The popular view of the Battle of Britain is that one of the critical factors that enabled the British to win it was Watson-Watt's invention of Radar. The History Learning Site, for example, summarises like this:

The radar invented by Robert Watson-Watt, was invaluable to the men who fought the Battle of Britain. The radar allowed Britain to track incoming German warplanes and gave Fighter Command, led by Sir Hugh Dowding, sufficient time to get airborne and attack them.

But in his widely admired book on the battle, Most Dangerous Enemy, Stephen Bungay writes:

The Germans knew all about radar and used it themselves to great effect. They had in fact invented it first.

Is the popular mythology wrong to assume that the British invented Radar first and that that invention was vital to the victory?


2 Answers 2


Is the popular mythology wrong to assume that the British invented Radar first

It's debatable.

Wikipedia on Robert Watson-Watt:

His early work was using radio to detect thunderstorms

In January 1935 ... he also mentioned in the same report a suggestion that was originally made to him by Wilkins that radio waves may be capable of detecting aircraft.

On 12 February 1935, Watson-Watt sent the secret memo of the proposed system to the Air Ministry, Detection and location of aircraft by radio methods. Although not as exciting as a death-ray, the concept clearly had potential but the Air Ministry, before giving funding, asked for a demonstration proving that radio waves could be reflected by an aircraft.[7] This was ready by 26 February and consisted of two receiving antennas located about ten km away from one of the BBC's shortwave broadcast stations at Daventry. The two antennas were phased such that signals travelling directly from the station cancelled themselves out, but signals arriving from other angles were admitted, thereby deflecting the trace on a CRT indicator (passive radar).[8] Such was the secrecy of this test that only three people witnessed it: Watson-Watt, his colleague Arnold Wilkins, and a single member of the committee, A.P. Rowe. The demonstration was a success; on several occasions a clear signal was seen from a Handley Page Heyford bomber being flown around the site. Most importantly, the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, was kept quietly informed of radar's progress. On 2 April 1935, Watson-Watt received a patent on a radio device for detecting and locating an aircraft.

In mid-May 1935, Wilkins left the Radio Research Station with a small party, including Edward George Bowen, to start further research at Orford Ness, an isolated peninsula on the coast of the North Sea. By June they were detecting aircraft at 27 km, which was enough for scientists and engineers to stop all work on competing sound-based detection systems. By the end of the year the range was up to 100 km, at which point plans were made in December to set up five stations covering the approaches to London.

So, very rapid (only a few months) progress in implementing a system once there was a desire for and funding for it.

Radar Development in Germany for Aircraft Warning

GEMA built the first radar transmitter in the autumn of 1934 for detecting ships. The radar operated on 50 cm wave length and could find ships up to 10 km away. In the summer of 1935, a pulse radar was developed with which they could spot the ship the "Koenigsberg" 8 km away. This radar unit used the "Braunschen" tubes and had an accuracy of 50 m. A magnetron had been tried but the frequency was not stable, and as such, tubes were used. A wave length of 60 - 80 cm was used so the sender and receiver could be spaced close together. An airplane at a height of 500 m and a distance of 28 km could be seen. By 1935, they had built the first successful radar unit.

It also says,

Huelsmeyer had invented and demonstrated his radar in 1904. However, his invention was an idea too early for its time.

I don't see any claim that British radar wasn't vital, so I won't answer that.

And Watson-Watt did invent /a/ radar device, and got a patent on it. However, clearly what he invented was a particular implementation of a radar device (and not, the concept of radar, nor even the first practical implementation of it).

  • Hüelsmeyer's "telemobiloscope" seems to have been able to detect metal objects at a fairly short range: it used a spark-gap transmitter broadcasting in all directions, and a directional receiver to pick up the echoes. No attempt was made at ranging. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_H%C3%BClsmeyer Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 6:33

The earliest description of the concept of using reflection from a beam of radio waves seems to have been by Hugo Gernsback in the story "Ralph 124C 41+", first published in 1911. It includes a diagram showing a parabolic dish directing a "pulsating polarized ether wave" at a "space flyer" and discusses the use of the time delay of the reflected signal to determine distance.

  • 1
    This question seems to be about actual usable technology, not the theory behind it. Naturally, theory precedes action, and sometimes by many years. I don't think this answers the question.
    – user11643
    Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 0:33

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