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Churchill and the Boffins: Science and Scientists at War – five online talks by Taylor Downing

posted on 09/02/24



To mark the 150th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s birth, and in the year that Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer has collected a host of Oscars, broadcaster and best-selling author Taylor Downing will tell several lively stories about the role of scientists in the two world wars – and how Churchill encouraged their contribution.

The series will begin with the First World War, in which there was nothing less than a scientific revolution. In the cauldron of ideas that emerged during the Second World War, new inventions ranged from jet engines to roll-on roll-off ferries, from flying wings to floating tanks, from miniature radios to guided missiles. The talks will explore the development of radar, the science of aerial photography and the worlds of Intelligence and Deception. Throughout Churchill immersed himself in the work of his engineers and inventors, his soldiers, sailors and airmen, imprinting his own personality on the machines that were created in his name.

They take place every Thursday from 11th April to 9th May at 4.30pm (GMT+1) and, including Q&A, will probably last just under an hour. They are available for viewing for eight weeks after the last episode is streamed (4th July 2024).

Register for the webinar series for £65

The talks

1. Scientists at War (11th April 2024)

The First World War is usually seen as a war dominated by mud, trenches and pointless slaughter epitomised in the work of the War Poets. However, less well known is the incredible advances in science during the conflict, from aviation to medicine, and from chemicals to communications. For the first time ever, the scientific community was mobilised for a total war.

2. Churchill’s Finest Hour (18th April 2024)

Churchill was very aware of Britain’s sometimes flagging military effort in WW2 and wanted to encourage anything and anyone that could provide a marginal advantage. So he gave immense support to scientists, mavericks and inventors, from developing floating tanks to bouncing bombs. The webinar will also explore Churchill’s relationship with his controversial principal scientific adviser, Professor Frederick Lindemann.

3. Pre-recorded. Radar (25th April 2024)

In the mid 1930s, Robert Watson-Watt and a team of scientists at the isolated strip of land in Suffolk called Orford Ness began to develop a system of radio detection finding, later known as radar. A Chain Home system was rapidly created around the coast and was ready just in time for war. The prevailing view was that the Germans did not have radar but it soon became apparent that they had a sophisticated form that operated very differently to British radar. To understand how it worked, a plan was formulated for a group of Paras to capture a German radar in occupied France, dismantle it and bring it back for the scientists to examine. Encouraged by Churchill, this is the story of scientific advance and a daring raid on the French coast.

4. Spies in the Sky - Science and Aerial Photography (2nd May 2024)

In WW2 the RAF almost invented a new science for the interpretation of aerial photographs and it was estimated that 80 per cent of all intelligence came from this source. A country house on the Thames to the west of London known as RAF Medmenham became the centre where eccentric academics and people from all walks of life gathered to interpret photographs. It was arguably as important to the war effort as the far better known Bletchley Park. Churchill’s daughter worked at RAF Medmenham and the PM became fascinated by the work of the Photo-Interpreters.

5. D-Day Deceptions (9th May)

On the eve of the 80th anniversary of D-Day this talk will explore the world of Intelligence, double cross and Deception. It will focus on the unusual characters who became some of the great Deceivers and developed what was both a science and an art. Churchill was an enthusiastic supporter of plans to deceive the enemy as to where, when and how the invasion of Europe was coming.

Image: Yousuf Karsh, The Roaring Lion, 1941.

The speaker

Taylor Downing

Taylor Downing read History at Cambridge and worked at the Imperial War Museum and then Thames Television for many years before establishing his own independent production company, Flashback Television. Here he produced more than 300 historical documentaries that have been shown in Britain, the US and around the world, many of which won prestigious awards. For the last 15 years he has concentrated on writing. His publications include Cold War (with Sir Jeremy Isaacs), Churchill’s War Lab, Spies in the Sky and 1983 – The World at the Brink. His latest book The Army that Never Was: D-Day and the Great Deception is published in May. Taylor regularly appears in radio and television documentaries, and in podcasts.

Register for the webinar series for £65

Frequently asked questions

What methods of payment do you accept?

An electronic invoice will be sent to your e-mail address 1–3 working days after you have completed our registration form. Payment can be made online using AMEX, Apple Pay, Google Pay, MasterCard or Visa.

How do I purchase the webinar series as a gift?

Please contact us specifying how many subscriptions you would like and who they are for (we require their full name and e-mail address). We will invoice you directly, and after we have received your payment we will release the webinar joining instructions to your friend(s) or family member(s).

Can I purchase a single episode?

No, unfortunately not. The series must be purchased in full.

How do I join the webinar?

An e-mail confirmation will be sent to you after you have paid for your subscription, which includes your unique link for joining the webinar. Reminder e-mails will be sent to you one day and one hour before each event. We recommend that you download the Zoom software in advance of the first webinar.

Can I watch the live broadcast(s) on more than one device?

Only one device can be connected to the live broadcast(s) at any one time. If you wish to purchase a second subscription, please contact us.

What happens if I am unable to attend the live broadcast(s)? 

A recording will be uploaded to a dedicated webpage approximately two hours after the live broadcast. For copyright reasons, these recordings cannot be made available indefinitely; access is granted for eight weeks after the final live broadcast of the series.

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