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The invention of radar—A lesson for pandemic preparation

Updated: Jul 23, 2020

As government’s scramble to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak, today is a great day to recall the enormous value of preparatory R&D.

February 26, 2020 is the 85th anniversary of the invention of radar. Now, we take this amazing use of microwaves to detect objects at a distance totally for granted.

But historians believe it was the tipping-point technology that gave the Allies the upper hand in WWII.

Radar was only invented because of an intense, preparatory effort by the British government years before the start of the war. Here’s bite-sized synopsis of an incredible story of R&D foresight:

It’s a little remembered fact of WWI but German aerial bombardment of the UK via Zeppelins and early bombers killed more than 1400 Brits.

A pre-radar WWI listening device for enemy aircraft.

So, with the rise of the Nazis and Germany’s rearming the British knew a coming war would be won-or-lost from the air.

The problem was how to stop bombers. Just months before Hitler’s election in January 1933 prime minister Stanley Baldwin told the House of Commons “...the bomber will always get through.”

Many in the British military recoiled at this pessimistic assessment. So, in late 1934, a young British Air Ministry civil servant suggested the Ministry survey the state of advanced science and technology and how it might be used in defense against hostile aircraft.

One idea that surfaced was a death ray—a focused radio beam that would overheat a pilot or plane. A young scientist did the calculations and showed that idea was a dud.

Yet not wanting to give his superiors just bad news, he also suggested another idea. He’d heard that government engineers at a postal office complained of disturbances to their shortwave communication when planes flew near their receivers. Perhaps, mused the young scientist, this effect could be used to detect aircraft at a distance.

In just a couple of months, a team of just a handful of engineers and scientists put together the world’s first radar system. And on February 26th, 1935 using a BBC Radio station’s transmitter, they tracked a twin-engine biplane, visualizing it as a little green blip on a screen, demonstrating the invention that would win the war.

All, because civil servants, and government scientists and engineers did the leg work years before the technology was absolutely needed.

If you want to know the full story of radar’s invention read Robert Buderi’s seminal account in: The Invention that Changed the World: How a Small Group of Radar Pioneers Won the Second World War and Launched a Technical Revolution.


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