DCSIMG

Father of radar fought the menace from the sky

GREAT SCOTTISH SCIENTISTS

Number 15

Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt

ROBERT Watson-Watt, one of the men behind the development of radar, described himself simply as "tubby if you want to be unkind, chubby if you want to be a little kind".

He was born in Brechin on 13 April, 1892, to Patrick Watson Watt, a carpenter and joiner by trade, and his wife, Mary. Robert was born with science and engineering in his blood - he was a direct descendent of James Watt, who invented the condensing steam engine.

Educated at Damacre School and Brechin High School, Watson-Watt was then awarded a bursary to attend University College in Dundee, which was part of the University of St Andrews.

He was an award-winning student - picking up medals for mathematics, electrical engineering and the class prize for natural philosophy - and graduated in 1912 with a bachelor of science degree in engineering.

It was at this point he was offered the post of assistant to William Peddie, professor of natural philosophy at St Andrews, who is credited with sparking Watson-Watt's interest in radio waves.

When the First World War began, Watson-Watt volunteered and entered service as a meteorologist at the RAF base in Farnborough. His job was to try and spot thunderstorms using radio waves and it was during this period he proposed using cathode ray oscilloscopes to display and record radio waves.

It was not until 1923 that such devices became available and Watson-Watt was able to show their usefulness - by 1927, cathode ray direction finders were fitted in Cupar and Slough. This system could be used to locate radio sources other than those in the atmosphere.

In 1916, Watson-Watt married Margaret Robertson. They divorced in 1952, the same year he wed Jean Wilkinson, who died in 1964. Two years later, Watson-Watt married Jane Trefusis, former head of the WAAF.

Watson-Watt's work with radio waves continued with the government after the First World War and he eventually became the superintendent of a new radio department at the National Physics Laboratory in Teddington, in 1933. The Air Ministry sought the help of scientists to try and stop the air attacks it feared would come.

One of the strangest suggestions was to use high frequency radio waves to heat attacking bombers and set off the bombs inside them. Watson-Watt's assistant, AF Wilkins, showed this was impractical, but he brought to Watson-Watt's attention previous work by the General Post Office, where engineers had noticed radio signals fluttered when aircraft passed.

Wilkins calculated that radio waves could be bounced off aircraft and used to detect them - Watson-Watt took this calculation and ran with it. In February 1935 he presented detailed proposals for the detection of aircraft using radio waves, and successful trials took place.

Watson-Watt became head of the new Bawdsey Research Station, near Felixstowe, and, by 1938, his team of engineers had set-up a chain of working radar stations on the east coast.

His role had been to assemble a strong team and help solve their problems and, by the time he was moved to other war work, the radar team was firmly established.

Though Watson-Watt did not invent radar, as Professor Robert Hanbury Brown put it: "He was the first man to apply it successfully to an urgent and important problem at the right time."

Watson-Watt was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1941 and, in 1942, was knighted for his work. He then began hyphenating his surname.

After the war, Sir Robert became a consultant and spent some time in Canada. He worked to improve navigation at sea at international meetings in 1946-47. He died in Inverness on 5 December, 1973.

 
 
 

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