There is something owl-like about this machine, with its two wide-eyed brass dials. Behind the protective panels are thousands of resistors, hundreds of capacitors, tens of thermionic valves, relays and switches …and three bicycle chains; this is a place where technology, improvisation and the domestic cheerfully rub along, and as if to prove the point, tucked neatly underneath is a pair of shoes. Meet Beastie, the Union Mark II ionosonde machine.
For thirty years Beastie sent radio waves into the upper atmosphere, transmitting regular pulsed radio waves into the ionosphere (between 70km and 700km above the surface of the Earth) and measuring the delay before the reflected signal was received and recorded. People have been using machines to gather data for as long as they have been going to the Antarctic: measuring depth and creating charts, gathering samples from the sea bed, collecting rocks, keeping detailed records of meteorological conditions. We have magnetometers, spectrographs, echo sounders, seismometers, hydrophones and magnetic resonance imaging. Even the earliest photos have as a theme men bending over their recording instruments, experiencing considerable discomfort to gather data which cannot be fully appreciated in the short term. “It is a cold business as you can’t move for fear of moving the Barrow dip circle,” remarked Murray Levick, one of the men in Scott’s Northern party, talking of magnetic observation. “I had to squat, half sitting in the snow at the side of the tent. After an hour…I could have sat on a spiked iron railing and never felt it!”
The relationship between people and their machines, between ‘Beastiemen’ and ‘Beastie’, is one of use and service, but the way the machine is named, adapted, tended, as well as the use to which it is put, is a testimony to the ingenuity, resilience and adaptability of the human spirit in the face of extreme environmental conditions. And for those who might feel that the obligation of extracting data is suffocating, there is plenty of evidence of creativity, too. The same Murray Levick had a habit of missing his night-time shift. His colleague Browning invented the Carusophone, to be activated by the person taking the midnight obs. A candle burnt down to a thread, snapping it and releasing a bamboo cane which pulled a catch off the gramophone. The Flower Song from Carmen plays – in the Antarctic – and Levick wakes; the observation continues.