Two Old Books Revisited

by Malcolm Baird, July 2011

Robert Watson-Watt, Three Steps To Victory, Odhams Press, London, 1958
Ronald Clark, Sir Edward Appleton, Pergamon Press, Oxford, 1971

Television and radar have had a huge influence in the last 80 years. Although the two technologies are not identical, there is a good deal of overlap1 and for many years there has been controversy about possible involvement of John Logie Baird in radar developments during and prior to World War II. This has led me to reread a couple of old books about the radar pioneers.

Sir Robert Watson-Watt (1892-1973) is an iconic figure in the UK, hailed as the father and sometimes (incorrectly) as the inventor of radar. It is over 50 years since the appearance of his book Three Steps to Victory2 and it is long out of print, but it can still be found in libraries -- or bought through Amazon at a high price reflecting its rarity value. I found the 470-page book hard to read without a good supply of strong coffee. It is Watson-Watt's personal account of what he did, but it lacks a bibliography or end-notes. Watson-Watt explains the nuances of radar technology in words, all too many words but there is an almost total lack of diagrams. Nor is there any mention of John Logie Baird.

The reviewer of Three Steps to Victory in The Times3 was polite, as befitted Sir Robert's status. However the review closed by saying that the book was marred by "faint resentment … and a discursiveness, an occasional facetiousness and a delight in oblique statement which mark the persistence in the man of the boy who took prizes in English at a Scottish school".

That part of the review could easily be a parody of Watson-Watt's florid writing style. Watson-Watt has been featured in many short articles and film clips and little booklets for the schools – not noted either for accuracy or detail. Strangely, no full-length independent biography of Watson-Watt has ever been published.

My second piece of historical reading was Ronald Clark's biography4 of Sir Edward Appleton (1890-1965) who also played an important part in radar history through his work on the ionosphere. Appleton and Watson-Watt had very different personalities. Appleton was an eminent professor, the archetypal academic, who believed in publishing his research results in scientific journals for the world to read. This was in sharp contrast to Watson-Watt, a career civil servant who published few technical papers and virtually none after 1936, thanks to the Official Secrets Act.

The Clark book4 is a much easier read than the Watson-Watt book2 it is shorter (225 pages) and more lucid, with a proper bibliography provided. Professor Appleton (as he then was) consulted for Baird Television Ltd. in 1931-32 and it was largely at his urging that the company, and J.L. Baird himself, shifted their research efforts away from mechanical scanning and towards electronic scanning by means of cathode ray tubes. Appleton showed that television interference (ghosting) was caused by the reflection of radio waves by an object he also explained how its distance (range) could be calculated from the shift of the image on the screen. This was an obvious illustration of the overlap between television and radar.1 I was on the junior staff at Edinburgh University for several years during Appleton's time as Principal and I regret that I did not have the nerve to make an appointment and ask him about the early days and his connection with my father.

In 1947 Sir Edward Appleton's published work on the ionosphere gained him the Nobel prize in physics which included a payment of 146,000 Swedish krona, equivalent to about £10,000 at the time. Watson-Watt was never seriously considered for a Nobel prize but a few years later he put in a claim for a government award for his contribution to victory in World War II. He eventually received £52,000 tax-free, a huge amount at the time, equivalent to several million pounds in today's terms. However the awards committee denied that Watson-Watt was the inventor of radar. Most of his award seems to have gone to support his first wife who divorced him in 1952 after 36 years of marriage. In his book Watson-Watt waved the divorce away in a page or so, a small fraction of the space he gave to the elaborate defence of his claim to be the "father of radar".

One final thought. Radar was crucial for Britain's survival in World War II and it is surprising that its story has been largely neglected by the visual media such as film and television. The only feature film ever made about radar (School for Secrets5) was released in 1946. Since then, the heavily technical content may have discouraged screenwriters and any full history of radar should take account of developments in other countries such as the USA and Germany. However, Britain was the first country to take radar seriously as a defensive weapon.

In its simplest form, a film screenplay could focus on the human qualities of those involved in the British wartime effort. Various types of people took part: mainly selfless team workers but also people obsessed with patents, and ambitious seekers after fame. The atmosphere was one of wartime urgency and secrecy. This sort of human approach in the hands of a good screenwriter worked very well in the BBC's made-for-TV film drama about the discovery of the "helix" molecular structure of DNA.6


  1. Malcolm Baird, Douglas Brown and Peter Waddell, "Television, Radar and J.L. Baird 1923-1946", first published in the Narrow Bandwidth Television Association (NBTVA) newsletter, September 2005. See also the Gallery of this website.
  2. Robert Watson-Watt, Three Steps To Victory, Odhams Press, London, 1958.
  3. Anonymous, The Times, February 2 1958.
  4. Ronald Clark, Sir Edward Appleton, Pergamon Press, Oxford, 1971
  5. School for Secrets is reviewed on this website.
  6. The Race for the Double Helix, reviewed very favourably in the New York Times, September 14 1987. There is no DVD available but the film is occasionally repeated on television.

Recommended reading

Malcolm Baird, 'What did J.L. Baird really do in World War II?'

Antony Kamm and Malcolm Baird, John Logie Baird: a life, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2002.