Radio detection and ranging, better known by the abbreviation ‘radar’, is a remarkably simple and effective method of measuring the distance and direction of a target. Reflecting pulsed radio waves off an object, and measuring the time taken for echoes to return to assess its location, seems a straightforward concept, yet its applications have led to wide-ranging consequences in many fields.
The first such application which usually springs to mind is its vital contribution in the Allied victory in the Second World War. It was a key factor in the outcome of the Battle of Britain, the U-boat war, the D-day landings and other major actions, and therefore in determining why we in Britain today are not living in a later version of the society depicted in the recent BBC television series SS-GB.
Jack Nissen, writing with journalist A W Cockerill, gave a fast-paced account of his involvement in the development of radar in his 1987 book Winning the Radar War. Tracing its history from the early experiments in 1935, and the establishment of the ‘Chain Home’ radar stations around Britain’s south and east coasts by the outbreak of hostilities, he describes his enthusiasm in working with a new science in the Royal Air Force. He had significant involvement in the system for ground control interception of enemy aircraft, reported on navigation systems, and worked on the radar jamming devices which so effectively prevented the German Luftwaffe from operating to its full potential.
Of particular interest to BIS members is the fact that its well-known early Chairman, Arthur C Clarke, also worked on radar in the RAF during the War. His only novel which is not science fiction, Glide Path published in 1963, is a fictionalised description of the development of the ground-controlled approach for landing aircraft using radar which has been of such major importance in aviation.
Clarke’s main character in the story, radar engineer Alan Bishop, is fascinated by the advanced science and technology that allows such a system to be progressed, avoiding the desperate situations where aircraft are unable to land due to poor weather conditions. His excitement at the future prospects confirms, if we needed it, that the novel may be almost autobiographical.
And radar went on to do so much more after victory was achieved. As Robert Godwin points out in one of his contributions to the 2013 book Arthur C Clarke: A Life Remembered, Clarke considered the possibility of bouncing radar signals off the Moon, whilst admitting that his own attempt using an early radar set during the War had been futile due to inadequate power. Yet using pulses of radio waves to establish distances and map the surfaces of bodies in the Solar System became a major feature of space exploration in the years to come.
Which is particularly useful if the body concerned is covered with cloud. In his 2002 book Venus, Patrick Moore describes how radar contact with our sister planet was first achieved in 1961 with the aim of measuring its distance and rate of rotation accurately. But it was with radar from the orbiting Magellan spacecraft in the early 1990s that detailed maps of the planetary surface, permanently hidden from our eyes under cloud cover, became available. As inhospitable as it is to human life, the scenes of highlands, volcanic plains and vast rolling expanses revealed a new world.
All in all, radar is a most versatile tool, and we must not get too wrapped up in its undoubted military applications. Nissen recounts an episode in 1941 when King George VI visited a station near where he was based, and witnessed the shooting-down of a German aircraft which had been tracked by radar. The King was visibly shaken, and “remarked that he looked forward to the day when science could once again be used to help the human race and not destroy it.” Wise words.
Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)