market town at that time, but it had shops, banks, schools and solicitors.
We increased our efforts to save for a deposit. We needed to save a ten percent deposit, (say) two hundred pounds, more than a quarter of my annual salary at the time. We continued to put away five pounds here and five pounds there when we could, adding to our small savings; I had saved quite hard in the eighteen months when I was working as a bachelor; however, some of that had since gone on furniture.
As the deposit grew, I wondered how to make it grow faster still. We bought and sold some Glaxo shares, then bought and sold one of the first unit trusts, in both cases for a useful profit. The two together certainly helped us well on the way to our target. I was hooked for life.
Eventually we saw a house in Hailsham that looked possible. It was of the standard two-down/three up type, but rather dark and dingy, probably dating from the 1920's. We agonised a little over this rather unattractive proposition, but it seemed to be the best we could afford. I think the asking price was £2000. I began with a lower offer, but there was another client also interested, and the asking price eventually went up to £2100. I did cynically wonder whether the rival bidder really existed; either way, we couldn’t go any higher, so I withdrew.
My colleagues, who could hear the bargaining on our one communal phone, were sympathetic and supportive, which I appreciated. Helen entirely agreed that we could not stay in the auction. I think we were both slightly relieved, because of doubts about the house. But if our bid had been successful, I might have stayed at the RGO and life would have been very different.
My success with shares helped me to talk with some slight knowledge if the subject cropped up. Symms often mentioned Marks and Spencer shares and said he wished he could get his hands on some. I assured him that he could buy them through his bank on any day of the week, but he refused to believe me: no one in their right mind would part with such valuable shares. We had this absurd conversation on a number of occasions. Perhaps he meant that he would like to buy at the original issue price, in which case he was right!
Although I was pleased to be established, there were a number of reasons why I was beginning to wonder about a change. I had been in the Meridian Department for several years. I had soon come to appreciate that there was a good deal of routine work to be done, both during the day and when observing. I also found that night duties did not entirely suit me, leaving me more tired and lacking in initiative than I had expected. The problem became worse when David was born, ten months after our wedding. We began to have broken nights caused by night feeding and other disturbances.
Herstmonceux was certainly an improvement on Greenwich and Pevensey. For the first time in our married life we were the tenants of a proper three-bedroomed house of decent quality, at a very reasonable rent. We were among friends and colleagues. I had my lightweight motorcycle and could easily travel the two miles or so to the Castle for work and night duties. Work was going reasonably well, my involvement in the commissioning of the PZT was very interesting and I continued as an editor of The Observatory. I could attend meetings of the RAS and (once) the IAU. So I carried on and waited for the arrival of a new Astronomer Royal.
Woolley's arrival was generally welcomed, but it didn't make a vast difference initially at my level. Later he began to hold weekly seminars with some of the young graduates, including me, to talk about astrophysics. Our main text was "The outer layers of a star" by Woolley and Stibbs. Woolley had a high opinion of this book and aimed to study one chapter per week, with one of the group introducing the chapter and summarising the main conclusions. I approved of what he was doing, but felt at a disadvantage compared with some of the others because my day-to-day work involved no astrophysics.
Woolley soon made it clear that he wanted to send either Murray or me to the Cape Observatory in South Africa, on an exchange with one of their staff. The carrot that he offered was that the one who went would broaden his experience and hence be the stronger candidate for Symms' job at PSO level when Symms retired. For family reasons I was not enthusiastic, and I don't think Andrew was either. Symms also questioned whether it would be wise to go. He didn't directly criticise Woolley, but did suggest quietly to us that the RGO had better instruments and a better programme of work than the Cape. His advice strengthened my own feelings that I might do better to broaden my experience within the RGO. I did not visualize myself as staying in the Meridian Department for the whole of my career.
Our lack of enthusiasm reached Woolley's ears and he called me into his office for another chat one day. He approached the subject indirectly, and in a very reasonable way. By this time I had played bridge with him on a number of occasions, travelled in his car to bridge at the Sadler flat on a few occasions, and played against him in a tennis tournament at least once. We were colleagues rather than close friends, but there was goodwill in both directions: we could communicate. The previous AR had not mixed much with junior staff and had visited the Meridian Department rather infrequently.
