Alternative spaces of science: the British Interplanetary Society in Liverpool and London

While the BIS relied on its charismatic figureheads to outwardly promote the Society to potential new members and audiences, another significant aspect to the Society’s functioning in its early years concerned the spaces in which it operated. At this time, the only sources of income for the BIS were membership subscriptions and small donations, which were said to have ‘barely covered running expenses’, such as the production of the flagship BIS Journal, and it had no formal connections with public or scientific institutions.39 Consequently, the Society made use of a variety of public and private locations during its formative years, in which members held meetings, socialised and exchanged information. Studies in the history of science have recognised the importance of diverse spaces of scientific activity, including pubs, tea rooms and coffee houses, in understanding the practice, discussion and dissemination of scientific knowledge since the early modern era.40 Accordingly, ‘the perspective gained from focussing on the place of science’, especially places such as the public house, can further enable the understanding of science as a group practice.41 In relation to this, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of ‘geographies of oral communication’

Synthesising outer space 45 including oratory, conversation and other communicative performances, in the functioning of scientific knowledge communities.42 In such ways, the dynamics that occur between space and sociality have been recognised as important aspects of the scientific cultures of the past, and looking at some of the spaces of the BIS, therefore, becomes important in understanding the emergence of astronautics in Britain.

One of the key spaces of science during the Liverpool era of the BIS was Philip Cleator’s house at 34 Oarside Drive, Wallasey, at which a variety of social and scientific practices took place.4' This was also the headquarters of Cleator’s engineering business, the ‘Science Research Syndicate’, which he had taken over from his parents, along with substantial laboratory equipment and materials. Here, the first informal meeting of the BIS was convened in September 1933, at which the five attendees, Cleator, Leslie Johnson, Colin Askham, Herbert C Binns and Norman Weedall, ‘solemnly pledged [them]selves to begin the monumental task of making the inhabitants of Great Britain rocket-conscious and astronautically minded’.44 Johnson later recalled this encounter, indicating the tone of the meeting and detailing some of the activities that took place:

[A]bout half-a-dozen enthusiasts turned up that evening, when they were entertained at Philip Cleator’s laboratory, shown an embryo rocket motor, and had demonstrated to them the unstable explosive qualities of Fulminate of Mercury.45

In this initial gathering, Cleator’s laboratory was used as a space of demonstration, display and entertainment. It is unlikely that Cleator’s ‘embryo rocket motor’ was very sophisticated, but having practical props such as this would certainly have helped to demonstrate the concept of rocket propulsion to his eager audience. In experimenting with Fulminate of Mercury, Cleator was, probably unknowingly, in breach of the aforementioned Explosives Act, yet the demonstration showed that he understood the general principle of rocketry as based on the containment of an explosive chemical reaction, and would also, no doubt, have added a sense of theatricality to the occasion. Here, the kind of group practice that took place can be understood in terms of performance, occurring through the interplay between the scientific practitioner and the audience, along with the use of props. In this way, the domestic space of Cleator’s home was turned over effectively to a scientific space, and a meeting place for the fledgling Society. It is also worth noting that, at the same time that Cleator was hosting his guests in Wallasey, Olaf Stapledon was living under ten miles away in West Kirby, on the other side of the Wirral Peninsula, part of the suburban locale of Liverpool, at a time when his writing career was entering its most productive phase. While the two never knowingly crossed paths (Stapledon was later to correspond with the BIS after the war), it is notable how, in both cases, suburban domestic spaces became instrumental in speculative thinking about outer space.

Furthermore, proximity to the globally connected city of Liverpool may have had a common influence on both Stapledon and Cleator through a shared exposure to internationalist cultures and politics.

