Tyne & Wear

When Geordies reached for the stars

The great globular cluster in the constellation Hercules Image copyright Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums
Image caption The great globular cluster in the constellation Hercules, as captured using Grubb Parsons equipment

For many, Tyneside's illustrious industrial heritage is built on the toil of shipyard workers and coal miners. Less well known is its role unlocking the secrets of the universe - but photographs and documents long thought to have been destroyed are shedding light on its pioneering work.

A forerunner to the Hubble Space Telescope and evidence of supermassive black holes at the heart of our galaxy.

Both were groundbreaking achievements. But they can - perhaps surprisingly - be traced back to the work of a "forgotten" factory in the heart of Tyneside.

Grubb Parsons scored triumph after triumph with projects undertaken for observatories as far afield as Australia, Japan and South Africa, as well as the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London.

But after decades of innovation, under the Thatcher government of the 1980s the firm's doors slammed shut for the final time.

Now, 30 years later, its achievements are unknown to many.

Image caption John Clayson, left, of Tyne & Wear Museums, and David Hughes say the Grubb Parsons' archives highlight Tyneside's engineering excellence

"Wow," says amateur astronomer David Hughes in a hushed tone as he flicks through scrapbooks filled with black and white photographs which have been unearthed at Newcastle's Discovery Museum.

The 51-year-old, of the Newcastle-based Luna Astronomical group, says they demonstrate the firm's "phenomenal" expertise and "breathtaking" science.

"It was among the top three companies in that field in the world, competing against the likes of the American firms PerkinElmer and Bausch & Lomb and Siemens in Germany," he says.

"The Russians had organisations working in that sector as well, but they were very secretive. It was all behind the Iron Curtain."

Dr Robert Massey, deputy executive secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society, agrees.

"It was an internationally successful firm and a pedigree ran through its work. It's equipment paralleled the evolution of the telescope through the 19th and 20th centuries."

So just what made the company based in Heaton, Newcastle, so special?

"The instruments were made with such precision," says Mr Hughes.

"As well as its telescopic work, it was involved with aero testing equipment for Spitfires."

About two decades later came plans for an early version of an astronomical observatory satellite which would be sent into space and could have "rivalled the famous Hubble Space Telescope", according to Mr Hughes.

Proposals were put forward by prominent astronomer Robert Wilson - the son of a Durham miner - in 1964.

Image copyright Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums
Image caption This telescope was part of a project destined for the David Dunlap Observatory in Toronto, Canada

He led a British team, but a combination of cost overruns and management problems saw the scheme cancelled in 1968.

A modified version, not involving Grubb Parsons directly, known as the International Ultraviolet Explorer, was put into orbit by Nasa in 1978.

"It would have been part of the great Geordie space race," says Mr Hughes of the original project.

Grubb Parsons' last hurrah - the 1985 William Herschel reflector - was used by scientists in the Canary Islands who discovered some of the first evidence of supermassive black holes at the heart of our galaxy.

"It's regarded as one of the company's most productive projects," says Dr Massey.

Troubled times lay ahead though.

As the Thatcher government oversaw a move away from reliance on manufacturing and engineering, the order books dried up.

"It's all about the economics of the time," Mr Hughes says.

"She saw limited value in pure academic research. The irony was that Thatcher had been a research chemist herself."

That appeared to be the end of the story.

Image copyright Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums
Image caption Workers at the Grubb Parsons factory completed a number of high-profile projects

The pioneering work was seemingly consigned to history and the disappointment for Mr Hughes is its successes are today "forgotten".

"The North East has been at the forefront of astronomical excellence for 1,300 years stretching as far back as the Venerable Bede and then Thomas Wright, Jeremiah Dixon, John Bird and William Emerson," he says.

"Newcastle University even played an important role in analysing the magnetic properties of Moon rock samples brought back by [Neil] Armstrong and [Buzz] Aldrin.

"And astronomer Temple Chevallier, who worked at Durham University in the 1800s, has a crater named after him on the Moon.

"But by and large, people - even those living locally - are not aware of that history."

Now, though, interest has been reignited by the files, photographs and glass plate negatives in the possession of the museum which had lain unseen for almost 30 years.

"It's absolutely remarkable. I thought they would've been destroyed in the mid-1980s when the company went out of business," says Mr Hughes.

"Lots of companies around the world make telescopes, but it's important to see how Grubb Parsons did it in this corner of the world."

And while Grubb Parsons is no more, its legacy is a lasting one.

"Their instruments are still being used in observatories across the globe," says Dr Massey.

"It is very much a testament to their quality."

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