Love and Entanglement in Subatomic London: The Spooky Action Machine

Camberwell, 1980. In the cold, dingy attic room of a smog-blackened terraced house, two undergraduates are on the brink of something. They are physics students, although the strange, gaffer-taped structure that fills the room could be mistaken for an art project. A crudely bolted network of steel piping – propped up by beer crates and books – connects a large refrigerator, the workings of a spin dryer, a tangle of wires and a bank of television screens, circuit boards and telephones.

Sitting atop this contraption, as though it were the most natural place to be, is a cat.

The students place the cat, Erwin, inside the refrigerator (which is empty apart from a steel plated lining), type instructions into the modified ZX80 taped to the door’s inside, and slam the door shut. A brief frenzy of bucking and whirring is followed by one almighty jolt – and then silence.

After a few, charged seconds, the students check the fridge. Then, satisfied that there is no trace of Erwin within it, they leave the room – locking the door behind them. Once downstairs, they take a tin of cat food from a cupboard in the kitchen, and step out into the dark, November night.

ZX80
Sinclair ZX80, an early home computer

“Erwin was a little grumpy when we got to Sam’s flat in Highgate”, says Maja Toft, down the phone from Copenhagen. “But otherwise, he seemed fine. We let him out of the exit machine, gave him some dinner, and had him snuggle up with us in Sam’s big bed. He didn’t seem phased to be a pioneer in quantum entanglement travel”.

This is a story of subatomic physics and its potential to open gateways. But it is also a story of music, politics and romance. Maja and her boyfriend Sam Harper had been working on their machine for months, keeping little contact with the world outside college and their makeshift laboratory. But before that?

Dancing.

Maja says they fell for each other in the student bar, to a soundtrack of new wave and synth pop.

“I had grown up loving punk, reggae, all of that. As a young Danish woman, I took London Calling literally. The UK music scene is what brought me to England’s capital. Oh” – she laughs, a soft, warm chuckle that becomes familiar as the call goes on – “and the especial malleability of your city’s subatomic structure, of course”.

London Calling

As Maja herself admits, had she listened a little closer to the lyrics of The Clash’s album, she might have realised that they painted a less than rosy picture of London and the UK.

By April 1981, Maja and Sam had begun to experiment with using the quantum gateway personally. Meanwhile, just up the road in Brixton, riots had broken out against a back-drop of heavy-handed stop-and-search tactics directed at London’s black population.

White, middle class, and raised in Denmark and the US respectively, Maja and Sam felt inoculated against the issues surrounding the riots. However, says Maja, “My politics were formed in that time. It was so unfair, even as a callow young incomer I saw that. What a struggle it was for some. How easy it had been for me”.

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Police presence in Brixton, 1981.

Politics leant their work some urgency. Could instantaneous travel change the world for the better?

But, admits Maja, they had another, less outward-looking motivation.

“It was really just a way to get to each other’s bedrooms quicker”, she laughs. “The journey from Camberwell to Sam’s place in Highgate wasn’t great, especially in winter, especially at night”.

80s train interior
The kind of tube interior Maja was hoping to avoid

So, they studied. For Maja, Imperial College was a natural fit. It had been an early centre for the study of subatomic properties in uranium (until the nuclear arms race drove the research underground).

But the couple were restless. They found their tutors too mired in theory. Between lectures they spent hours in the pub, hammering out ways to make the new ideas practical.

“It was an exciting time in quantum physics”, Maja says. “Stephen Hawking was our hero, tying together a lot of strands. In terms of portals, The Victorians had done some interesting things, but they were chancers, really. They left little useful science. Einstein, Schrodinger – those guys got us past Newton and blind luck”.

Einstein was uncomfortable with what he termed ‘spooky action at a distance’: quantum entanglement, the idea that subatomic particles can affect one another over distances.

“Spooky action, many-worlds theory: Hawking took them seriously. And we took Hawking very seriously indeed”.

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And now, with the help of Maja and Sam’s machine, quantum entanglement was going to change the world.

Maja laughs again, but this time there’s a bitter edge.

“You know, Sam hated that we never managed a two-way machine. That I could get to his bedroom from mine, but not the other way round. I don’t think it was the science that bothered him. I think he just felt cornered.”

For the first time the lightness has left Maja’s voice.

“And – it’s silly – we argued over what to call the thing. I said the Love Walk Generator. Love Walk was a pretty lane in Camberwell that we liked to stroll down in the early days. Spooky Action Machine was Sam’s suggestion. It was certainly catchier. By the time I realised he had suggested it because it abbreviated as SAM, it had stuck.”

There is a silence where the laugh should be.

“I can’t remember whether it was me or Sam who saw the cracks first.”

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Love Walk, Camberwell

Cracks?

“Look – it’s hard to talk about, even now. It wasn’t just the falling out of love. There was… things that didn’t make sense. And – god – the nightmares, and the – our skin”.

Another pause.

“It wasn’t ready. The science wasn’t ready. You could say, yes, we achieved what we set out to achieve. But it wasn’t supposed to – no, it wasn’t. It was a failure”.

Sam moved back to the US and they lost touch. Maja hung on in London for a few years before moving back to Copenhagen.

“I’m a materials scientist, now. Sam would find that funny”.

And the machine?

“Oh, you know I don’t know? I’ve wondered about that a lot over the years. I suppose it’s in some basement somewhere, or in a scrap heap. Hey, hopefully someone fixed the fridge up and used it to keep their groceries fresh”.

Maja’s easy chuckle comes rolling down the phone once more.


