Thomas Lean, interviewer for Made in Britain, writes:
I was reading an article by Janet Vertesi a little while ago on how the distinctive London Underground Map, with its differences from a 'real' map of London has affected how travellers think about the representations of urban space (Vertesi, Social Studies of Science, 2008). It got me thinking a little bit on how my own perception of the geography of Britain has been warped somewhat over the last few years by talking so much to scientists about the scientific places they once worked in.
For example, I can't see a train to Malvern any more without instantly thinking “TRE” - the home of Britain's wartime radar research. Place names instantly connect themselves to companies and establishments and technologies in my mind. Farnborough = the RAE = Aeroplanes. Wembley = GEC = All manner of electronics. Warton = English Electric = Aeroplanes. Bristol = Jet engines. The Isle of Wight = Saunders Roe = Hovercraft and Rockets (definitely not sandcastles and beaches). And so on. My whole knowledge of places has been subtly conditioned my learning about the history of science. Fortunately enough, looking at the British Society for the History of Science travel guide, it seems I'm not the only one. But actually trundling across much of this landscape myself, visiting scientists who retired near the places they worked, I get a rather personal take on it.
I wondered for a while why I spent so much time going through Reading on my travels. But a quick look at the place names around it on the map makes it clear, if you know what you are looking for: the old International Computers Limited [ICL] facilities at Reading and Bracknell, the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, the Vickers aircraft factory at Weybridge; to the West, the nuclear research sites of Aldermaston, Harwell and Culham lie within about 30 miles of each other, conveniently close to Oxford, with its university, and Abingdon, home of high-tech manufacturer Oxford Instruments. I could go on, but the clustering of high-tech industries is a well known phenomena. Companies and establishments need to work together, need a supply of trained staff, need each other's services, and often spin-off new organisations in new fields.
The other interesting thing is how much these places themselves have changed. A couple of years ago I strolled hrough the housing estate that had once been the Hawker's aircraft factory in Kingston with aircraft designer Ralph Hooper, marvelling at the way all the road names were named after aeroplanes. One of the pleasing things of our project is how much we've been able to record places that don't exist any more, in the words of those who worked in them, and the great changes in other locations over the years. As the following video, featuring Sir John Charnley discussing the contrast between A-shed in Farnborough in the 1950s and 2011, neatly demonstrates, place can be a powerful focus point for understanding change.
Sir John Charnley's audio and video interview are catalogued on the Sound & Moving Image Catalogue under reference C1379/30.