Science & Environment

Winston Churchill and his wartime passion for science

Sir Winston Churchil
Image caption Sir Winston Churchill: War leader, historian, artist and science enthusiast

Sir Winston Churchill's fascination with research and the remarkable breakthroughs that took place under his direction are the focus of a new exhibition at the Science Museum.

The exhibition is timed to mark the 50th anniversary of Churchill's death.

Churchill is known as a war time leader, a historian and an artist.

The new exhibition shows he also had a passion for science inspired no doubt by the exhilarating developments of his time.

Churchill's great grandson, Randolph told BBC News: "It is remarkable to think that in 1895 he participated in one of the last great cavalry charges of our time yet he was to see the first man in space. That change, nobody will see the like again."

The new exhibition catalogues the key scientific developments that took place under the wartime leader - including Prof Robert Watson-Watt's pioneering work on the development of radar. Its curator, Andrew Nahum, showed me one of the Science Museum's most prized objects: the first ever radar set, which was developed with Churchill's support.

Battle of Britain

It looks like a bookshelf with some copper cylinders glued on to it. Mr Nahum told me the story behind this archaic piece of apparatus. It was used in a key experiment in February 1935 which gave hope that it might be possible for the allies win against the odds against Nazi warplanes in the Battle of Britain.

Image copyright Science Museum
Image caption Prof Robert Watson-Watt's pioneering work on the development of radar helped the allies win the air war against the odds in the Battle of Britain. It was developed with Churchill's support.

"It is a high grade short wave receiver which was loaded into a van that was built for the purpose and taken out to a field in Daventry," he told me.

"Meanwhile a pilot from Farnborough was asked to fly in front of a BBC shortwave world transmission aerials. (The scientists) saw a green spot grow on the screen and then disappear." It showed that the system could be used to give an early warning of an air raid.

For centuries one of the UK's greatest defences was the sea around it - an advantage that modern airpower had eroded.

As the aircraft flew by, Prof Watson-Watt turned to his assistant and said: "Britain is an island once more."

The threat from German U-boats spurred a group of the UK's brightest and best researchers to harness the power of the science for the war effort. Churchill's interest in the military use of science, though, began long before. In 1931, years before the atom bomb, he wrote a prescient essay which included a section about the potential of nuclear power.

"If the hydrogen atoms in a pound of water could be prevailed upon to combine together and form helium, they would suffice to drive a thousand horsepower engine for a whole year," he wrote.

"If the electrons, those tiny planets of the atomic systems, were induced to combine with the nuclei in the hydrogen the horsepower liberated would be 120 times greater still. There is no question among scientists that this gigantic source of energy exists.

"What is lacking is the match to set the bonfire alight, or it may be the detonator to cause the dynamite to explode. The scientists are looking for this".

Image copyright Claire Richardson
Image caption Uranium in gas form through a cascade of ultra-fine screens to concentrate or "enrich" it in efforts to help Britain develop its atom bomb

And much later in life, in a speech in 1948 at University College London, he was more reflective in his attitudes:

"Some of the the things we have found are very debatable in terms of advantages. Take all the improvements in terms of locomotion. What do they do but make our world grow smaller - make the heritage of Man a far more restricted sphere."

However Churchill's use of science and his relationship with one of his chief advisers, Prof Frederick Lindemann was also a source of controversy. Critics say that Churchill relied excessively on Prof Lindemann and other scientists were frozen out of the consultation process.

The exhibition also includes rarely seen relics of Britain's war time atom bomb project and the high-speed camera built at Aldermaston to film the first microseconds of detonation of Britain's home-grown atomic bomb, which was first tested in 1952.

Image copyright Jennie Hills/Science Museum
Image caption The British biochemist solved the structure of penicillin on Victory in Europe Day in 1945.

"Many people are unaware of Churchill's fascination with science and its power to help in war," according to Mr Nahum.

"In the post-war period he was a great champion of deeper science education in this country. This is a great opportunity for us to bring these stories to the public's attention as we pay tribute to Sir Winston Churchill in the 50th anniversary year of his death."

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