A Rough Justice

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Pity Sir Watson-Watt,
strange target of this radar plot
and thus, with others I can mention,
the victim of his own invention.

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His magical all-seeing eye
enabled cloud-bound planes to fly
but now by some ironic twist
it spots the speeding motorist
and bites, no doubt with legal wit,
the hand that once created it.

Oh Frankenstein who lost control
of monsters man created whole,
with fondest sympathy regard
one more hoist with his petard.

As for you courageous boffins
who may be nailing up your coffins,
particularly those whose mission
deals in the realm of nuclear fission,
pause and contemplate fate’s counter plot
and learn with us what’s Watson-Watt.

by Sir Robert Watson-Watt

The story

As with every other invention, there are rival claimants, but you can make a very strong case for Sir Robert Watson-Watt (1892–1973) being the father of radar. Certainly his work was key to Britain’s survival during the Battle of Britain.

Born in Scotland – one of his ancestors was James Watt of steam engine fame – he became interested in radio as a young graduate. His critical contribution came in the 1930s when the Air Ministry was looking into the possibility of developing a ‘death ray’ to destroy enemy aircraft.

Watson-Watt demonstrated that this was impossible, but in 1925 submitted a secret memo titled Detection and Location of Aircraft by Radio Methods. Following successful (and highly secret) trials, the government funded Watson-Watt and his team, enabling them to develop a system of radio location which was in place in time to enable the RAF to target German air raids with great precision. The system eventually became known as radar, an American term derived from Radio Detection And Ranging.

Knighted in 1942, Watson-Watt was later awarded over £50,000 by the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors. After the war he set up in private consultancy with a very wide range of clients; the Rank Organisation once asked his advice on the most suitable material for building God’s throne for a movie. His answer was ‘Perspex’.

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He lived and worked for some years in both Canada and the United States, and he penned the poem above after being pulled over for speeding by a Canadian policeman with a radar gun (first developed in the US in the 1950s). He supposedly told the officer: “Had I known what you were going to do with it I would never have invented it!”