Local knowledge of HARP

Post date: Dec 2, 2008 6:13:32 PM

‘To hold eternity in the palm of your hand’ William Blake

Mr. Sealy owned Paragon house and one day he called up the young Doctor David Payne and asked him to buy the property. The Federation Government of the West Indies with its headquarters in Bridgetown, the island’s capital, was being formed and Payne thought it would be a good idea to buy the great house since homes would be needed for its officials.

He bought the house and fourteen acres of land in 1959 for $23,000 Bds at eight percent interest and paid $166.00 per month mortgage through Cottle Catford a firm of solicitors. Paragon land was a wind swept and wave battered rugged raised beach platform, with sheer 60 feet cliffs of sharp eroded coral limestone running over to the West to Long Beach, a mile wide bay stretch of white sand.

In 1963 Payne rented the house to a new company called the High Altitude Research Project for $300.00 Bds a month in the person of a Professor Dean Mordecai for a project to do something with guns and satellites.

Payne felt he should have rented it for more for shortly after they moved in a whole army of scientists, technicians and military people descended. The place was transformed into something like Dr No from James Bond. He drove to Paragon every evening after his clinic to see what new and fascinating things were happening and stood by thinking that he was too lowly of intelligence to understand what was going on. One day he went and the staircase had been moved.

“Do you know anyone who could be an all rounder, get things done with the government?” Professor Mordecai asked him shortly after the project was installed.

“Sure” Payne said. He recommended a young man he had meet by the name of Carlton Brathwaite, who had just finished working for Costain, an international construction company that had just built Barbados’ first and new deep water harbour. He knew that the young man had done basically the same work. Signing in and out things and keeping check on stores and getting things done with government.


Barbados is to play what may be a vital part in the testing of the instruments for the exploration of the moon. Early next month a converted naval gun near Seawell Airport will blast off a series of chemical-packet ‘bullet-rockets’ high into the atmosphere – the start of McGill University’s spectacular ‘Operation Space’, a multi-purpose scientific project that will make Barbados a world space research center and provide the island with the best equipped storm detection station in the Southern West Indies.

Announcing this yesterday the Canadian University said that Barbados was ‘a natural choice’ for the location of their ‘space guns’. The island’s weather and the fact that the University already has research facilities there under the Bellairs Research Institute and the BRACE Experiment Station, were main factors.

The ‘space gun’ site will be between Seawell Airport and the seacoast. The actual launching installation will be at the foot of the cliffs at the east end of the runway. A command control port will be located in a compound at the lower level. Most of the instrumentation, radar, telemetry, receivers and so on, will be installed close to the airport control tower so that the Department of Civil Aviation can get “full benefit”.

All the launchings will be under the supervision of Barbados’ own airport control officer, the university said. Barbados’ ‘space shot’ program will fall into two stages. The first will be a small installation around a converted four-inch naval gun, from which payloads or instrumentation of five or six pounds will be fired up to about 150,000 feet.


The second stage will be a launching tube built around a 16-inch gun capable of sending a 2,000lb payload to 150,000 ft or 200 lbs. To 500,000 ft. or 600,000 ft.

The University forecasts that, when the second stage has been reached a booster rocket will be added to the payload, using a standard solid fuel, and the original rocket will probably “escape the earth altogether”.

The vehicles will be tracked from the ground by radio and possibly radar sets, says the university which will also provide the surveillance to make sure the atmosphere is “clear of all airplanes or satellites before launching”. The rockets will send back messages and these will be picked up by automatic direction finders on the radio receivers. The radar, say the University, besides following the experiments will also be available for traffic control works.

More important still, to Barbados however, will be the complete equipment for a regular meteorological station, vital equipment in the surveillance of conditions before launching and a long-needed storm detection station for Barbados – an island directly in the path of the world’s hurricane spawning ground.


The University is wasting no time on the first miniature ‘blast-off’. The first exploration shots from the smaller ‘space-gun’ are scheduled to be made early next month, and the larger gun should be in action by the end of summer, according to the University.

The first shots will eject sodium nitrate mixed with aluminum powder and the reaction can be observed from the ground. Later, however, the ‘space-guns’ may fire off grenade loaded bullets which will explode at high altitude.


Says the University. The gun launched probe will not be suitable for doing all the scientific work that can be done with rockets, but it can do a great deal of this work and has many advantages as compared to a rocket.

In the first place it is cheaper. In the second place it is more predictable and reliable. It can stand in a state of instant readiness and be fired with great frequency if need be. At the present time much of information gained about the upper atmosphere shows great variance simply because conditions are varying all the time, and at the present time using rockets, it is not possible to get measurements sufficiently frequently to trace the pattern of variation. With the gun-launched probe this will become possible and so will help very materially in gathering information about the properties of the atmosphere at extreme altitude.


