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British Industrial History

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Robert Watson-Watt

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Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt (1892–1973), B.Sc.(Eng.), M.I.E.E., F.Inst.P., F.R.Ae.S, developer of radar

1892 Born in Brechin, Forfarshire, on 13 April, the fifth son of Patrick Watson Watt, a carpenter and joiner, and his wife, Mary Small Matthew.

Attended Brechin high school

Attended University College, Dundee, graduating BSc (engineering) in 1912

The professor of natural philosophy, William Peddie, offered Watt an assistantship after graduation, and it was Peddie who excited his interest in radio waves.

1915 started as a meteorologist at the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough, where he proposed to apply his knowledge of radio to locate thunderstorms, so as to warn airmen.

1916 proposed the use of cathode ray oscilloscopes for rapid recording of radio direction finding signals but these did not become available until 1923.

1921 Moved to Slough, where the fore-runner of the Radio Research Station had been formed under the auspices of the Meteorological Office and the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research

1927 the work at Slough was amalgamated with that of the radio section of the National Physical Laboratory, with Watson Watt as superintendent at Slough, an outstation of the NPL.

1933 After a reorganization, he became superintendent of a new radio department at the NPL in Teddington.

H. E. Wimperis, at the Air Ministry, asked Watson Watt to investigate the proposal for a radio beam to destroy enemy bombers or their crews. Watson Watt asked his assistant, A. F. Wilkins, to calculate the amount of radio energy needed to raise the temperature of 8 pints of water from 98 °F to 105°F at 5 kilometres distance. Wilkins's calculations quickly showed that the idea was impracticable but in response to Watson Watt's question as to whether there was anything that could be done for air defence, he recalled some earlier work on VHF communications by the General Post Office engineers who had noticed that the signals fluttered when an aircraft flew nearby. Wilkins then calculated the amount of energy that could be reflected by an aircraft from a transmitter of feasible strength, and showed that there should be enough for detection at useful distances. Watson Watt reported this conclusion to Wimperis, and his report went to the new committee for the scientific survey of air defence under Henry Tizard.

A trial took place on 26 February 1935, using the BBC's short-wave transmitter at Daventry against a Heyford bomber, with a mobile receiver a few miles away. The trial was immediately successful

1936 Watson Watt became superintendent of a new establishment, Bawdsey Research Station, under the Air Ministry to exploit radar for air defence.

By 1938 the first Chain Home (CH) radar stations were working on the east coast

This was followed by a second chain (CHL) to provide low cover for aircraft flying below the detection zones of the CH stations; trials showed airborne radar sets were feasible, as was a maritime reconnaissance aircraft system to locate ships at sea; a radar set for controlling anti-aircraft fire was proposed; an identification device (IFF) for friendly aircraft and a method of radio-navigation for aircraft using pulses were later developed.

1938 Watson Watt became the Director of Communications Development, Air Ministry, Berkeley Sq. House, London.

By 1940 he had become Scientific Adviser on telecommunications.

1941 Watson Watt was appointed CB and elected FRS

1942 he was knighted, and after this he hyphenated his surname to Watson-Watt.

Post-war he set up the private firm of Sir Robert Watson-Watt and Partners, as consultants to a range of industrial enterprises, including the Rank Organisation.

1973 Died in Inverness

See Also


Sources of Information

  • Biography of Robert Watson-Watt, ODNB