Winston Churchill is widely regarded as one of Britain’s greatest ever leaders. His love of history and art is well known, but many would be surprised to learn that he was also very passionate about science. He was actually the first UK prime minister to employ a scientific advisor, whom he became very close with throughout his time as Britain’s leader and thereafter. The scientific breakthroughs seen during Churchill’s life were staggering. He took part in one of the last great cavalry charges in 1898 at the Battle of Omdurman, yet in his lifetime he would see the first man sent into space.
Churchill wearing his military uniform in 1895. He graduated from the Royal Military College, Sandhurst in 1894.
War is a huge motivator for the advancement of science. In the case of World War II, both sides were desperate to gain the upper hand, and believed that new scientific discoveries were one way this could be achieved. Immediately prior to World War II, the vast improvements seen in aircraft capabilities were causing Britain’s government concern.They needed a method of detecting enemy aircraft before they attacked, as at the time anti-aircraft weapons were not strong enough to shoot down aeroplanes at high altitudes. A number of rumours regarding the Nazis were circling at the time, including the invention of a “death ray,” but Britain’s scientists quickly proved this to be impossible.
The fact that aircraft reflected radio waves had recently been discovered, and this was the idea that Sir Robert Watson-Watt based his design on for his RADAR device. This was quickly proven to accurately detect aircraft, and by the end of World War II 50 stations had been built, playing a key part in Britain’s victory in the Battle of Britain.
Scottish engineer Sir Robert Watson-Watt pictured in 1935.
Churchill was somewhat of a nuclear visionary. He wrote an article about the potential problems associated with the atomic bomb in 1927, inspired by its mention in his good friend H. G. Wells’ novel, The World Set Free. 10 years later he then warned readers of his column in the News of the World in Britain that nuclear energy would be harnessed in the not so distant future. He was of course correct, and was better prepared than most international leaders at the time to deal with the challenges this presented. He was quick to recognise that cooperation with the United States was the key to the success of the project, and never regretted the atomic bombing of Japan in 1945.
The devastating effect of the atomic bomb can be seen clearly in this before and after shot of Hiroshima.
Churchill valued the use of science in all aspects of the War effort. He devised the glamorously titled “S-Branch,” which was responsible for the statistical analysis of fuel reserves and food production, and regularly was presented with graphs showing the latest values for these resources.
Even after the war had ended, the ethos of innovation and investment in science continued to flourish thanks to Churchill. During the 1950s, his scientists strived to develop our understanding of genetics and neurology. One man who made a notable contribution was Bernard Lovell, who developed the field of radio astronomy using the experience he’d gained working on radar during the war. A neurologist named William Grey Walter also worked tirelessly to create an electrocardiogram (ECG) fashioned from a bomber navigation indicator. Throughout this period, Churchill strived to champion deeper science education, in the hope that by encouraging more people to study science the chances of further breakthroughs would be increased.
Pioneering astronomer and physicist Sir Bernard Lovell died in 2012, aged 98.
If you’d like to learn more about Churchill’s involvement in science, we highly recommend you visit the new exhibition at the Science Museum, entitled Churchill’s Scientists. The exhibition has been opened to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the great man’s passing. It’s running until 01/03/2016, and focuses on how Churchill’s passion for science led to a number of scientific achievements that helped Britain to victory in World War II. It looks at the most famous breakthroughs such as radar and uranium enrichment, as well as the other ways science was used during the War.
Click here to learn more about the exhibition and see the museum’s opening times.
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