Did you know?

Robert Watson-Watt was awarded £50,000 by the British Government for his contribution to the development of radar.

Robert Watson-Watt (1892-1973)


Robert Watson-Watt was a pioneer of radar technology. He first used radar to help detect thunderstorms.

Later this technology helped Britain and its allies defend Britain against air attacks from Germany in the Second World War.

Radar technology

Cathode ray oscilloscope

Watson-Watt and his development of radar:

  • 1912: Assists Sir William Peddie with his research at St Andrews University.
  • 1915: Employed as a meteorologist at the Royal Meteorological Office.
  • 1916: Has the idea of using a cathode ray oscilloscope in aircraft to detect radio signals and display them on a screen.
  • 1927: Becomes superintendent of a radio department in Teddington.
  • 1934: Starts a project on radio interference, investigating how these disturbances in radio reception could be used to advantage in wartime.
  • 1935: Trials radar.
  • 1939: Radar stations used for Second World War defence.

Radar trialled

Watson-Watt was given government funding and a team to help him with his work on radar technology.

In 1935 he trialled radar using a BBC shortwave radio transmitter and successfully detected the distance and direction of a flying Handley Page Heyford bomber.

The distance was short – only 13 miles – but it was a beginning. With a more powerful transmitter, the radar could track a flying aircraft at a distance of 75 miles.

Wartime radar stations

Detail of naval radar diagram

The work resulted in 'Chain Home', a chain of radar stations built at various points along the south and east coasts of Britain. This allowed a watch to be kept for enemy aircraft in the event of war with Germany.

Stations such as these proved to be invaluable when war broke out in September 1939. The British Royal Air Force had sufficient numbers of fighter aircraft at its disposal. However there was a shortage of trained pilots.

Radar made it easier for ground controllers to marshal their meagre front line squadrons effectively. It also helped them to get aircraft together to intercept enemy bomber formations before they could bomb strategic targets.

British fighter aircraft and bombers were soon fitted with smaller radar units. This helped them detect enemy aircraft and ground targets at night and in poor weather.

Battle of Britain

Drawing of two warplanes

Radar proved to be a crucial early-warning network in the Battle of Britain.

In the summer of 1940, the German Luftwaffe attempted to gain air superiority over southern Britain and the English Channel. They aimed to do this by destroying the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and the British aircraft industry.

It is widely believed that the Germans would have been able to invade Britain relatively easily if they had succeeded in destroying the RAF. Without radar, British history could have been very different.

Cathode ray detail Radar diagram dtail Chart detail Radar scan detail Defence systems detail
Portrait of Robert Watson-Watt