As well as Cleator’s house, BIS meetings were held in a variety of other locations in and around Liverpool in the early 1930s. Different spaces served different purposes, and in October 1933, the Society’s inaugural meeting occurred in the office of H C Binns at 81 Dale Street, Liverpool. This was said to be ‘typical of a solicitor’s or accountant’s office [...] with dark woodwork and translucent glass panels’, and the official setting served to formalise the meeting, which unanimously resolved that the British Interplanetary Society be formed, while electing the roles of President (Cleator), Vice-President (Askham) and Secretary (Johnson).46 Over time, the Hamilton Café, at 56 Whitechapel, Liverpool, became the Society’s regular meeting-place, which was later described by Cleator as,

[A]n unpretentious place, which exactly suited our needs: it was centrally located; it remained open until late hours, it provided light refreshments as and when required; and its charges were absurdly cheap.47

Meetings at the Hamilton Café typically occurred in the evenings, covering administrative matters related to the Society, as well as holding ‘Free Discussions’ on topics such as ‘The Temperature of an Object in Space’ and ‘Can We Plot a Path for a Space-Ship from the Earth to One of the Planets?’48 One meeting in February 1936 featured the visiting German rocket experimenter and VfR member Willy Ley. Ley was reportedly on his way to America, described as ‘a fugitive from Hitler’s Third Reich’.49 This meeting attracted a number of local newspaper reporters, at which Ley gave an address to the dozen or so members of the Society who were present, reportedly on the subject of sending a rocket to the Moon. A bespectacled Ley was subsequently pictured in The Daily Sketch showing some plans to surrounding members of the BIS, including Cleator and Askham, which were later pointed out to have been nothing more than ‘a blank sheet of foolscap paper’, used as a staging prop to convey a sense of scientific realism.50 This episode highlights the role of hospitality and the staging of media events in the enactment of interplanetary science during this period. In this way, the practices of group scientific activity were closely aligned to the various types of place in which the BIS met, as well as to their broader international networks, enabling a diverse range of activities and modes of engagement.

A similar variety of places were utilised by the BIS once it had settled down in London by 1937, at which point a new cohort including Arthur C Clarke (1917-2008), Harry Ross (1904-1978) and Arthur ‘Vai’ Cleaver (1917-1977) had become more prominent in the Society (Clarke is pictured in Fig. 3.1 to the left). Here, members are said to have met ‘at least once a week in cafés, pubs, or each other’s modest apartments’, the most

Synthesising outer space 47 frequented locations being the Mason’s Arms and the Duke of York, two pubs in the vicinity of London’s Oxford Circus.51 In a retrospective account, Ross recalled how ‘pre-war members of the BIS have met in many strange places - some of them palatial, some of them markedly otherwise, most of them pubs’, remembering one occasion in 1936 featuring ‘a sea of about 30 fantastically assorted faces, an incredible aroma of fish, beer and tobacco, a glass-fronted wall-case of toy soldiers, and a heck of a noise’.52 Vai Cleaver similarly recalled discussions at the Duke of York in 1938, one on the subject of a 'proposed launching device for a spaceship’ that would float in a sea-borne tank, and another at which a visiting member of the American Rocket Society, Midshipman Robert Traux, displayed a prototype fuel-cooled rocket motor, the first Cleaver had ever seen, and ‘told us some very tall American stories’.53

These accounts highlight some of the social interactions within the BIS, the atmospheres in which they took place, and their role in the formulation of astronautics, with exchanges of ideas, the telling of stories and the display of objects constituting a large part of the highly speculative endeavour that was 1930s’ space science. Such interactions in London echo the kinds of activity held previously in Liverpool, where BIS members from modest backgrounds, with little in the way of conventional training, conducted science in informal settings, focussing on the fundamental problem of achieving spaceflight. While their practical experimental work was negligible in comparison to early rocketry programmes occurring around the same time in Germany and the United States, the Society undertook vigorously the broad intellectual labour of spaceflight, including theoretical work, discursive debate, public promotion and material circulation of astronautical knowledge. Looking at the social and spatial contingencies of this work, it appears that, far from being hindered by a lack of official premises in which to conduct their business, the diversity of informal spaces that were used by the BIS effectively enabled the development of astronautics amid a vibrant international scientific culture.

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