Could I please give him some advice, Woolley asked. He wasn’t familiar with the niceties of the civil service regulations. What sort of terms would be required to persuade a man from Herstmonceux to go to the Cape, and vice versa? I suggested that there would have to be a clear financial incentive for both the people affected, since both would be leaving their homes, relations and friends for a period. He seemed disappointed by this answer and doubted whether this was possible; if, say, an SO from the RGO filled an SSO post at the Cape, then an SSO from the Cape would have to fill an SO post at the RGO. They couldn't both gain on the deal.
I chatted again to Symms, partly about promotion prospects. Both Wayman and Wilkins were now SSOs, but it seemed I had to wait because I was a good deal younger. I was not at all happy at the idea of being penalised for having passed exams at a comparatively young age, but I found later, from experience of sitting on promotion boards, that civil service guidelines did indeed place a considerable emphasis on age.
The AR was sometimes asked to suggest people for astronomical posts and a few of these vacancies were beginning to filter through to me, now Woolley was in post. Perhaps Symms had put in a word for me. Would I like to be a lecturer in Minnesota? I looked up the climate, which was dire in winter, and said no. Would I like to be an astronomer in Perth (W. Australia), under Spiegel? The trouble there, said Woolley, was Spiegel. It seemed a long way from relations and friends, so I said no. Would I like to be an astronomy lecturer in Glasgow? Not really.
I made enquiries about jobs with IBM, the Patent Office and British Aerospace, but nothing looked very attractive. For the first two, I would be regarded as a new graduate and paid a low starting salary, and both involved routine work rather than research. BAe looked more interesting. The company advertised for mathematicians to work on some form of celestial mechanics, in connection with rockets and space flight. This was at least a year before the launch of the first Sputnik, and I still do not know what project they had in mind, but I was rather intrigued at the time. I was a mathematician by training and I had worked right through Smart's book on celestial mechanics and pointed out some errors. So I filled in an application and was asked to come for an interview at Luton Airport. More and more interesting. I caught the train to Luton and presented myself for interview.
A middle-aged man with two younger acolytes appeared, and everything went well for a time. I could talk knowledgeably about some aspects of celestial mechanics and the cometary orbit I had calculated. Then we moved from relativistic effects on planetary orbits to relativity in general and Einstein's latest ideas for some sort of unified field theory, where I was floundering. The interview did not go particularly well from then on, so I was not entirely surprised to receive a brief rejection by post.
Symms had been aware that I was taking leave to attend interviews, and perhaps the RGO had been consulted about references once or twice. One day Woolley called me into his office for a chat. I don't remember the details, but he eventually asked me if I would like a change of department. It turned out that he meant another branch of the civil service, not another department in the RGO. I was certainly willing to explore other possibilities within the Scientific Civil Service.
Within a few days I received a phone call from a man at headquarters somewhere, presumably in the Admiralty, to talk about one possibility.
"I understand you are no longer interested in astronomy," he said.
"I wouldn't put it that way," I said, "but it's true I have expressed interest in a transfer."
He said there were vacancies at GCHQ in Cheltenham and he would fix me up with an interview. He wanted me to be clear that we were talking about a voluntary transfer and that I would have to pay my own expenses of moving. This I had assumed anyway. If we bought a house in Cheltenham, the expenses of furnishing that with carpet and curtains and the various legal fees would be no worse than doing the same in Hailsham. It would be easy enough to give notice and move out of the council house.
I had heard of GCHQ: an old school friend, Denis Mardle, worked there and had made very guarded references to interesting work. He also seemed to be doing quite well in their special grading structure, placed somewhere between SO and SSO. So I agreed to make a visit to Cheltenham, and wrote to Denis for advice. He wrote back with useful information. The only doubt he expressed was on whether I would find the security irksome.
The interview took place on 17th December 1956. I think I must have stayed overnight in London with Helen's parents and caught an early train from Paddington. An official car met me and whisked me to the Oakley site. Here I was interviewed by Dr G. W. Morgan and Toby Harpur. I found out later that Gerry Morgan had very recently been appointed as Head of M Division, the Science and Engineering Research Division, as a DCSO. He was a mathematician who had been a code breaker during the war and had received a CBE at a very early age; rumour said it was breaking (solving the riddle of) the third or fourth wheel of one of the German cipher machines. In fact he had been working in Hut 6 at Bletchley Park, graded as an Army Major. I didn't know all this at the time. He simply interviewed me like a kind and rather cosy uncle. He asked if I would be interested in working on radio propagation; there was an extensive literature, some of it rather mathematical, and they needed someone to become expert in this field. I said yes. I was in a mood to accept almost anything, but this did sound genuinely interesting.
