sound mirrors

Picture (c) 2003 Paul Shearsmith / Andrew Grantham Website []

One of the things that I cherish most about living in the UK is the flipside of one of the aspects that I detest most about my job, or indeed about working as any sort of researcher or technical person – a boffin, a geek, a nerd – in the UK, Europe, or possibly in the world at large.

However: in the UK it is institutionalised; the tradition, nay heritage of Olympian amateurishness which the UK expects of their scientific elite.

That by virtue of the fact that such people get to “play” with stinks (chemicals) – and pistons, turbines, electronics, arc-welders, telescopes, metal lathes, enormous lasers, multi-gigabit network switches and other stuff which our American cousins might once have described as neato – that because we are seen to play with such things, to muddy our hands with other than ink and paper and paperclips, we are tainted by association with manual labour[1] and somehow deserve less compensation (and less respect) than the supposedly similarly-graded leaders of men who are our management.

By this I mean management of any sort – business, civilian and military. Those who count themselves better – or at least who thereby justify higher wage – yet although they work hard in their own way seem less and less willing in these sigma-ized, focus-grouped days, to fall on their swords or ever to make a decision that might lead to them having to do so.[2]

No, boffins are meant to take pride in their work, and that makes up for how society and the media class them. Right?

Of course it’s not all a one-way street. Boffins of the UK can actually get quite bitchy in return, because any of our number who break the starving-artist mould, who become successful and exhibit business sense, are castigated both by the media and also by the envious. []

In business terms it’s generally far better in the eyes of the UK media — and the UK public at large – to have a brilliant idea which fails to live up to overhyped expectation or is a business disaster. [] []

After all, that’s right. That’s good. That’s how Britons consider things should be. []

“[The Government] shouldn’t pump more money into academic research, because it’d only spoil them; give them more toys and money and they’d be less creative, less motivated, waste their time twiddling knobs on some Japanese rubbish instead of inventing their own… Pass the Gin…”

In short: in the UK, great boffins, like great poets and great artists, are best appreciated after they’re dead – not least because you then don’t need to pay them, nor listen to them whining any more.

Once dead, they’re fit to be idolised. [] [] [] [] []

Of course, this timesway for fame also means that historical scientific and industrial heritage is often under threat, and often the public don’t know what they had until it is gone, or almost gone, and even then they have to fight for it. [] [] []

However: there is a tourist-friendly flipside to all this.

The caricature I paint above has a large degree of truth in it; there are few things the British idolise more strongly than the notion of our country being suffused with a small population of be-cardiganed favourite-uncle or grandfatherly types who (for a hobby) keep a light engineering machine-shop in the shed and turn out incredible innovations: clockwork radios for the third world [] – suspension units for Formula-1 racecars, expensive hi-fi components, small arms for MI6, nuclear-blast-proof plastics, spacecraft, and so forth.

They can even be fully-paid academics, so long as they look suitably eccentric. []

It may even be assumed that these people probably get paid for their efforts, but that’s not the point, is it?

They (so the myth goes) are doing it for the love of it. Surely?

Unfortunately, I can’t wholly deny it. Even some youngsters think like that. I have friends who (in the mid-90s) took jobs in defence research for shit pay, and who outright told me they thought it worthwhile to work in the public sector, on secret, spooky stuff, in a “safe” job for thirty years so that they could retire early on an index-linked pension – presumably to go on to manufacture small-arms in their sheds. Or to be “consultants”, which is the other honourable option.

Well, good luck to them. Several of them have since stopped talking to me, but last I heard various of them were suffering a selection of stress-related problems: IBS, depression, therapy, ennui, rocky relationships… One bailed totally, and seems to be doing very nicely for himself on the other side of the world.

Oh yeah, and the safe, public-sector jobs? They are gradually being taken public.

Whoops, I seem to have gone negative again. Let me see if I can steer this back onto a positive track.

The point is: Britain is a hothouse of brains and creativity, doubly-so for having to make-do-and-mend from underinvesment and underappreciation, and this leads to startling solutions that fuel incredible innovation – even if most of those subsequently flop for lack of business nous.

Occasionally, these innovations leave footprints in the sand. Bletchley Park is onesuch. Another of which I have long known a little, but never known a lot, are the sound mirrors.

I was listening to the radio on Saturday morning, and a snippet on Open Country[3] caught my attention; to quote from the BBC website about the programme:

At Denge, Helen discovers some giant “listening ears”- huge concrete concave structures facing the southern coast. Local historian Richard Scarth explains they’re actually acoustic mirrors, made to catch the sound of approaching aircraft, and were a primitive early warning system between the wars but quickly rendered obsolete by radar. Trained listeners huddled in bunkers at the mirrors’ feet, using a kind of stethoscope to pin-point distant noises from the sky.

They’re now scheduled ancient monuments. A combination of extraction and erosion of the gravel beds of Dungeness have threatened their stability, but Dr Andy Brown of English Heritage tells Helen that they’re now repaired and will soon be a feature of the local nature reserve.

Some Googling led me to sundry interesting URLs [] [] explaining the history of the mirrors, and their role in Zeppelin defense in WW1, and their role as progenitors of Radar (another UK boffin invention) in the years before WW2.

The best website however, has to be that of Andrew Grantham – a comprehensive photo index of these monuments to necessary invention, and an inadvertent photo-essay in how Britain neglects its technological heritage.

Go look: []


[1] insert class warfare references, and note about my grocer/butcher grandfather in early-1900s Edgebaston being a tradesman

[2] when was the last time a UK MP resigned a cabinet post due to a scandal, as opposed to self-confessed ineptitude?

[3] you can hear the selfsame programme via RealAudio, this week only, at []

3 Replies to “sound mirrors”

  1. re: sound mirrors

    > One bailed totally, and seems to be doing very nicely > for himself on the other side of the world.

    As the one who bailed totally, and *is* doing rather nicely for himself down under, I’ve got to say I don’t regret either having escaped to Australia or having worked there.

    I think I was very lucky to have not to have ended up in the section of DERA that was to be privatised, instead going into DSTL before escaping the UK completely in 2002 for Australia with my wife. 🙂

    Got to admit, being down here suits me a lot better, especially in the most liveable city in the world playing with supercomputers and Linux..

  2. re: sound mirrors

    On a similar theme:


    Formed in 1974, Subterranea Britannica is a society devoted the the study and investigation of man-made and man-used underground places. Cold War related material is covered separately within the Research Study Group (RSG). Subterranea Britannica brings together people with an interest in all types of underground space – from deneholes to dug-outs and from souterrains to subways – see the sites pages.

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