Robert Watson

Robert Watson


Pioneer of Radar - (1892-1973)

Robert Watson-Watt might not be a name familiar to all Scots, but without him it's fair to say we might now be a small and far-flung outpost of the greater German Empire.

He was the pioneer of Radar (RAdio Detection And Ranging), the single biggest technological factor in the Allied victory of the Battle of Britain and in achieving and maintaining mastery of the skies throughout World War II.

A descendant of James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine, Robert Watson Watt was born in Brechin, the son of a carpenter.

He was educated at University College, Dundee, and in 1915 he began work in the meteorology section of the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough where he undertook research into radio location of storms, as an early warning for pilots of fragile early planes.

By 1918, storms several hundred miles away could be located accurately, saving many an aviator from an unexpected bumpy ride or worse.

In 1933 the Government charged him with the responsibility of developing a radar tracking system that would detect movement of aircraft, and by 1935 he had cracked it.

Robert Watson-Watt with the original Radar machine in 1935.
By the end of 1938, a secret system was in place covering the North Sea approaches and it was extended to the whole country by the time war broke out in 1939.

It was the secret weapon that confounded the Luftwaffe and allowed the RAF to intercept and shoot down many German aircraft before they even reached these shores.

Radar, it must be said, was not a new idea - it had first been mooted in a science-fiction novel and others were also working on its development.

Crucially though, the Germans were known to have made little progress in the field, and it is here that Watt's story takes an unexpected twist from your average boffin's tale.

How did Britain know for certain that the Germans had made little progress? Simple - Watt and his wife went personally to Germany in 1937 to assess their radar capabilities.

In short, they were spies.

"Ach so, Herr Vott, how are you liking your holiday in our vunderbar fatherland?"

"Ah yes, we love your fine hotel, the bratwurst is marvellous and these mountains are a delight for walking in, but my good lady wife and I can't help but notice the apparent lack of radar facilities."

"Ach ja, mein Herr, zis Radar thing is something ve are sadly lacking in, but I hope it vill not spoil your stay in our country?"

"Not at all, old chap, not at all."

Watson-Watt received a knighthood in 1942 and, almost uniquely, in recognition of the importance of his pioneering work the Government awarded him £52,000, a massive sum at the time.

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