This is the text of a speech given by Sylvia Asquith on 27th September 2017 at the Foundation of Art and Creative Technology (FACT) during the New Observatory Exhibition. Sylvia’s speech was followed by the screening of a short film by Yu-Chen Wang entitled “I wish to communicate with you”.
Good evening ladies and gentlemen.
My name is Sylvia Asquith and I joined the Bidston Observatory staff in February 1947 as Sylvia Brooks. It was a long time ago but I well remember those early days.
This short film, by Andy Lane, Andy Heath and Craig Corbett, is part of the Tide and Time exhibition at the National Oceanography Centre, Liverpool. The exhibition showcases two tidal prediction machines – the Roberts-Légé and the Doodson-Légé. The film also explores the history of tidal science in Liverpool and its development as a port.
There is a lot of renewed interest in tide prediction machines and, after many years hidden away in storerooms, some of the machines made in the UK are on permanent display once again. Kelvin’s original 10-component machine is now part of the new Winton Gallery for Mathematics at the Science Museum in London alongside Ishiguro’s storm surge simulator. Two of the machines that were used at Bidston can now be seen at the National Oceanography Centre building in Brownlow Street in Liverpool.
As you may know from articles mentioned in the Resources section of this web site, the tide prediction machines were a way of simulating the tide in terms of its many harmonic components. Each component would be represented by an amplitude and phase lag, called the ‘harmonic constants’, and the machine, which can be considered as a sort of analogue computer, would be programmed to run by providing it with these constants. Of course, the constants would differ from port to port.
That raises the obvious question of where people like Arthur Doodson, and the other operators of the machines, got their constants from in the first place. This short article reviews the main characteristics of one of the machines (the so-called Doodson-Légé machine now on display at NOC) and then attempts to answer the question of how Doodson obtained the constants.
The exhibition – at the National Oceanography Centre in Liverpool – showcases some of the fascinating achievements made in the Liverpool area in understanding and predicting the tides. The highlights of the exhibition are the rare Roberts-Légé and Doodson-Légé tide prediction machines, extraordinary analogue computers that calculate the rise and fall of the ocean tide. See these beautifully intricate machines up and running at the only place in the world where you can see two of them together.
Originally, from 1955, I worked in the Met Office at Speke Airport (later to be called Liverpool Airport and subsequently John Lennon Airport). I very much enjoyed being a weather observer – sending observations up to the control tower to be passed on to aircraft, but the job involved shift work, which included regular night duties. This was fine till I got married in 1961. At that stage, I became less enthusiastic about shift work and about the amount of travelling involved between Greasby and the airport: bus – ferry – bus – at least an hour each way. I didn’t drive in those days.
So I decided to look for another job. Bidston Observatory came to mind. It was much nearer home and I knew they had a weather station there. So I wrote to the Director asking him if there were any job vacancies. He – Dr. Rossiter – invited me to go for interview and duly offered me a job! It was as easy as that in 1961. Nowadays, with high competition for every post, people can’t believe that it could ever be that easy.
This article originally appeared in the newsletter of the Friends of Bidston Hill in February 2016. It is reproduced here with the permission of the author, Philip Woodworth.
The role of Bidston Observatory has changed several times through the years. In its early decades, following the decision in the 1860s by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board to move the Liverpool Observatory from Waterloo Dock to Bidston Hill, the focus was on astronomical measurements. These were required in order, amongst other things, to determine accurately the latitude and longitude of the site. Famous names involved included John Hartnup and his son (also John) and W.E. Plummer. Other areas of science undertaken by the Observatory included meteorology and seismology. In addition, it provided several local services, such as the calibration of accurate chronometers for port users and precise timing via the “One O’Clock Gun”.