The far-reaching legacy of Winston Churchill is found in science too

Winston Churchill had a “Victorian fascination” with science and his investment in pioneering work led to a sprawling post-war R&D boom

Churchill with a Spitfire from Castle Bromwich

Churchill with a Spitfire from Castle Bromwich © Philip Insley, CBAF Archive Vickers ArchiveSyndics

“Science is not a word people normally associate with my great-grandfather. Words such as journalist, soldier, statesman, politician, orator, writer maybe even painter or bricklayer but scientist?”

Randolph Churchill was born in January 1965, just a few weeks before Winston Churchill died, 50 years ago. He opened the new exhibition at the Science Museum that shows not only the former prime minister’s passion for science but the flourishing science community he spawned. 

Young Winston was the first government minister in the world to fly in aviation’s earliest days, the first prime minister to appoint a chief scientific adviser and a visionary who foresaw the potency of a nuclear bomb as early as 1924.

Randolph said: “Although he was not an academic scientist, from a young age Churchill had a Victorian fascination with science.

“He didn’t just have an amateur mind for science, as this exhibition shows, he had a perceptive understanding of the power of science as a force that could protect, enhance or destroy society. 

“He lived through an age of technological change which fuelled his enthusiasm for science. During his lifetime he saw the development of flight, penicillin, electronics, atomic physics, telephones, televisions, mass consumerism and mass destruction.

Metal plates used by Crick and Watson to figure out the structure of the DNA molecule © Science Museum

Metal plates used by Crick and Watson to figure out the structure of the DNA molecule © Science Museum

“Is it not extraordinary that he participated in one of the last great cavalry charges in history and yet he lived to see Yuri Gagarin as the first man in space in 1961?”

The war acted as a catalyst in fields as diverse as radio astronomy, molecular science, the workings of the brain, diet and the potential of nuclear energy. 

Lead curator Andrew Nahum said: “This exhibition shows how Churchill used advanced research to try to gain the winning edge in the Second World War. It also shows how his enormous wartime R&D programme kick-started Britain’s many post-war successes in fundamental scientific research.”

Advances featured in the exhibitionto demonstrate the tentacle sprawl of his legacy. Bernard Lovell’s radio telescope; Robert Watson-Watt’s radar; the John Kendrew’s discovery of the structure of the protein myoglobin; Crick and Watson’s DNA breakthrough; Hodgkin and Huxley’s exploration of nerve conduction and Elsie Widdowson’s pioneering work on nutrition.

Sir John Cockroft, who won a Nobel prize for splitting the atom, noted later: “We came back better equipped. Scientists had got used to spending money. None of us would be afraid of building large machines, proton cyclotrons, things like that.”

Among personal artefacts on show are Churchill’s green velvet “siren suit: original, marked proofs from his six-volume The Second World War and the cigar he was smoking when he heard the news of his re-election as prime minister in 1951. 

Among the scientific treasures on show are the huge high-speed camera that captured the first microseconds of the Britain’s first atomic bomb and the original radar receiver used by Robert Watson-Watt in the first ever British experiment to prove that radar technology could work. 

Churchill’s Scientists, until March 2016, FREE, Science Museum, sciencemuseum.ac.uk

Apparatus used by R.Watson Watt in February 1935 for the detection of radio echoes from aircraft © Science Museum

Apparatus used by R.Watson Watt in February 1935 for the detection of radio echoes from aircraft © Science Museum

Giles BroadbentThe far-reaching legacy of Winston Churchill is found in science too

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