Churchill Archive Platform - Science and Technology

‘No period in history has been more penetrated by and more dependent on the natural sciences than the twentieth century’, observed the historian Eric Hobsbawm. The rate of development has been remarkable; scientists were still debating whether atoms existed in 1900, but less than fifty years later, scientists and technologists had harnessed the energy stored deep inside atoms to provide a new source of power and build the most destructive weapons ever conceived.

In a series of breakthroughs, twentieth-century scientists delved ever-deeper into the nature of matter. The science of genetics began, along with the quantum theory and relativity, both of which were successfully applied to the structure of the atom. This increasingly deep understanding of the world, coupled with technological advances such as mass production and advances in chemical engineering and transport technologies, opened up new possibilities for industry and warfare. H. G. Wells and other visionaries were quick to give examples of what might lie ahead.

The industrialisation of warfare in the First World War was enabled by a host of scientific and technological advances, including mass production. Important roles were played by relatively new inventions and technologies, including aeronautics, poison gas, munitions and the tank.

After the war, scientists began to further understand the inner workings of the atom with the discovery of the theory of quantum mechanics. The nucleus at the core of the atom was also closely studied and, with the discovery of nuclear fission in late 1938, scientists saw the first sign that it might be possible to make practical use of nuclear energy. When the Second World War began, almost no one believed this form of energy would have any impact on the conflict.

In the Second World War, science and technology were again of utmost importance, with many new developments, notably in weaponry, cryptography and medicine. Perhaps the most important advance was radar, invented simultaneously in several countries, an invention that gave new ways of combatting aerial and submarine attacks. For most people, however, the most notable military advance enabled by science was the advent of nuclear weapons. Assisted by their allies, the Americans had secretly developed the Atomic Bomb in the gargantuan Manhattan Project, and it was this weapon’s use on Japan that finally ended the war.

After the Second World War, the tensions of the Cold War drove the US and the Soviet Union towards increasingly bitter competitiveness, especially after the Russians obtained nuclear weapons at least two years earlier than most expected and, a few years later, launched the first artificial Earth satellite, Sputnik. The development of thermonuclear weapons led many people to fear a global nuclear conflagration.

Even with the rise of ‘the military-industrial complex’, identified by President Eisenhower in 1961, fundamental science flourished, notably with the deepening understanding of sub-nuclear matter and the discovery of the structure of DNA, followed by the development of molecular biology. Yet even with these triumphs, the military uses of science and technology during wartime had tarnished their name. As Hobsbawm observed, although the twentieth century saw an unprecedented flourishing of science, ‘no period, since Galileo’s recantation, has been less at ease with it’.

Although Winston Churchill was no scientist, he was keenly aware of the impact new scientific and technological discoveries could have on civilian life and on military matters. This awareness was at the root of one of his most important strengths as a political and national leader, especially during wartime.

At school, Churchill was neither a strong nor an enthusiastic student of mathematics or the sciences. By the time he was a subaltern in Bangalore in 1896 however, he was eager to expand his horizons by including science books in his extensive reading list. Soon after he entered Parliament, Churchill befriended the writer H. G. Wells, whose imagination and foresight he profoundly admired. Wells’ works, looking ahead to the possibilities offered by the new advances in scientific development, were the first important influence on Churchill’s adult thinking about science and technology.

By the mid-1920s, Frederick Lindemann, a professor of physics at Oxford University, had replaced Wells as Churchill’s most important scientific influence and had become a close friend. Churchill consulted ‘the Prof’ about a wide variety of technical matters and often requested advice and briefing materials. As a result, Churchill published several well-informed articles on the impact science and technology might soon have on society and warfare. In ‘Shall We All Commit Suicide?’ (1925) and ‘Fifty Years Hence’ (1931), Churchill looked ahead to the nuclear age and, remarkably, foresaw the discovery of the neutron and the coming of thermonuclear weapons.

In the mid-to-late 1930s, Churchill and Lindemann worked closely together to campaign for the UK to develop better air defences. The duo badgered the government’s committees that oversaw aerial defence research and were scathingly critical of the lack of resources invested in it and of the low priority given to Lindemann’s ideas which many experts dismissed as foolish. Churchill and Lindemann were also initially lukewarm about the development of radar, though they eventually changed their minds.

After Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940, he quickly recruited Lindemann (later, Lord Cherwell) as a close adviser and ‘the Prof’ became possibly the most influential scientist in the history of British government. Constantly seeking Lindemann’s advice, Churchill strongly supported the development of any new technological ideas that stood a chance of aiding the war effort. Among his most prominent initiatives was the setting up of the ‘statistical branch’, tasked with providing a continual stream of data to assist the running of the war, and of the weapons research and development facility known as MD1. Churchill closely followed the findings of the code-breakers at Bletchley Park (among whom Alan Turing was a leading expert), described by Churchill as ‘the geese who laid the golden eggs and never cackled’.