The gun fired electrically, and an electrician was needed to wire the bags of explosives, packed behind the projectile in the breech of the gun, to go off simultaneously. This was Renee Low’s job. It entailed being at the breech of the gun when the shots were being loaded.

“The explosion was coming but the nerves could not be quite. Reaction was involuntary,” he recalls.

Lowe worked on the American Bauxite Base at Chagaramas in Trinidad as Chief electrician from 1936 and during the years of the Second World War. On his return to Barbados in 1952 the Government of Barbados employed him as Chief Electrician for Seawell Airport. When HARP came in 1962 he was transferred by the government to work on the project.

“At the beginning of HARP we changed a generator at the airport and the government told me to give the discarded generator to HARP. The electricians at HARP were unable to adopt it to their needs. I was called in and asked to fix it as a side job.” He remembers.

He discovered then that George Payne was not only working on the project but that he was one of the ‘heavies’. George Payne had been in a group of old wireless men such as Cecil Sampson, who were pioneers of radio in Barbados, who met regularly as a group. Lowe had taught Payne general electrics and George had specialized in radio.

Lowe: George was an absolute genius, the best. George and I did something with a radio at HARP that was astounding, that beat the fellows at the Headquarters in North Troy. We put up a transmitter. George did all the calculation and we were able to talk to North Troy as though they were in St James. In order to bring it to more efficiency George went to North Troy and rearranged their whole transmission system. We made a phone patch. Whatever the electronic engineers in Canada were capable of we could do as much as that. Often when we set up projects the men in Canada could not do the counterpart. With certain projects here, we had to send them the technology to put it up there in North Troy. George Payne was one of the giants of HARP. The amazing thing was that Payne was not only a leper, he was half an invalid and was highly respected and loved for his genius. Payne did more electronics schematics at HARP than any other person. He cared for nothing but the truth. Some people did not like that.

Dr Bull was an amazing man from the first encounter. The gun was at first elevated mechanically. Bull decided to change the method and do it electrically. A design to achieve this was made in North Troy and brought down to us. As Chief Electrician I was asked to install it. Our generator was not big enough so I borrowed one from the airport and connected it. The motor of the generator started to burn while the gun was still in the process of elevation.

‘We had better bring the gun back down. If it goes up now you going get it down?’ I turned and said to Dr. Bull who was standing by my side.

‘Fuck it’ he said. ‘Don’t let that worry you, what goes up must come down.’

I don’t remember what happened but the gun must have come down. I have seen him do things that were fantastic. For instance a vehicle is on the ground and the ammunition that is calculated to drive it. He would ask Robbie Sealy, the gun captain from Goodland District, how much ammunition he had calculated. Then he would come up with his own figure and the explosive would be accurate.

Everybody was one.

Bull argued that a gun with a 32 inch bore and a long enough barrel could shot straight into orbit. We could have launched a satellite or put things in the air for next thing to nothing. I remember one night we fired the gun every two hours.

What we had at HARP was expendability. People thought we had to obtain things from outside or go somewhere for our technology, but we took discarded equipment – from places like the U.S. Armed Forces and other countries. We took systems from amateur radio and modified them to do what we wanted.

We could not buy certain electrical equipment so we sat down and built them. We modified all kinds of equipment to suit our specific needs and produced the effects that were required. I was afforded the opportunity to try out many of my ideas at HARP. There are certain things I could do. I would be sitting in the workshop. An engineer would come up and say ‘I want you to do so and so and I had to do it. Then you had to know where to get what.

HARP was worthwhile. One of our by-products, one of the things we ended up with was a laboratory. We had everything thought up, we tested the efficiency rate of propellant, the burning rate of ammunition, the pressure the ammunition would produce inside the gun. We ran tests for governments. We tested for Germany, America, England. It was easier for us to do this. These countries would have had to set up a laboratory. They contracted us to try out their various ideas for they did not have the expertise or the equipment. When Germany, England, or Belgium had a new ammunition they would have us test a particular aspect of a thing.

Bull put gauges in the gun with the ammunition for Germany. When we fired it the burning rate was so high that it could never be used. There was no gun on earth that could have withstood that burning rate. Our gun withstood it. Germany is advertised as the expert on gunnery, but the English were superior. When the Germans built something the English bettered it.

I was proud to have worked on the project. Being Chief Electrician at HARP was a culmination of life work in electricity.


Lowe began fiddling with things during his school days in the 1920s, Morse code, learning to make magnets, like many boys of that age. His father was an mechanical engineer. There was no radio. The first scheduled radio program was aired over KDKA in Pittsburg on the evening of November 2nd 1920, when the returns of the Harding-Cox presidential elections were broadcast to an audience of a few thousand listening in on homemade Betsies.

The event marked the birth of schedule broadcasting, an application of radio telephony which had been proposed in 1916 by David Sarnoff, at the time a young employee of the Marconi wireless company. The first sponsored broadcast was on August 28th 1921 over WEA in New York. The National Broadcasting Broadcasting Company (NBC) was formed in 1926, and on New Years Day 1927 the first coast to coast network program, a football game, play by play, was broadcast from the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) was formed in 1927.

