‘The Mother of Radar’, Margaret Robertson was born in St. Catherines Road, Perth, the daughter of David Robertson. Her father was a draughtsman and her mother was employed in Campbell’s Dyeworks. Her father was a partner for a few years, along with Alexander Robertson in the Perth Foundry business in Paul Street, off the Old High Street. Margaret was educated at Perth Academy where she showed an aptitude for languages. She worked for a short time in the office at Perth Foundry. In 1904, Margaret left Perth to go to London where her father had taken up a position of draughtsman. Margaret’s grandfather, Mr D. Robertson was the founder of the stationers and booksellers business at 95-97 High Street, Perth.
Shortly after being married, Margaret returned to Perth for a visit in 1916 along with her husband Robert Watson. Robert Watson was born in Brechin, 13 April 1892 and is generally regarded as the “Inventor of Radar”. At the very least he was a significant contributor to the development of radar. Watt was not the only person to have thought about the possibilities in this area, but he was the first to come up with a workable solution. Watson added the ‘Watt’ part to his name in the 1940s as he was a descendant of James Watt from Greenock, the inventor of the first practical Steam Engine in 1776.
Watson-Watt attended the University College in Dundee. He was introduced to wireless telegraphy, radio frequency oscillators and wave propagation while assisting Professor William Peddie, the Chair of Physics at Dundee. At the age of 18, Robert won a prize in Chemistry and graduated with a BSc in engineering in 1912.
Watson-Watt married Margaret Robertson on 20 July 1916 in Hammersmith, London. That year he joined the Meteorological Office which was interested in his idea’s for using radio to detect thunderstorms.
Margaret was a teacher in Dundee and had studied at University College. Margaret attended evening classes where her future husband was the lecturer. She also went to evening classes in metalwork and learned to make jewellery.
They started their married life living in a wooden hut between Aldershot and Farnborough, the Wireless Station of Air Ministry Meteorological Office. A second hut was used for their joint research work. Margaret used her jewellery-making skills to repair Roberts devices, soldering connections and making repairs to the apparatus. At the time Robert described his radio apparatus as little more than lengths of wire. Margaret’s other duty was that of recorder and observer of the radio experiments. Every two or three days, she would cycle into Aldershot to buy supplies for the home.
During World War 1, Margaret had another useful skill, she transcribed messages from Paris in Morse-Code and passed them on the British High Command in Aldershot. Also, she listened to the time signals from Berlin and Paris, with a stop-watch in one hand and a telephone in the other, and at precisely the correct moment gave the word “Go” to the command HQ. They then sounded three “pips” on a siren. This was the forerunner of the BBC Time Signal.
In 1923 when Robert set sail for the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea for three months to study atmospherics. Margaret later joined him in Alexandria, and they set up tents on the outskirts of Cairo full of equipment for further experiments. Armed Bedouins carried off the tent with the apparatus.
Without the apparatus, they moved further up the Nile to the Helouan (Helwan) Observatory. The government of Sudan then invited them to Khartoum and provided them with a house. Here they conducted more experiments into atmospherics with some of the best thunderstorms they had ever seen.
Back in the United Kingdom, Margaret became the housewife again until nine years later when she once again became the assistant to her husband in his research work. This time they were off to Tromsø, Norway, 200 miles within the Arctic Circle.
Robert Watson-Watt joined the Meteorological Office and in 1927 they were amalgamated with the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) with Watson-Watt at the head. In 1933 he became Superintendent of the NPL in Teddington. By 1934, he was the head of Radio Research at Ditton Park near Slough. He was approached by the Air Ministry who asked him whether a radio wave could be used to produce a death-ray. The Germans had claimed that they had invented a device that could do this. Working with Arnold Wilkins at the time he assured the Air Ministry that this was, of course, impossible, but it did give him the chance to put forward the idea of using radio to detect aircraft. Soon Watson-Watt and Wilkins demonstrated to the Air Ministry official and physicist, A.P. Rowe (also known as Jimmy Rowe).
