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Robert Watson-Watt

Robert Watson-Watt
(1892-1973)

Pioneer of radar

A descendant of James Watt, pioneer of the steam engine, Watson-Watt began his radar career in meteorology, detecting storms to warn the pilots of fragile First World War planes of their approach. He developed the already current notions of radar (radio detection and ranging), devising a system to operate simply and efficiently in wartime. A national network was in place by the time war broke out -essential to Britain’s gaining and maintaining mastery of the skies throughout the war, notably in the crucial 1940 Battle of Britain.

Actually, Watson-Watt's big invention could always have been found in bat colonies. Nature has seen fit to give the bat, or flittermouse (a much-maligned creature because people associate it with vampires), an immensely sophisticated pro-microchip mechanism in its skull. This sends out a narrow sonic beam of a high frequency inaudible to the human ear. And there's a receiver that registers the beam bouncing off large objects around the bat. So bats can fly in the dark without bumping into lampposts, or even women's hair, despite that widespread superstition. But it took a Scot to figure out a way of putting a similar mechanism at the disposal of humans. Watson-Watt was bright and successful, but quite unobtrusive, as befits a boy from Brechin- He was educated at Dundee and St Andrews, and found work during the First World War in the Meteorological Office and the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. After the war Watson-Watt joined the National Physical Laboratory, where he was able to establish a research team to study the problem of locating aircraft at a distance.

He was not the only man with bats on his mind. Scientists elsewhere were tinkering with the same idea, and a German might have got there first if it hadn't been for the short-sightedness of the German leaders - blind to sonic bounces if you like.

So it was Watson-Watt who burst through the barrier, in 1942, with what was then called radio location. In fact, the method used radio waves, rather than the bat's sound waves, but the two are very close relations. Maybe the most entertaining little sidelight to the story is that the Allied governments, wishing to keep radio location secret, said that their pilots could see better in the dark because they ate carrots. Civilians suffering from the wartime blackout went mad for carrots. But they still bumped into lampposts.