After a brief break for lunch, I was called back and Dr Morgan gave me an immediate decision. "I'm taking a favourable view," he said, but no doubt he warned me that it would be some time before I had anything in writing. He then arranged for the official car to drop me in the centre of Cheltenham, to start the process of house hunting. I was not accustomed to such consideration from senior staff.
I went to only one agent and had time to take quick look at only one four-bedroom house, 7 Russet Road. We could now afford a rather bigger deposit. It looked an excellent proposition, cheap by Sussex standards. Late that night I got back to Herstmonceux and said to Helen: "I've got the job and found a house." The uncertainty was over.
I must now break the house/job narrative to mention that I played in the Hastings Chess Congress, from December 27th 1956 to January 5th 1957. As a keen chess player, I felt the lack of any club near Pevensey or Herstmonceux. The Hastings Congress was the most important and famous event in the British chess calendar, with the Open and Premier tournaments attracting very strong players from all over the world. Just below them in standard came the Premier Reserves. Below that were various Major and Minor classes. I entered for the Major Afternoon, rather than the Major Morning, because it used up less leave; I make use of some of my time off for observing on the PZT.
There were strict civil service rules at the time about the number of half days you could take off in a year, but Symms chuckled and told me not to worry; we could sort it out later and show two halves as one whole if necessary. If I had to resume an adjourned game the next morning, I could take leave without consulting him first. He was helpful and relaxed about the rules because he approved of what I was doing.
We played in the Sun Lounge at St Leonards, in a pleasant environment. I rode across early every afternoon on my motorbike. There were ten players in my tournament. I eventually came second, with seven points out of the maximum nine. Afterwards, Bill Nicholson said to Helen: "Now I really believe he's a chess player." Actually, a few of the players were rather weak.
It would clearly have been desirable for Helen to travel to Cheltenham and see the house before we made any offer. But we agreed this was impossible. We had no car, it would have been a long and difficult journey by train, and Helen was very pregnant: Martin was born some six weeks after my interview. So she trusted my judgement. The local manager from Sun Life, a company with which we had endowment policies, was very helpful in many ways. He arranged for one of his colleagues in the Cheltenham/ Gloucester area to take a look; the report came back that the price looked fair, but the property was very near a large council estate and we should certainly try a lower offer. So we make an offer by post, which was rejected.
I thought the house was right for us, but it would be wrong tactics to seem too keen. I still had no official letter about my transfer and I didn't want to get too committed to the buying process just yet. We registered with other agents, and considered other possibilities.
A security officer was making enquiries about me and, unknown to me, had an interview with Murray at the RGO, away from our communal office. Murray told me this, with some amusement, after my appointment was confirmed. I in turn was amused to think of him being asked about my political views, which seemed to differ considerably from his.
Martin was born on January 26th 1957, with Sister Rae acting as midwife. She was a superb district nurse, pleasant and competent, who had lived in the village for many years. She had brought most of the current village children into the world, and their parents before them. She knew everyone and bustled about doing good works. When she found out I was a chess player, she mentioned that old Mr So-and-So, an invalid, would appreciate a game. I lacked the time to follow up this suggestion.
When the vital time came, I phoned Sister Rae. No answer. I popped round to her bungalow on the main road. No answer, no sign of life. I went home and rang the Doctor's surgery. They didn't know where she was, but not to worry, somebody somewhere would have seen her car. Why not try the chemist?
The chemist said yes, she popped in several times a day and always left word of where she was going, but they weren't quite sure at the moment. But somebody, somewhere, would have seen her car outside a cottage. They would put out a few messages on the grapevine.
It worked, and she was soon round to see us and re-assure us. Village people rally round very well in an emergency. I helped at the birth, and my mother, as previously agreed, came to stay for a few days.
My official letter came through eventually, suggesting a starting date of Monday 11th March. I took another look at 7 Russet Road as soon as I had confirmation from GCHQ and was still impressed, so I offered the full price and asked our solicitor in Hailsham to speed up as much as possible. We became aware that the house was owned by J. A. Pye of Oxford, the firm that had built it some eighteen months earlier. At the suggestion of the agent I asked for possession on Friday March 8th, whether the formalities had gone through or not. He thought if I plugged our difficulties with a small baby (and the plea would come better from me than him) the owner would give us access in return for interest on the outstanding sum. To my surprise, this suggestion was accepted. I was also able to borrow a key on Saturday 2nd March, in order to do some cleaning. The interest we paid for a few weeks was at a lower rate than our eventual mortgage.
