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Sir Robert Watson-Watt

Sir Robert Watson-Watt was born in Brechin, Angus and was educated at Damacre School in Brechin and Brechin High School. He graduated with a BSc(engineering) in 1912 from University College, Dundee which was then part of the University of St Andrews. Following graduation he was offered an assistantship by Professor William Peddie who excited his interest in radio waves.

In 1915 Watson-Watt started as a meteorologist at the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough with the aim of applying his knowledge of radio to locate thunderstorms so as to provide warnings to airmen. During this period Watson-Watt recognised the need for a rapid method of recording and display of radio signals and in 1916 he proposed the use of cathode ray oscilloscopes for this purpose, however these did not become available until 1923.

In 1924 Watson-Watts work moved to Slough where the Radio Research Station had been formed and in 1927, following an amalgamation with the National Physics Laboratory (NPL), he became Superintendent of an outstation of the NPL at Slough. After a further re-organisation in 1933 Watson-Watt became Superintendent of a new radio department at the NPL in Teddington.

Following an approach from H.E. Wimperis of the Air Ministry, enquiring about the feasibility of producing a 'death ray', Watson-Watt, with the help of his assistant Arnold Wilkins, drafted, in February 1935, a report titled 'The Detection of Aircraft by Radio Methods'. This was presented to the newly formed committee for the scientific survey of air defence, chaired by Sir Henry Tizard, and on 26th of February 1935 a trial took place using the BBCs short-wave (about 50 metres wavelength) radio transmitter at Daventry against a Heyford Bomber. The trial was a success and on 1st September 1936 Watson-Watt became Superintendent of a new establishment under the Air Ministry, Bawdsey Research Station in Bawdsey Manor near Felixstowe. The pioneering work that Watson-Watt managed at this establishment resulted in the design and installation of a chain of radar stations along the East and South coast of England in time for the outbreak of war in 1939. This system, known as Chain Home and Chain Home Low, provided the vital advance information that helped the Royal Air Force to win the Battle of Britain.

Sir Robert Watson-Watt died at Inverness on the 5th December 1973

From http://electricscotland.com/history/men/watson_watt.htm (Note: This link does not appear to be working at present. Ed.)


The following article about Robert Watson-Watt by R. Hanbury Brown, "Robert Watson-Watt, the Father of Radar", appeared in the "Engineering Science and Educational Journal", IEE, Vol 3 number 1, February 1994 and is reproduced with the kind permission of the Editor.

The use of radar in World War II to track incoming enemy bombers was a vital factor in the successful defence of Great Britain against air attack both by day and by night. It also made a valuable contribution to our conduct of the war at sea and to our bomber offensive. We owe the fact that both ground and airborne radar were developed in an operationally effective form in time for use in World War II largely to Sir Robert Watson-Watt. He proposed and demonstrated ground radar in 1935 and then initiated the development of both ground and airborne radar into an effective military system, firstly at Orfordness and later at Bawdsey Research Station.

We have put up statues to some of our distinguished airmen of the last war, such as Air Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding and Air Marshall Sir Arthur Harris, but not to one of our most distinguished electrical engineers, Sir Robert Watson-Watt (Fig. 1), who made their achievements possible. That is, of course, partly because the British culture habitually under-estimates the value of science and engineering but also because Watson-Watt's achievements were not as visible or comprehensible nor as dramatic as those of the airmen. It is appropriate that the IEE, of which he was an active member, should mark the centenary of his birth.*

Early life (1893-1915)

Watson-Watt was born on 13th April 1892 in Brechin, Aberdeenshire. His father, like his grandfather, was a carpenter by trade, an Elder of the Presbyterian Church and a very able Sunday School teacher. His mother, so he tells us1 in his book 'Three steps to victory', was a temperance reformer and a feminist - he describes her as miraculous. From school in Brechin, Watson-Watt gained a bursary to the University of St Andrews and chose to study Electrical Engineering at the University College

*This article is based on a lecture organised by the IEE's Professional Group S7 and delivered by Professor Hanbury Brown at the IEE, Savoy Place, on 22nd February 1993.


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