Tag Archives: World War II

Apparatus used by R Watson Watt to detect radio echoes from aircraft, 1935. Image credits: Science Museum / SSPL

Robert Watson-Watt and the Triumph of Radar

BBC2 recently broadcast a drama about Robert Watson-Watt’s fight to invent the radar. Curator Andrew Nahum takes a closer look at this incredible story, soon to feature in a new exhibition, Churchill’s Scientists, opening at the Science Museum in January 2015. 

In the 1930s, as the German air force grew in strength, the fear of air attack became intense. Prime Minister Baldwin had warned that ‘the bomber would always get through’, but a minority, including Winston Churchill and his scientific adviser, Frederick Lindemann, argued that some new form of technical defence must be possible. Surely Britain’s scientists – affectionately known as boffins – could devise a countermeasure?

Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt, Scottish engineer, 1935. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt, Scottish engineer, 1935. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

In February 1935, a pilot from the flight research establishment, Farnborough, was told to fly a bomber to the Midlands and back. He was not told why, but the course took the aircraft past the BBC’s short-wave transmitter at Daventry.

Hunched in a van on the ground nearby, Robert Watson-Watt from the National Physical Laboratory and his colleague, Arnold Wilkins, intently watched a cathode ray tube on a cumbersome radio receiver. They hoped that the powerful BBC signal would be reflected strongly enough from the bomber to be detected. As the aircraft flew past about eight miles away, a green spot on the screen appeared, grew, and shrank away again.

The two men had ‘seen’ the aircraft by its electronic echo. Watson-Watt turned to Wilkins and reputedly said ‘Britain is an island once more’. Following this trial – the Daventry experiment – cash secretly began to pour into developing radar technology. Research took off at immense speed, first at Orfordness in Suffolk and then nearby at Bawdsey on the mouth of the Deben river. Just a year after the first trial, the detection range had improved to 75 miles and 120 miles was later achieved.

Robert Watson-Watt's radar apparatus, 1935. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Robert Watson-Watt’s radar apparatus, 1935. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Soon, a series of stations with massive 360 feet (110 m) radar masts began to spring up around the coast until there was an unbroken chain watching out to sea for enemy aircraft called the ‘Chain Home’. This radar system was not, for its time, especially ‘hi-tech’, but it was designed to be built fast. It was incorporated into a comprehensive control system for reporting and plotting raids, for steering RAF fighters to their targets and for directing the air battles of World War II in real time. It was this integrated system that changed the nation’s fortunes in the Battle of Britain.

Apparatus used by R Watson Watt to detect radio echoes from aircraft, 1935. Image credits: Science Museum / SSPL

Apparatus used by R Watson Watt to detect radio echoes from aircraft, 1935. Image credits: Science Museum / SSPL

During radar development, Henry Tizard, the Air Ministry’s most trusted scientist, shared the secret with John Cockcroft who had been first to ‘split the atom’ in Cambridge in 1932.  ‘We met at lunch at the Athenaeum and Tizard talked to me about new and secret devices. These would be troublesome and would require a team of nurses. Would we [the Cambridge physicists] come in and act as nursemaids, if and when war broke out?’ That is how it turned out and British radar became closely linked with the nation’s best scientists. This electronic war proved to be a powerful intellectual challenge. The physicist R V Jones, described it as the ‘the best fun I ever had’.

Of course science came to the aid of war in many other fields including nutrition, the production of penicillin and antibiotics, sea warfare and the Bomb.  However, this war also helped launch a post-war scientific renaissance in Britain. Returning scientists achieved striking results in the fields of molecular biology, radio astronomy, nerve and brain behaviour and much more.

Watson-Watt’s original radar apparatus will be on display in our exhibition, Churchill’s Scientists, which opens on 23 January 2015. The exhibition will look at the triumphs in science during Churchill’s period in power, both in war and in the post-war era.

Copenhagen: at the nexus of drama, science and history

“History is what you remember as having happened, not what actually happened.” It was this thought, shared by Michael Frayn in a recent discussion with the Director of the Science Museum, that that lies at the heart of Copenhagen, the most famous work of the playwright and novelist.

Michael Frayn has a long-held interest in philosophy and the sciences, notably in his book The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of the Universe. However, he is best known for his Tony-award winning play, which was staged at the National Theatre in London and later on Broadway in New York.

Copenhagen is an enduring example of how the history of science can inform dramatic work, and vividly demonstrates the power of drama to explore history, bringing scholarly discussions to the attention of a wide audience.

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, in conversation with Michael Frayn

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum (right), in conversation with playwright Michael Frayn

The play examines the uncertainties surrounding the 1941 meeting between two Nobel prize winning physicists in German-occupied Copenhagen at the height of World War II.

Physicist Werner Heisenberg, head of the German nuclear energy project, and his Danish counterpart Niels Bohr, who later worked on the Manhattan Project, discussed the possibility of building an atomic bomb.

There was no accurate record of what was said at the meeting, and there are conflicting recollections made years later in unsent letters and transcripts from Heisenberg’s internment shortly after the war at Farm Hall, a bugged house near Cambridge. As a consequence, Frayn’s dramatisation of the meeting has itself become part of the historical record.

Those listening to Michael Frayn in the audience, included his wife, the biographer Claire Tomalin, Tony award-winning director of Copenhagen, Michael Blakemore, and Niels Bohr’s great grand-daughter, Esme Dixon. Prof Jon Butterworth of University College London, science biographer Graham Farmelo, Science Museum Trustee Howard Covington, Jean M Franczyk, Director of the Museum of Science & Industry and Andrew Nahum, Principal Curator of Technology and Engineering, were also present for the fascinating discussion.

You can watch the full conversation between Michael Frayn and the Science Museum Group’s Director, Ian Blatchford, here.