WATSON-WATT, Sir Robert (1892-1973)
Plaque erected in 2017 by English Heritage at 287 Sheen Lane, London, SW14 8RN, London Borough of Richmond Upon Thames
Pioneer of Radar
Engineering and Transport, Industry and Invention
Sir ROBERT WATSON-WATT 1892-1973 Pioneer of Radar lived here
Sir Robert Watson-Watt was widely known as the ‘father of radar’. In the 1930s he led a team of researchers to develop the aircraft detection technology that would later prove crucial to the Allied victory in the Battle of Britain. He is now commemorated with a blue plaque at 287 Sheen Lane in Richmond-upon-Thames, London, where he lived from the late 1930s until the late 1940s.
‘FATHER OF RADAR’
Born in Brechin, Scotland, Watson-Watt developed his interest in radio waves while at University College, Dundee. In 1915, he started work as a meteorologist at the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough, where he used short-wave radio to detect the location of thunderstorms. Twenty years later he was invited by the Air Ministry to investigate the possibility of developing a ‘death ray’, whereby radio waves could heat up enemy aircraft and trigger their explosives. Watson-Watt and his assistant, AF Wilkins, quickly established the idea wouldn’t work. Instead, they successfully bounced a radio wave off a Heyford bomber at Daventry, demonstrating the potential for radar detection technology.
BRITAIN’S SECRET WEAPON
In 1936 Watson-Watt set up a new research station under the Air Ministry at Bawdsey Manor in Suffolk. Britain wasn’t the only country developing radio technology in these pre-war years, but Watson-Watt’s team were pioneers of the early systems, initially known as Radio Detection Finding before the introduction of the American term, RADAR (Radio Detection And Ranging). By the autumn of 1938, radar systems capable of detecting enemy aircraft at any time of day and in any weather conditions were in place along the south and east coasts of England.
The system was considered the ‘secret weapon’ of the Allied Forces during the Battle of Britain in 1940. Giving advance warning of Luftwaffe formations over France, the RAF were able to quickly scramble aircraft and intercept the surprised pilots over the channel. Without Watson-Watt’s influential leadership, such a system may never have been set up in time.
Watson-Watt moved to 287 Sheen Lane in London in 1938 or 1939, and remained there until the late 1940s. He played a vital role during the war, continuing to develop radar and convincing politicians that continued investment in his project was essential to the defence of Britain.
Watson-Watt was knighted in 1942 and later lived in Canada and the US before returning to Scotland. While in Canada he was reportedly caught speeding by a police officer using a radar-gun. ‘Had I known what you were going to do with it,’ he is said to have replied, ‘I would never have invented it!’