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Watson-Watt, Sir Robert Alexander

radar radio aircraft system

(1892–1973) British physicist and pioneer of radar.

Watson-Watt was educated at University College, Dundee, concentrating on physics. He remained there as assistant to the professor of natural philosophy, before joining the Meteorological Office in 1915. He subsequently became head of the radio department of the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington.

During the First World War, Watson-Watt worked on the radio location of thunderstorms (detecting the radio pulses produced by lightning discharges) and developed a system capable of detecting storms several hundred miles away. In 1921 he became superintendent of the radio research station at Ditton Park, near Slough, and in 1935 proposed the development of a ra dio d etection a nd r anging (RADAR) system for aircraft location. Powerful pulses of radio energy at a frequency of about 30 GHz and a duration of 10 –5 s were transmitted, and reflections from aircraft were detected and displayed with an oscilloscope. The time delay between transmission and receipt of the echo gave the distance to the aircraft and, with the direction from which the signal was received, yielded its position. Under his direction, E G Bowen and A F Wilkins quickly developed equipment capable of detecting aircraft at a range of 130 km. By the beginning of the the Second World War a network of radar stations was in place along Britain’s channel coasts and proved to be crucial in the country’s defence. Portable radar sets were soon fitted to fighter aircraft to help them locate their targets in cloud or at night.

It has to be said that Watson-Watt did not invent radar: the basic principle of the reflection of radio waves had been known for some years and developed in at least five countries, but it was his foresight and direction, coupled with the demand created for such a system in wartime, that produced a working system. He led the successful team, and he led the team of seven who successfully claimed the money for the invention of radar after the Second World War. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1941 and knighted in 1942. Today, radar systems are used for navigation, the safe routing of air traffic and shipping, rainfall detection, and many other non-military applications.

Watt, James [next] [back] Watson, Thomas J. - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Thomas J. Watson, Social and Economic Impact

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