The British Journal for the History of Science

Research Article

Accidents and opportunities: a history of the radio echo-sounding of Antarctica, 1958–79


a1 Division of History and Philosophy of Science (HPS), University of Leeds, UK

a2 British Library

a3 Department of Geography, University of Exeter, UK

a4 School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, Scotland.


This paper explores the history of radio echo-sounding (RES), a technique of glaciological surveying that from the late 1960s has been used to examine Antarctica's sub-glacial morphology. Although the origins of RES can be traced back to two accidental findings, its development relied upon the establishment of new geopolitical conditions, which in the 1960s typified Antarctica as a continent devoted to scientific exploration. These conditions extended the influence of prominent glaciologists promoting RES and helped them gather sufficient support to test its efficiency. The organization and implementation of a large-scale research programme of RES in Antarctica followed these developments. The paper also examines the deployment of RES in Antarctic explorations, showing that its completion depended on the availability of technological systems of which RES was an integral part.

(Online publication June 09 2008)


c1 (corresponding author:


Research for this paper was generously funded by the Leverhulme Trust, grant number F00144AV. The authors wish to thank the librarians and archivists at the Scott Polar Research Institute, the John Rylands Library of the University of Manchester, the Royal Society of London and the British Antarctic Survey, all in the UK, as well as the National Archives and Records Administration and the Byrd Polar Research Center of the Ohio State University, in the USA. We would also like to thank all those who were willing to be interviewed as part of this project. Lastly we would like to acknowledge the support given by the University of Bristol and by Michael Worboys, director of the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM), University of Manchester, during the completion of this project.