Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame

Radar Room

Inside view of a RADAR room.

Robert Watson-WattSir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt (1892-1973), engineer, inventor, and pioneer of RADAR

Engineering achievements

In February 1935, Watson Watt wrote a report on "The Detection of Aircraft by Radio Methods" which attracted the attention of a committee concerned with air defence headed by Sir Henry Tizard. Watson Watt demonstrated the practicality of the theory in a trial in which short wave radio was used to detect a bomber. Watson Watt was soon after appointed superintendent of Bawdsey Research Station near Felixstowe in Suffolk, under the Air Ministry. Watson Watt and his team at Bawdsey provided the research that led to the creation of a chain of radar stations throughout the east and south coast of Britain.

Watson Watt realised that reporting the results of RADAR detection rapidly to Fighter Command was an essential component of a successful system. He established a group at Bawdsey to develop what became the "filter room" to interpret the raw data and pass on to Fighter Command.

The integrated system of RADAR stations, known as Chain Home and Chain Home Low, with rapid correlation and assessment in the filter room, was a vital part of the defence of Great Britain during the Battle of Britain. Fighter Command was given an early warning of an incoming attack by the Luftwaffe and could react accordingly.

Watson Watt and his team also made advances in airborne radar sets, a vital part of defence against night bombing, using shorter wavelengths for greater accuracy. But as yet, no-one had developed large amounts of power at microwave frequencies.

The invention by John Randall and Henry Boot of Birmingham University of a water-cooled cavity magnetron in 1940 generated microwaves that allowed airborne RADAR to detect incoming enemy planes from a much greater distance and were deployed rapidly giving Fighter Command even more time to organise itself in preparation for an attack. The magnetrons were also found to have another use - they could heat up water. Today, magnetrons are used as the source of heat in microwave ovens.

His Life

Age Event Year
Born Robert Watt 13th April in Brechin, Forfarshire (now Angus), with an ancestry including James Watt 1892
Entered Brechin High School
University College, Dundee - then part of the University of St. Andrews
18 Won class medal for Ordinary Natural Philosophy1910
20 Graduated Bsc in Engineering 1912
Assistantship at University College, Dundee under Professor WIlliam Peddie 1912
23 Volunteered for war effort and became meteorologist at Royal Aircraft Factory, Farnborough 1915
24 Proposed use of cathode ray oscilloscopes for rapid recording and display1916
26 Patent no 252263: Cathode-ray direction finder1924
34 Proposed the term ionosphere for upper layers of earth's atmosphere 1926
35 Cathode Ray Detection Finders installed at Slough and Cupar 1927
41 Published Applications of the Cathode Ray Oscillograph in Radio Research 1933
41 Became superintendent of new radio department at National Physical Laboratory, Teddington1933
43 Report on The Detection of Aircraft by Radio Methods 1935
43 Patent no 593017: General patent on Radiolocation using pulses1935
44 Appointed Superintendent of Bawdsey Research Station under the Air Ministry 1936
46 First Chain Home radar stations working on the east coast of Britain 1938
46 Director of Communications Development, Air Ministry 1938
48 Scientific Adviser on telecommunications, Air Ministry and Ministry of Aircraft Production 1940
49 Appointed Companion of the Bath (CB) 1941
49 Fellow of the Royal Society 1941
50 After Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, travelled to USA to advise on air defence technology 1942
50 Knighted, and changed form of surname to "Watson-Watt" 1942
51 Awarded Honorary LLD from University of St. Andrews 1943
54 Awarded US Medal for Merit 1946
56 Awarded Hughes Medal by the Royal Society 1948
57 President of Royal Meteorological Society 1949
81 Died 5th December in Craig Dunain Hospital, Inverness 1973
81 Buried in Holy Trinity Churchyard, Pitlochry, Perthshire, Scotland 1973

His Legacy

The contribution of Radio Detection and Ranging (RADAR) to the defence of Britain during World War II was a major factor in winning the "Battle of Britain" and ultimate victory. Watson Watt was responsible for the initial experiments that demonstrated the technical practicality of RADAR and for the development work that had turned the idea into an accomplished fact. In 1952, Watson-Watt was awarded £52,000 tax-free by the UK government's Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors. He was also awarded the US Medal for Merit.

M.V.Wilkes credits the work at Bawdsey in 1939 in pulse forming and shaping as far beyond anything he had been exposed to [even in the Cavendish laboratory]. This is where Wilkes first experienced digital electronics, later to be applied to his pioneering work in conceiving the Cambridge EDSAC digital computer of 1949.

More Information

Three Steps to Victory (Autobiography) Sir Robert Watson-Watt. 1957
The Pulse of Radar Sir Robert Watson-Watt. Dial Press, 1959
Man's Means to his End Sir Robert Watson-Watt. 1961
Memoirs of a Computer Pioneer M.V. Wilkes. MIT Press. 1984
Robert Watson-Watt, the Father of Radar R Hanbury Brown. Engineering Science and Educational Journal, IEE, vol 3 No. 1, Feb 1994.
Personal communication Andrew Herbert,former chairman Microsoft Research, Europe, Middle East and Africa.
Watson-Watt on radarpages
Watson-Watt on BBC
Scottish Science Hall of Fame at National Library of Scotland
Watson-Watt, the man
Watson-Watt Chair of Electrical Engineering established at University College, Dundee in 1949
Watson-Watt Archive Dundee University Archives. GB 0254 MS 228. Created by Robert Hanbury Brown.
There are 19 portraits of Robert Watson-Watt held in the National Portrait Gallery.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (full text available to subscribers and UK library members)

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