From the Archives: City and Space

by Stephen Penton and Conor Jackson

City Archive holds a number of pieces of material relating to space and space travel. This all relates to today’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Aeronautics. One of the earliest departments when the Northampton Institute was founded in 1897 was Mechanical Engineering, and soon after in 1909 City was one of the first universities to introduce Aeronautical Engineering courses.

One of the Heads of Departments of the Aeronautics Department was Grigori Tokaty. Professor Tokaty had a highly successful career as an aeronautical engineer in the USSR, becoming chief rocket scientist in 1947.1 However, shortly afterwards he defected to the UK and has been described as ‘…one of the most prominent Cold War defectors’ (Dylan, 2018).2 He was a Professor at City between 1967 and 1975, and invited a number of eminent people involved in space to City during this time.

A photo of Professor Grigori Tokaty.
Professor Grigori Tokaty

Professor Tokaty invited the astronauts David Scott, Alfred Worden and James Irwin to visit City in November 1971, shortly after they had visited the Moon on the Apollo 15 mission. A short amateur film was made of the occasion, including footage of their arrival, and of a ceremony in the Great Hall. City still has this film in the Archive.

The mission was launched from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, using a spacecraft called Endeavour. It took nearly 100 hours to reach the moon. Once there, Scott and Irwin descended to the moon’s surface in a smaller vehicle called Falcon, and then used a Lunar Roving Vehicle to travel on the Moon (altogether it covered 17 miles). There was a greater emphasis on science than in earlier Apollo missions, particularly geology, with samples from the Moon’s surface taken and transported back to Earth. 18.5 hours were spent outside the spacecraft in all on the mission – this was a record at the time for one mission.3

In the ceremony at City the astronauts presented the University with a photograph of the Lunar Roving Vehicle, and a piece of the heat shield from the Endeavour spacecraft, both of which are still at City.

The signed photo of the Apollo 15 landing module and rover presented by the Apollo 15 astronauts. The inscription reads: "To Peter Studd, Lord Mayor and Chancellor of the City University from the Apollo 15 crew in appreciation of our visit - November 9, 1971" and the caption reads: "Astronaut Irwin with rover at Apollo 15 landing site."
The signed photo of the Apollo 15 landing module and rover presented by the Apollo 15 astronauts.

In the Autumn of 1974 – 31st October to be exact – Professor Tokaty invited science writer and novelist Arthur C. Clarke to deliver a lecture titled “The Promise of Space”. The lecture was captured using cassette tape and forms part of the modest audio-visual collection in the Archive.

The use of cassette tapes were fine for 1974, though they present an issue in 2019: this type of media is liable to degrade over time through over-playing, poor maintenance and poor playback equipment. To mitigate against any unknown deterioration and potential loss, it became apparent that the Clarke lecture would need to be digitised. The digitisation process was reasonably simple:

  • Download recording software.
  • Connect a tape player to a PC sound card or microphone
  • Insert a tape and record.

The device used to carry out the recording was a boombox-style CD and tape player from the early 2000s. I had misgivings about the basic set-up, but the quality of the recording was satisfactory for our purpose and the only drawbacks were some warm and fuzzy noises and a reduced volume at certain points in the recording. This certainly gave the recording an authentic feel, though a more refined sound was achieved using tools from the recording software.

Clarke may be best known for his fiction, but he was also something of a futurist, so we were hopeful that the lecture would contain correct predictions about technology to come. This proved to be the case as he made prescient remarks about email, digital newspapers and the internet. We transcribed a section of the tape where he discusses this in more detail:

We’re going to see things coming in like the global satellite post office. Instead of having the physical delivery of mail, which is getting more and more difficult and slower and slower, we will just get at least our commercial mail through electronic links in a few microseconds or a few milliseconds instead of a few weeks it sometimes takes now. The global electronic newspaper – the time’s going to come when you will just dial some coding in your home and you will see the front page of any newspaper in the world, if you can still use the word newspaper in that context and get through satellite links not only the current news media, but every newspaper that has ever been, every book that has ever been right back to the invention of the printing press, in fact all of the knowledge of mankind could be available to you in your home through such a device when you dial the correct thirty digit number. There’s a little problem in information retrieval here but we’re going to solve that, we have to.

A poster for Arthur C Clarke's lecture at City in 1974. The text reads: "Dept. of Aeronautics. The City University, London, EC1. A Special Lecture: "The Promise of Space" by Arthur C. Clarke, science writer & novelist ("Interplanetary Flight," "THe Exploration of Space," "The Promise of Space," "Glidepath," "2001 - A Space Odyssey," etc., etc.). Thurs. 31st Oct. 1974, 2oc to 3oc in Room U.214. All Welcome!"
A poster for Arthur C Clarke’s lecture at City in 1974.

More than 40 years have passed since City welcomed Arthur C. Clarke and the astronauts of the Apollo 15 mission and much has changed about space and space travel in the intervening years. It is impossible to know what connection City may have with space in the future, but with the advent of space tourism it may be alumni who come back to visit us.