  • Candidate: The Spooky Action Machine
  • Type: Quantum Entanglement Device
  • Status: Historic

Time Travel at War: Alexandra Palace and ‘The Princess’

The official website of North London’s Alexandra Palace has a timeline feature. As you scroll back and forth through the exhibition venue’s 140-year history, certain events stand out: A ‘flying bomb’ which blew out the Rose Window towards the end of World War Two; BBC transmitters jamming the navigation systems of German bombers; a devastating fire in 1980; the Palace twice being home to Belgian refugees.

But you’ll see no mention of the story that connects these strands. Maybe this is because it is, in part, a story of failure. Or perhaps it has simply been forgotten, as has so much in the history of London’s dimensional gateways.

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Winter at Alexandra Palace during WWI source | public domain

Set your mind’s timeline to the early months of World War One. The young daughter of a Muswell Hill nurse is brought by her mother to visit refugees camping in the Palace’s Great Hall. The experience will have a lasting impact on the six year old.

Now jump forward 25 years. The nurse’s daughter is back, again greeting Belgians displaced by war. This time, however, the refugees are in the Palace’s wings, being housed there largely as a front. The nurse’s daughter has no professional reason for visiting them – Mary Stratton has not taken her mother’s career path. She is at the Palace in her capacity as a foremost physicist, leading a top secret project. Behind the vast Rose Window, inside the Great Hall, a weapon is being developed that she hopes will play a decisive part in the war against Nazi Germany.

Mary Stratton is building a time machine.

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Alexandra Palace source | licence

But now we come to the 1980 fire. This event was not kind to historians of Stratton’s creation. Much of the paperwork, not to mention what remained of the machine itself, was burnt to ash along with the room it was stored in. We know that the machine had been codenamed ‘The Princess’, but the details of its workings are lost.

What does remain, thanks largely to the diligence of her sister, is a wonderful cache of Stratton’s personal letters, notes and other papers. Alongside hints of the social dynamics at work in her team, they give fascinating insight into what drove her.

“War has a habit of twisting science to the most awful destruction”, Mary wrote to her sister in 1942. “Well, I believe I am close to finding a way to turn science back upon war itself, to hasten an end to all this death without shedding a drop of blood more”.

The ideas of Albert Einstein crop up time and again. His theories on time’s illusionary nature clearly fed into Stratton’s work. And it seems his thoughts on pacifism and liberty also informed her thinking. (Mary was present in 1933 when Einstein spoke at the Albert Hall. Whether she met him in a more personal capacity during his visit to London, we can but wonder.)

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Albert Einstein source | public domain

Stratton’s papers show a wide range of influences. She drew, as Einstein had, clear links between science and literature, art and freedom.

One intriguing scrapbook has cutouts of William Whiston’s 18th Century chart of the Solar System and Gustav Dore’s depiction of Dante’s Paradise alongside a sketch of Alexandra Palace’s stained-glass Rose Window, which had awed Stratton as a child.

The visual connections inferred may give tantalising hints as to the manifestation of The Princess. A letter to Stratton’s sister certainly does. Shortly before her death, Stratton saw the 1960 film of HG Wells’ Time Machine.

“Dear Sis, their Machine! I nearly burst out laughing with recognition. Ours was a deal less pretty Victoriana and a shade more bashed-up Brewster Buccaneer – but something about the general feel of the thing didn’t half give me goosebumps”.

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HG Well’s Time Machine from the 1960 film, and a Brewster Buccaneer (the kind of weapon of war Stratton hoped to render obsolete)

But what of the aims of the time-weapon? The hypothetical murder of a young Adolf Hitler is a well known thought-experiment. We’ll keep to ourselves our thoughts as to where Stratton would have stood on the ethical element, but it may not have been relevant anyway. The physicist didn’t seem to believe such an enterprise was possible.

Somehow, a decoded transcript has made it into Stratton’s sister’s collection which discusses facets of the mission with uncharacteristic candour. It is addressed to the team’s superior military co-ordinator.

“I’m afraid the boys are getting rather carried away: travel back and we can murder everyone, travel forward and we can find superior weaponry and import it back through time. I’ve had to hose them down somewhat”.

For one thing, Stratton noted that The Princess, when completed, was likely to be ‘short range’: “We’re not talking about traversing epochs – yet”.

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William Whiston’s 18th Century chart of the solar system alongside Gustave Dore’s depiction of Dante’s vision of Paradise

More importantly, Stratton believed that any major changes to even recent history could endanger the integrity of our perceived reality.

Instead, she took inspiration from the technicians who were utilising the Palace’s BBC transmitters to disrupt German navigation systems. Crucially, this interference was clandestine, designed to lead the Germans to believe that their own systems were at fault.

Stratton thought that by dipping into the near past, agents could disrupt German operations which British code-breakers had discovered were planned for the near future. Enough disruption would render the Nazis unable to wage war, without the risk of damage to localised spacetime.

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An aerial shot of Alexandra Palace. The Great Hall, with its Rose Window, is visible at the building’s centre source | licence

But Mary Stratton’s theories would never be properly tested.

Whether there was a mole in the mission, or the Nazis own code-breakers intercepted a message, we may never know. Perhaps the bomb attack on Alexandra Palace was just coincidence. The damage was minor, but the team and their military superiors were spooked enough to discuss moving the project to a more secure location. However, they don’t seem to have got very far with this before the war in Europe came to an end.

Of course, in the Pacific, the closing of the war was hastened by a far more terrible scientific endeavour. The A-Bomb changed military thinking. Mary’s ideas fell out of favour, remaining so until the Hawkingsian renaissance of the 1980s.

Today not so much as a blue plaque stands to remind us of a woman who never accepted a vision of humanity that for a few dark years seemed poised to envelop the world.


  • Candidate: The Princess (AKA The Ally Pally Time Machine)
  • Type: Time Machine
  • Status: Uncompleted

Source and license for featured image.