On the 2nd of April 1935, Watson-Watt was granted a patent for radar and by June they were detecting aircraft up to 15 miles away. By the end of the year, this had risen to up to 60 miles away. What Watson-Watt eventually gave us was the highly effective Chain Home radar system. This proved to invaluable during the air battles that were to come.
Initially, the work of the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) was carried out was at Bawdsey near Felixstowe. This was felt to be a bit unsafe as it was just a short German E-boat run over the English Channel should war break out. The name of the unit changed in 1936 to the Air Ministry Experimental Station (AMES). When the war broke out the team rushed to Dundee University where the rector was only dimly aware of an earlier conversation with Watson-Watt about them working there.
Part of the team, now at Dundee, which was working on Airborne Interception Radar (AI), was sent along to RAF Perth (Scone) airfield to work. This was not entirely suitable and later in the year, the main part of the team was moved down to RAF St. Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan, Wales. This also was found to be unsuitable and the team was moved again to Worth Matravers in Dorset near Swanage. By May 1940 the distance between the teams proved unworkable and the AMES team left Dundee to a new location near the AI team at Worth Matravers.
Watson-Watt managed to cut through red-tape and have the Radar stations staffed by Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) members who did the calculations and passed on the enemy raid information by telephone to Fighter Command. The first five coastal radar-manned stations were up and running by July 1938, By the time the Second World War started on 1 September 1939, there were 19 operational radar stations. Aircraft
Watson-Watt filed patents in 1935 and 1936 on a system to identify friend or foe (IFF) aircraft. The first active IFF transponder was first used experimentally in 1939. Watson-Watt had an assistant, Edward Bowen who came up with an airborne radar system to help pilots detect enemy planes beyond visibility. Robert Watson-Watt also helped develop the use of radar for use by the Royal Navy against German U-boats.
In 1942, Watson-Watt was knighted becoming Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt, KCB, FRS, FRAeS. In 1952, Watson-Watt was given £50,000 by the British Government for his work on radar. Margaret filed a divorce petition against Robert and they divorced that year. Margaret and Robert returned to Perth purchasing Dunalistair, Muirton Bank, Perth. Robert moved to Canada where he set up an engineering consultancy. In Canada, he married his second wife, Jean Wilkinson. Whilst in Canada he ironically received a speeding ticket from a policeman using, a radar gun. Robert wrote an ironic poem (“Rough Justice”) afterwards:
Pity Sir Robert Watson-Watt,
strange target of this radar plot
And thus, with others I can mention,
the victim of his own invention.
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
Jean Wilkinson died in 1964 and he returned to Scotland and in 1966 at the age of 74, he married for the third time, Dame Katherine Jane Trefusis Forbes who was 67 at the time.
Watson-Watt lived in London with Dame Katherine Forbes in the winter and the summer at “The Observatory”, the home of Dame Katherine in Pitlochry. Dame Katherine was the first director of the Women’s Auxillary Air Force (1939-1943). Dame Katherine died in 1971.
Robert Watson-Watt died two years later in 1973 in Inverness, age 81 and is buried along with Dame Katherine Forbes in the churchyard of the Episcopal Church in Pitlochry.
Margaret, Lady Watson-Watt passed an Italian “A” level course in 1972, only one of six to pass the exam and while in her 80’s. Margaret Robertson, Lady Watson-Watt celebrated her 102nd birthday on 3 May 1988 with a sherry party and specially made cake at St. Johnstoun Nursing Home in Perth. Margaret passed away peacefully on Wednesday 7 September 1988 at St. Johnstoun Nursing Home. A funeral service was held in St. Stephens Parish Church, Muirton and Lady Watson-Watt was interred thereafter in Dunning Cemetery.
Robert Watson Watt once paid tribute to the value of Margaret Robertson Watson-Watt’s contribution. “The technique we worked out in those years has been extended over the whole field of radio research, and in that sense was the forerunner of the experiments that led to radiolocation.”
Sir Robert and LadyMargaret had no children.
Margaret and Robert Watson-Watt, Perthshire Advertiser 21 June 1941