1. White, S (1971) ‘Tokaty, space pioneer.’ New scientist and science journal, 8th July 1971.

2. Dylan, A. (2018) ‘SIS, Grigori Tokaev, and the London Controlling Section: New Perspectives on a Cold War Defector and Cold War Deception.’ War in History, 26(4) pp. 517-538.

3. ‘Apollo 15’ (2019) Wikipedia. Available at (Accessed 16th October 2019)

CityLibrary makes History

On Tuesday, November 27th, CityLibrary will take part in History Day for the first time.

History Day is an annual event at Senate House bringing together libraries, archives and associated organisations to create a programme of drop-in talks and a fair designed to inspire and support researchers.

Poster featuring a woman reading and writing, advertising History Day 2018
History Day 2018

CityLibrary staff will have a stall in the main History Fair displaying items from the City, University of London Archive and Special Collections. The theme of this year’s event is ‘Women in History’ and so our display will focus on the significant impact and achievement of women at City, as well as showcasing some other notable items from our collections.

Since our founding as the Northampton Institute in 1894, City has had a strong association with STEM subjects and our History Day stall will highlight the contributions of alumni such as Shirley Wallis (the first woman to be awarded a Diploma in Technology) and Marjorie Bell (the first female student on the Northampton Institute’s Electronic Engineering course). We’ll also emphasise the crucial role women workers played during World War I and their connection to the Institute. More information on some of City’s Extraordinary Women can be found on the City website.

Notable women feature prominently in The Athenaeum, the forerunner of The New Statesman and we are the proud custodians of a special ‘Editor’s copy’ which features crucial clues as to who wrote many of the anonymous articles published between 1828-1921. We’ve selected several contributions from the likes of Millicent Fawcett and Elizabeth Barrett Browning to feature, plus the early reviews of several novels by the Brontë sisters writing under their pseudonyms: these reviews were featured (uncredited) in a recent BBC documentary series on the family (which is available to watch via BoB).

Staff will also present a range of other fascinating items and ephemera from our Rare Books collections, plus we’ll have some exciting freebies to giveaway too.

Image of postcards and a bookmark including images from the Archive of the College Building and some taken from the Walter Fincham optics collection
Archive freebies featuring images from the Archive and the Walter Fincham optics collection.


History Day is free to attend although the organisers recommend registering in advance. We look forwards to seeing you there and participating in what should be an interesting and engaging event.


From the archives: Decline and Fall

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

One of the gems of our rare books collection is a complete copy of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which was published in 1789.

12 beautiful leather bound books
Twelve books of Decline and Fall

It’s a six volume work. Each volume is split in two making twelve books in total. The complete work covers the story of the Roman Empire from the second century CE (the time when Gladiator was set) to the fifteenth century. It’s not just a history of the Roman Empire but the history of much of Europe, Africa and Asia during this long period.

The first volume was published in 1776, the same year when the United States of America declared Independence. The final volume was published in 1788 (the year before the French Revolution). This was a time of both great change and disruption, but also continuation and tradition.

This period is sometimes called the Enlightenment. During this time scholars around the world (especially in intellectual centres like Birmingham, Edinburgh, Paris, London and Boston) wrote books and articles which challenged previous ways of thinking. Gibbon was part of this movement. He  believed that the fall of the Roman Empire was caused by, and caused, the growth of medievalism. He thought this was a bad thing and that the Roman Empire was a good thing. The Roman Empire was built on colonialism and slavery and saw massive inequality.

Decline and Fall is both an epic work and a piece of sustained scholarship, however it is of its time. Some of Gibbon’s conclusions are not necessarily followed today, but he is still praised for a fine and vigorous prose style.

frontispiece image
The frontispiece

The state of scholarship

This map shows the relative knowledge of Italy and Egypt. Italy was a stopping point on the infamous Great Tour and many rich Britons would have visited it. Very few Europeans had traveled to Egypt at the time Gibbon was writing his work. Now a days a lot more is known about Egypt, almost more than Italy or Greece, due to discovery of extensive papyrus records.

A line drawing map of Eastern Mediterranean
A map of the Eastern Mediterranean
Greece and Italy map line drawing
A map of Greece and Italy
Egypt map line drawing
A map of Egypt

The author

Gibbon was briefly an MP in parliament but his greatest achievement was this history. He was noted for the critical use of primary sources and was a great example of the value and importance of a solid underpinning of information literacy.

He was also a very well traveled man and a part of that great European Republic of Letters which has survived even to this day in places like City, University of London which value and support the importance of internationalism.

Author portrait from frontispiece

For many people, perhaps, Gibbon’s legacy can be summed up in the apocryphal words of King George III ”Another damned big black book, Mr. Gibbon. Scribble, scribble, scribble – eh, Mr. Gibbon?” It’s certainly a big book, bigger than anything by Tolstoi, but just as readable.

In the 240 odd years since its publication, even though few have read it and the world has changed, many of Gibbon’s presumptions and ideas have become commonplace. Returning to the beginning and learning good information literacy, we can learn to challenge many of these ideas and begin to write our own histories.