Tag Archives: radar

The Brit’s phony radar memorial


All countries have their cultural blinders, and none is so blind as he who will not see. This one, which is set in stone, as it were, claims to mark the approximate English site of the “birth of radar,” discounting much earlier work in Germany, the USA and elsewhere. All it needed was a bit less hubris in the wording. Englishman Robert Watson Watt certainly was a significant radar pioneer, especially in microwave radar. But he wasn’t even the midwife, let alone the matriarch, of the whole technology.

The Invention That Changed The World

Birth control pills? The automobile? Antibiotics? Arguably. But in this case it’s radar, and Robert Buderi does a grand job of explaining why in the 500-plus pages of his sometimes technical, occasionally confusing, but always compelling 1996 classic, which I recently reread for the third time.

Perhaps it’s most compelling if you use your microwave (whose magnetron heart is a principal radar component) for more than defrosting bread or reheating coffee. Not to mention having more than a passing interest in astronomy, the battlewagon Texas (one of the first warships to, in 1939, get a working radar) and know some meteorologists who rely on their Dopplers for play-by-play forecasting of severe thunderstorms.

Must be other reasons, too, which would account for why the thirteen-year-old book still has respectable sales, even if only sixteen people have taken the time to review it at Amazon. Could be because this is one of the few accessible books to explore this world-changing technology and the people behind it. Which could be because much of it still is a military secret. The aluminum “chaff,” for instance, first used in 1945 to confuse enemy radar still is very much in use and hardly changed in sixty-five years.

Buderi, a former Business Week technology editor, does drop the ball now and then, and not just because of his understandable inability to penetrate all of the technology’s secrecy before, during and since World War II. Nazi Germany, as he points out, failed to match the radars of the Allies. But not because the Germans didn’t have the earliest lead of all. In 1904, in fact, long before any other country was taking RAdio Detection And Ranging seriously. (Unfortunately Germany’s military and commerce didn’t either).

Buderi dismisses Christian Huelsmeyer’s Telemobiloscope as merely preliminary. But the Duesseldorf engineer’s invention to prevent ships from colliding had all the ingredients except the cathode ray tube, which hadn’t been developed yet, and the radar name which awaiting coining. Nevertheless, Buderi’s book is a winner. There’s simply nothing else like it. But, good as it is, it suffers from its own focus on the Rad Lab at MIT, ignoring or slighting developments elsewhere. Still, it’s a murky subject and Buderi’s book is illuminating, if incomplete.

Radar room on the Battleship Texas


The Texas was one of the Navy’s first warships to be equipped, in 1939, with a production version of the new, top secret radar technology that would greatly help to win the coming world war. The radar room was on a lower deck between the amidships and stern gun turrets, with telephone contact with the bridge.

Cavity magnetron

We had a power surge at the rancho the other day, from an electrical transformer on a nearby power pole that inexplicably burst into flames. The upshot was no harm to our computers, but our microwave started arcing when we used it. The GE tech who came to fix it said it would be cheaper to buy another one, but I figured since the fix-it price was about the same, why not forgo the hassle of getting rid of the old one and going out to buy a new one.

So he took it apart to replace the microwave generator, and I saw that it was stamped "magnetron." Which reminded me that it was a descendent of World War II’s great secret: the cavity magnetron. It was a British invention that, with some American tweaking, became radar to help bombers find German and Japanese targets through clouds, track enemy planes and help pilots land safely in snowstorms. Not to mention later being used to track storms and tornadoes for all of us. And now we also use it to heat frozen food and coffee and cook fish, broccoli, potatoes and oatmeal. Pretty amazing.

Delayed floods

Awoke to find it had not rained overnight at all at the rancho, nor much of anywhere else around the Austin area. Big areas of storms still on the radar but still west of the Hill Country. Forecasts, however, bring it all in here by mid-day, just in time for Mr. Boy’s pickup from school, with rainfall rates of 1 to 4 inches an hour. So it’s too early to accuse the meteorologists of crying wolf.