My colleagues in the Meridian Department collected money for a gift. I asked for a wheelbarrow, as the garden at Cheltenham would need a good deal of work, and was allowed to buy it for myself in Cheltenham. I tried to see Woolley to say goodbye, but he was away on the vital day, so I wrote to him later and received a nice reply with his best wishes. Many years later, in the spring of 1970, he was a member of the board that awarded me an “individual merit” promotion to SPSO.
I saw Atkinson a few weeks before I left and asked if he wanted me to write up any notes about the PZT. I was thinking of some record of key dates, of the teething troubles, what we had discovered, and the method of reduction; but my colleagues, particularly Symms and Murray, knew all that had happened. I really wasn’t clear as to whether a chunk of text would be needed in the future for the RGO annals, or the introduction to a PZT catalogue. No, no, said Atkinson, it's much too early to publish anything. I had not been suggesting a published paper: we were, as so often, talking at cross purposes. Some months later, the Journal of the BAA carried an excellent article by Atkinson about the PZT, probably submitted not long after our conversation. Perhaps I gave him the idea.
Our furniture in Herstmonceux was packed on Thursday 7th March. Helen set off with the boys for her parent's home in North London before the job was quite finished. I remained to the end and then rode my motorbike to the same place. Next morning, Friday 8th, I was up early to set out for Cheltenham on the motorbike.
The removal men were at the house by the time I got there and had lit welcome coal fires. Helen and the boys arrived next morning, which was Saturday 9th March.
I reported for work, at the Oakley site, on Monday 11th March. After an initial briefing and issue of a security pass, I was told to report to Mr A. E. Bailey at Benhall, on the other side of town. This was good news, because our house was much closer to Benhall than Oakley. Arlie Bailey, an SPSO who had joined GCHQ a few months earlier from RRE Malvern, in effect replacing Toby Harpur, proved to be a delightful man. Without hesitation he invited me to share his office for several weeks, because no other room was immediately available. It was a wonderful introduction to the new work; I overheard many discussions about management matters and research programmes, and in the quieter intervals could ask Arlie elementary technical questions about the literature I was studying. We got on extremely well together for the next five years, until he left for another post. He died, aged 80, on 8th December 2000. I was glad to able to attend his cremation, near Bath, on 19th December, the only person present who had worked with him at GCHQ.
Having started these recollections with a prologue, I now conclude with an epilogue.
I worked at GCHQ for eighteen years, mainly on mathematical aspects of radio propagation, antenna array theory and radio direction finding. There were many stimulating contacts with universities and with our opposite numbers in the USA. I was able to publish a number of research papers and a book about some parts of these activities. I was promoted to SSO in 1958, PSO in 1962 and Individual Merit SPSO in 1970.
In 1975, feeling that I have worked long enough on these themes and needed a new stimulus, I negotiated a “compulsory” transfer to the Ministry of Defence. Initially I moved to the Admiralty Compass Observatory near Slough, an outstation of the Admiralty Surface Weapons Establishment near Portsmouth, and continued IM work on navigational aids for the Royal Navy. At the beginning of 1977 I was moved to ASWE to become head of a research division working mainly on information processing techniques for naval command systems at sea. We had bought a house at Farnham Common, a nice village between Slough and Beaconsfield, but were there for only about eighteen months before moving again, this time to Waterlooville near Portsmouth.
I was at ASWE as a “line management” SPSO for nearly seven years (including the busy period of the Falklands Campaign) before moving to MoD in London in September 1983 as an Assistant Director of Defence Procurement. In June 1984 we moved to our present house in Fleet, giving a much shorter train journey to Waterloo. In MoD(PE) I dealt initially with GCHQ and industry on cryptographic equipment, but was soon appointed as project manager for several major communications projects, mainly for the RAF. The work was surprisingly interesting, but I took early retirement at the end of 1987 and joined the Admiral Group as a Management Consultant. My main involvement at Admiral was on software security, particularly for a major new office technology system for the MoD. I finally retired at the end of September 1989, a few weeks after my 60th birthday.
In retrospect, I know I learned a great deal in my first job and was fortunate to have Mr Symms as my immediate superior. As a person he was friendly, good-humoured and a little easy-going, with a fund of good stories for wet afternoons. Scientifically, his broad knowledge and judgement seemed very sound, he made good use of statistical methods and he was receptive to new ideas. Our constant struggles to measure precisely, to reduce the errors and squeeze out the extra decimal place where possible were excellent experience for me and the rest of the team.