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Robert Watson-Watt

AKA Robert Alexander Watson Watt

Born: 13-Apr-1892
Birthplace: Brechin, Angus, Scotland
Died: 5-Dec-1973
Location of death: Inverness, Scotland
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Pitlochry Episcopal Churchyard, Pitlochry, Scotland

Gender: Male
Religion: Presbyterian
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Physicist, Inventor

Nationality: Scotland
Executive summary: Radar

Numerous scientists contributed to the development of radar, but none have a clearer claim as radar's inventor than Scottish physicist Robert Watson-Watt. At the age of 15 he was working for the London Meteorological Office, analyzing the weather patterns of thunderstorms, in an effort to reduce the dangers of early air flight. In 1919 he patented an early version of echolocation, and in 1923 he developed a system using oscilloscopes to show lightning strikes by plotting the strikes' electrical interference against rotating directional antennas. In 1934 he was asked to develop a weapon based on radio waves, but he quickly reported that such weaponry was not yet feasible. Instead he re-tasked his team of scientists to work on using radio waves to detect incoming aircraft. Watson-Watt and his assistant Arnold Wilkins then prepared a report titled "The Detection of Aircraft by Radio Methods", which foreshadowed his team's subsequent invention of radar.

On 26 February 1935, a mere two weeks after preparing the report, Watson-Watt demonstrated radar's potential in a test that detected the movements of a British bomber from a distance of about eight miles. With a few years his team was able to pinpoint aircraft from up to ninety miles. His system, called Chain Home, went into 24-hour service in September of 1938, and was credited as a decisive factor in allowing the Royal Air Force to repulse attacks from the German Luftwaffe during World War II's Battle of Britain in 1940. The term radar, short for "radio detection and ranging", was coined in about 1941. He came to America to offer advice on radar defenses following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and later developed an airborne interception radar that allowed defensive aircraft to detect attacking bombers in the dark of night. He is also credited with inventing several devices that enhanced early flight safety, and a direction finder used in atmospheric research.

Watson-Watt was a direct descendant on his father's side from inventor James Watt, and he added the hyphen to his surname as his accomplishments with radar made him famous. After a failed marriage early in his life, he married 67-year-old Dame Kathryn Jane Trefusis-Forbes when he was 74 years old. She was the founding Director of the Women’s Air Auxiliary Force (WAFF), the female support group for the Royal Air Force.

Though he was Knighted in 1942, in his 1957 autobiography Watson-Watt modestly described himself as "a sixth rate mathematician, a second rate physicist". The book also includes his account of receiving a speeding ticket in 1956 from a policeman who used a radar gun to gauge his speed. Watson-Watt wrote a brief but amusing poem about the event, which he first recited as part of a scientific address in San Francisco on 6 April 1963:

Pity Sir Watson-Watt,
strange target of this radar plot
and thus, with others I can mention,
the victim of his own invention.
His magical all-seeing eye
enabled cloud-bound planes to fly
but now by some ironic twist
it spots the speeding motorist
and bites, no doubt with legal wit,
the hand that once created it.

Oh Frankenstein who lost control
of monster man created whole,
with fondest sympathy regard
one more hoist with his petard.
As for you courageous boffins
who may be nailing up your coffins,
particularly those whose mission
deals in the realm of nuclear fission,
pause and contemplate fate's counter plot
and learn with us what's Watson-Watt.

Wife: Margaret Robertson Watson Watt (m. 1916, div.)
Wife: Dame Kathryn Jane Trefusis-Forbes (b. 1899, m. 1966, d. 1971)

    High School: Brechin High School, Brechin, Angus, Scotland (1908)
    University: BS Electrical Engineering, University of St. Andrews (1912)
    Teacher: Engineering, University of Dundee (1912-15)

    Hughes Medal 1948
    UK Official Meteorological Office (1915-24)
    UK Official Radio Research Station (1924-27)
    UK Official National Physical Laboratory (1927-42)
    Association of Scientific Workers
    Institute of Navigation
    International Astronomical Union
    Royal Aeronautical Society
    Royal Meteorological Association President
    Royal Society
    Knight of the British Empire 1942
    Scottish Ancestry

Author of books:
Three Steps to Victory: A Personal Account (1957, memoir)
Man's Means to His End (1961, non-fiction)


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