Robert Watson Watt: The Father of Radar Technology

Robert Watson Watt: The Father of Radar Technology
Updated date:
Mar 21, 2022

Table of Contents

Radar, or radio detection and range, is today employed to keep passengers safe by detecting the flight path of every commercial airliner in the globe. Still, it was created during World War Two when the threat of enemy planes on the move became more severe.

During World War II, radar arrays offered the Royal Air Force a significant advantage in detecting and repelling the Nazi Luftwaffe. Still, the man who developed them has gone unrecognized since.

Sir Robert Watson-Watt, who was knighted in 1942 for pioneering the technology that helped win the Battle of Britain, is mostly forgotten today outside of his hometown of Brechin.

The Beginning 

Robert Watson-Watt, a descendent of James Watt, the engineer, and inventor whose innovations to the steam engine were crucial in bringing about the industrial revolution, was born in Brechin.

He went to University College in Dundee after finishing his education at Brechin. In 1912, Watson-Watt received a BSc in engineering and worked with Professor William Peddie. The latter urged him to pursue wireless telegraphy, which was the common term for radio.

'Father of Radar'

Watson-Watt joined the Meteorological Office in 1915, and his ideas about using the radio waves emitted by lightning to detect and locate thunderstorms piqued their interest. Due to the difficulty in pinpointing the direction of these short-lived signals, Watson-Watt began using rotating directional antennas to find them.

From 1923, he started using oscilloscopes to display the antennas' output. The operator would spin the antenna in search of "spikes" created by lightning, which would indicate the storm's direction.

Watson-Watt was promoted to Head of the Radio Research Station at Ditton Park near Slough in 1934. H.E. Wimperis of the Air Ministry approached him and asked if radio could be used to create a death ray in response to German claims that they had developed a weapon capable of annihilating villages, cities, and people. Watson-Watt admitted that it was nearly impossible, but he noted that progress in the use of radio to detect and count aircraft had been made.

Two weeks later, Watson-Watt dispatched Wilkins and several collaborators, including Edward George Bowen, to Orfordness to continue their study. Watson-Watt was given a patent for radar on April 2, 1935. 

R Watson Watt's apparatus for detecting radio echoes from airplanes, 1935.

By June, the Orfordness group had detected airplanes at distances of more than 15 miles, and the government had halted all work on competing sound-based aircraft detection systems.

By the end of 1935, radar’s detection range had increased to nearly 60 miles, and preparations were underway to build five radar stations to safeguard London's eastern approaches.

The Secret Weapon of Britain

Watson-Watt established a new research station at Bawdsey Manor in Suffolk under the auspices of the Air Ministry in 1936. Although Britain was not the only country developing radio technology in the years leading up to World War II, Watson-Watt's crew were pioneers of the early systems, first known as Radio Detection Finding before the American word RADAR was coined (Radio Detection And Ranging).

Radar devices capable of detecting enemy aircraft at any time of day and in any weather conditions had been installed throughout England’s south and east coasts by the autumn of 1938.

British chain home radar station

At the time, the system was regarded as a ‘secret weapon’ of the Allied Forces. The RAF could scramble aircraft and intercept the surprised Luftwaffe pilots over the channel after receiving a warning of Luftwaffe formations over France. Without Watson-Watt's clout, such a system might not have been put in place in time.

Radar coverage along the UK coast, 1939–1940

Other countries' technological and operational advancements lagged behind those in the United Kingdom. As an example, radar in the United States failed to detect the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 (16 months after the Battle of Britain).

Despite having been detected, the attackers were not identified with certainty, and no countermeasures could be arranged because there was no system to use the information. Therefore, Watson-Watt did indeed invent radar.

Watson-research In 1936, Watt's team was transferred to the Air Government, and he commanded it until 1938, when he passed it over to A. P. Rowe and went on to a number of ministerial advisory jobs after that.

He worked as a government adviser and leader of delegations to international meetings after the war, and (after 1952) as an independent technical consultant in Canada and the United States. In the same year, he divorced Margaret Robertson, whom he had married in 1916, and married Jean Smith, who died in 1964. He married Katherine Jane Trefusis-Forbes in 1966. There were no youngsters in the room.


In 1941, he was made a fellow of the Royal Society of London, and in 1942, he was knighted. He was awarded the United States Medal of Merit, the Royal Society's Hughes Medal, and the Franklin Institute's Elliott Cresson Medal.


Many benign applications for radar technology were discovered after the war. To keep commercial airplanes from colliding, air traffic controllers now rely on the radar.

Radar is necessary for weather forecasting. In microwave ovens, the cavity magnetron is currently employed to cook food. According to reports, many motorists have been caught speeding by police radar guns, including Sir Watson-Watt himself.

Princess Royal inaugurated a statue of Sir Robert Watson-Watt in Brechin on September 3, 2014. Eddie Izzard starred as Watson Watt in the BBC Two drama Castles in the Sky a day later.

The National Library of Scotland maintains a collection of Watson-correspondence Watt's and documents. The University of Dundee's Archive Services also has a collection of Watson-Watt-related papers.

Watson-Watt auditorium

The Watson-Watt auditorium is a briefing facility at RAF Boulmer named after him.

Stowe Nine Churches

Watson-Watt named on a memorial honoring the birth of radar at Stowe Nine Churches.

Memorial Plaque

A memorial at the site of the first successful RADAR experiments in Daventry.

Key Takeaways 

I adore the thought of someone coming up with a brilliant idea out of thin air in a time of tremendous need. It's equivalent from being a magician to being an entrepreneur. There's nothing there one minute, and suddenly, ta-da, you've transformed a phantom kernel into a tangible reality.

The Luftwaffe would have destroyed Britain if this weatherman hadn't had a few suggestions. That is, without a doubt, the case. They would not have been able to be stopped by the RAF.

The first spark for a project or organization can develop to become something significant, far-reaching, and impactful, just like a single match can light a magnificent, awe-inspiring fire.

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