Churchill was the first national leader to endorse a programme to build a nuclear weapon, after scientists in Britain had given the country an early lead through their pioneering work in the early 1940s. It proved impossible for the UK to build the weapon alone during wartime and the British nuclear project merged with Manhattan project in the summer of 1943. This took place immediately after Churchill and Roosevelt signed the Quebec Agreement, according to which the use of the project’s nuclear weapons required the Prime Minister’s agreement.

Shortly after the War, Churchill argued privately for a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, although he never advocated this publicly. After he became Prime Minister again in 1951, Churchill was astounded to learn that Attlee had funded a secret nuclear project without the full knowledge and consent of Parliament. This secret initiative enabled Churchill to become the first UK Prime Minister to have nuclear weapons in his arsenal and to begin a flourishing civil nuclear power programme. During this term, he also authorised the UK to be part of the international physics laboratory CERN, whose scientists later discovered the Higgs boson.

After Churchill left office, Lindemann persuaded him to help to set up a new institution that would substantially improve the quality of scientific and technological education in the UK. This institution was to be Churchill College, Cambridge, now his official memorial in Britain and also the home of the papers in his archive.

Where to Find Documents within the Churchill Archive

The Churchill Archive can provide us with captivating insights into developments in scientific thinking and technological change in the period, as well as Churchill’s own fascination with the area. A selection of these, providing evidence of both social change, and resistance to such change, in both war and peace, is listed below.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a suggestion for starting points, and should be used in conjunction with the search facilities that will enable you to search across files for people, places and topics relevant to your individual research interests.


  • CHUR 1/29: Early correspondence between Churchill and H. G. Wells, including a revealing exchange about the content of Wells’ first non-fiction book, ‘Anticipations’.
  • See especially the letter in CHAR 1/29/54-55.


  • CHAR 1/188 and CHAR 1/199: Examples of the early correspondence between Churchill and Frederick Lindemann, demonstrating Churchill’s reliance on the Oxford professor for technical advice and also for ideas for popular articles on science and technology:
  • CHAR 1/188/17-33: Churchill’s well-informed summary of atomic science in 1926.
  • CHAR 1/199/97: Concerns the calculations Lindemann made of the flow of water into and out of the ponds of Chartwell.


  • CHAR 8/567: Churchill’s article, ‘Life in a World Controlled by Scientists’, and annotated proofs from his classic article ‘Fifty Years Hence’.
  • CHAR 8/200B/202-206: Churchill’s article ‘Shall we all commit Suicide?’


  • CHAR 2/243 and CHAR 2/244: Documents that show Churchill and Lindemann together putting unremitting pressure on government committees to develop technological fixes that would help to improve Britain’s aerial defences.
  • CHAR 2/236/106: Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin welcoming Churchill’s role on one of the government committees, in July 1935.


  • CHAR 19/7: Documents that demonstrate Lindemann’s early role in providing Churchill with wide-ranging technical advice from May 1940 when Churchill became Prime Minister.
  • CHAR 19/3/2: Insights into the setting up of the Statistical Branch.

CHAR 20 and CHUR 2

  • CHAR 20/129, CHUR 2/3 and CHUR 2/28: Valuable material on the background to the Quebec Agreement struck in August 1943 by Churchill and Roosevelt about the development and use of nuclear weapons. After the Second World War Churchill believed that Clement Attlee had failed to capitalise on the Agreement, whereas Attlee believe that it was a weak document, worth little more than the paper it was written on.
  • CHUR 2/28/121-124: Fascinating correspondence between Churchill and Attlee in early December 1950.


  • CHUR 4/294, CHUR 4/19A-B and CHUR 4/274 feature draft passages of Churchill’s Second World War memoir about the history of the UK-US nuclear collaboration during the War.
  • See also proofs of Churchill’s passages on the ‘Ocean Peril’ (and ‘The Air and the U-Boats’) at CHUR 4/176.
  • CHUR 4/205A-B includes proofs of “Blitz and anti-Blitz”
  • CHUR 4/390A-E shows Churchill’s final piece of science writing on the atomic physics and the basis of nuclear weapons.


  • CHUR 2/570A-B, CHUR 2/574 and CHUR 2/575 give the background to the setting up of Churchill’s College, Cambridge, the institution that he established to improve the quality of scientific and technological education in the UK. Churchill College is now the British and Commonwealth memorial to him.


  • See in particular Churchill’s speech notes from the tree-planting ceremony at Churchill College in 1959 at CHUR 5/62A-D.

See also...