In Barbados in the 1920’s there was Cable and Wireless on the Reef Road in Bridgetown behind a vegetable and meat market. The idea of a loudspeaker was not known. There were a few radios around but they were with headphones. The idea of the Rediffusion wire service came a long time after that. There was a lot of outward migration from Barbados at that time such as Barbadians going to Panama to help build the Canal. There was a great need for engineering there. Lowe’s father had worked in Panama as a mechanical engineer.

In the 1920s it was hard for the coloured man to find work to suit his qualifications in Barbados. Many coloured people with qualifications like Lowe’s father found it easier to work overseas than in Barbados at the time. These Barbaians went overseas and learnt a lot and when they came back they put their knowledge to use.

Radio was developing and in World War I it was used a lot and that sparked the imagination. In Barbados there were quite a few coloured fellows before Lowe such as Fitzgerald Grant, Freddie Miller, Tom Rocheford. There was only one white man that got together with these coloured men and that was a Mr. Archer who lived at the corner of Strathclyde a suburb of Bridgetown, the capital, which was then divided into two a black side and a white side, with the blacks not allowed to walk on the white side.

They borrowed books from the library and bought books and read theories, met, discussed them and set out to prove what they had read. They took discarded telephones from the telephone company, took the receiver and the transmitter out and built their radios.

Archer had money and sent to England to buy his equipment and the information but the coloured fellows imported from America because it was cheaper and easier. Customs gave the coloured fellows problems for they were frowned on as seen as trying to reach above their station. The superiors felt stupid in the face of these progressive young men and deliberately set out to give them all sorts of problems.

At nineteen Lowe began doing electrical work, house wiring, installing lights. He found it difficult to get a reasonable paying job because he was so dark skinned.

“Did you see the paper today?” A solicitor acquaintance of Lowe called out to him.

“I cannot by a paper when I cannot by food.” Lowe said.

“There is a job in Trinidad for an electrician like you,” he replied. “Go and see this man.” The solicitor wrote the name Crawford and an address at the central foundry in Bridgetown.

“Where you were hiding?” Mr. Crawford, who turned out to be a white man said. “You don’t know me?” Crawford realized that Lowe had not recognized him. “You foolish bitch, you are the one that taught me electrics. Go and tell them that I say give you the job.”

The time was World War II. Many Barbadians went south to Trinidad. The job in Trinidad turned out to be Chief Electrician on the Tremblodora Dock with the Bauxite Industry at the American base at the Chagaramus terminal. During the war years Bauxite was needed to make the airplanes used to win the war. It was mined in Jamaica and British Guyana as it was then called, and sent to America and England. The war shall be fought and won in the air, Lord Beaverbrook said.

No large sea going craft could sail the rivers of the interior of British Guyana. Small craft were needed to travel into the interior to bring out the Bauxite ore. These craft then delivered the ore to Trinidad where they transferred their much needed cargo to the much larger sea-going ships.

During the war there was need for all kinds of engineers at the transfer station. They all had radios and listened to the speeches and the goings on of the War.

“We shall fight them in the trenches, we shall fight them air” When Churchill said those words, the people, who worked in the Bauxite plant knew that he was talking with his sinews only for they knew that England had nothing to fight the Germans with, for there was no bauxite getting through to build his planes. The German submarines were sinking the ships bound for England with bauxite and food.

The war was fought at the Caribbean’s back door yet the average Caribbean person knew nothing. There were a lot of German submarines in the area and many reports that they were stationed at Martinique and Guadeloupe. There were stories of German submarine crews coming ashore at Pelican island, an island just outside the Bridgetown Careenage, changing their clothes, visiting nightclubs, and gathering information on shipping in and out of Barbados, and then going back to their submarines.

Not only did the Germans try to stop the Bauxite shipments but also the food sent from the islands to Europe – plantain, bananas, from the other islands, and sugar from Barbados. Many ships were sunk in Caribbean waters, and many not more than two miles of the coast. Trinidad was always tense because of the large amount of shipping. Trinidad had a large harbor and many ships came there to berth. They were followed by the German U boats. Every day survivors came into Port of Spain. On board the ships were also Caribbean soldiers on their way to war.

“I am going off to England to the war. This was heard more and more.”

One day a merchant vessel, the Cornwallis, was torpedoed just off Bridgetown in Carlilsle Bay. Some of the volunteers who had just boarded the boat to England were rescued, and brought back to port greasy and grimy with all there belongings lost.

While in Trinidad Lowe lived in Belmont a small suburb in Port of Spain. His wife had accompanied him and his daughter was born there. He returned to Barbados in 1945. A fellow radio buff was now Deputy of the Government Electrical Department, and he hired Lowe to work in the Department.