Inside view of a RADAR room.

Inside RADAR room.

Robert Alexander Watson-Watt

1892 – 1973

Robert Alexander Watson-Watt

Sir 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

  1. 1892 Born Robert Watt 13th April in Brechin, Forfarshire (now Angus), with an ancestry including James Watt
  2. 1890s Entered Brechin High School. University College, Dundee - then part of the University of St. Andrews
  3. 1910 Age: 18 Won class medal for Ordinary Natural Philosophy
  4. 1912 Age: 20 Graduated Bsc in Engineering. Assistantship at University College, Dundee under Professor WIlliam Peddie
  5. 1915 Age: 23 Volunteered for war effort and became meteorologist at Royal Aircraft Factory, Farnborough
  6. 1916 Age: 24 Proposed use of cathode ray oscilloscopes for rapid recording and display
  7. 1924 Age: 32 Patent no 252263: Cathode-ray direction finder
  8. 1926 Age: 34 Proposed the term ionosphere for upper layers of earth's atmosphere
  9. 1927 Age: 35 Cathode Ray Detection Finders installed at Slough and Cupar
  10. 1933 Age: 41 Published Applications of the Cathode Ray Oscillograph in Radio Research
  11. 1933 Age: 41 Became superintendent of new radio department at National Physical Laboratory, Teddingto
  12. 1935 Age: 43 Report on The Detection of Aircraft by Radio Methods
  13. 1935 Age: 43 Patent no 593017: General patent on Radiolocation using pulses
  14. 1936 Age: 44 Appointed Superintendent of Bawdsey Research Station under the Air Ministry
  15. 1938 Age: 46 First Chain Home radar stations working on the east coast of Britain
  16. 1938 Age: 46 Director of Communications Development, Air Ministry
  17. 1940 Age: 48 Scientific Adviser on telecommunications, Air Ministry and Ministry of Aircraft Production
  18. 1941 Age: 49 Appointed Companion of the Bath (CB)
  19. 1941 Age: 49 Fellow of the Royal Society
  20. 1942 Age: 50 After Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, travelled to USA to advise on air defence technology
  21. 1942 Age: 50 Knighted, and changed form of surname to "Watson-Watt"
  22. 1943 Age: 51 Awarded Honorary LLD from University of St. Andrews
  23. 1946 Age: 54 Awarded US Medal for Merit
  24. 1948 Age: 56 Awarded Hughes Medal by the Royal Society
  25. 1949 Age: 57 President of Royal Meteorological Society
  26. 1973 Age: 81 Died 5th December in Craig Dunain Hospital, Inverness, buried in Holy Trinity Churchyard, Pitlochry, Perthshire, Scotland

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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