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First-Hand:Radar Research and Development during WWII

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J. Rennie Whitehead

I was born in a small village in Lancashire in the northwest of England. By the mid-1920s, when I was seven or eight years old, I was building crystal sets to listen to the BBC transmissions from 2LO, Manchester on the medium wave band and the powerful 200kc/s transmitter at Daventry, as well as commercial radio from Fecamp and Luxembourg, on the long wave band. The crystal was usually a piece of germanium found by sorting through hundreds of lumps of coal outside the coalhouse until the characteristic glint of a germanium crystal could be seen in one. It was extracted and mounted in a chuck with a spiral copper wire (catwhisker) as the contact.

My initial area of specialization was determined by the exigencies of war. I was to graduate in 1939. Before that happened, I was approached in the spring of 1939 by my professor, P.M.S. Blackett. He told me that he was on a scientific advisory committee to the British government and that a world war was imminent. He strongly advised me to let my name be put forward for a job in a secret research establishment once I had graduated.

I agreed and, later that summer, found myself being interviewed in London by Robert Watson-Watt and Charles Percival Snow. I didn't know their histories at the time, but Watson-Watt was, of course, credited with the invention of radar in the mid-30s. C.P. Snow, who was then head of the Civil Service Commission, became famous for his series of novels, Strangers and Brothers.

So in August, 1939, after graduation, I joined the Air Ministry Research Establishment at Bawdsey, which was effectively the birthplace of radar. I must have been about the twentieth member of the professional staff. By the time I joined, two-thirds of the coast of Britain was already protected by radar and airborne radar was undergoing its first flight trails.

On the first of September, 1939, fearing that Bawdsey would come under immediate attack from the air—conveniently situated for the enemy as it was on the southeast coast of England—we moved lock, stock and barrel to Dundee. A couple of moves later, we became TRE Malvern, located in the Malvern Boys' College, in Great Malvern, Worcestershire. By then we were about twenty-five hundred strong.

TRE was a marvelous research organization in every sense. As a result of the shortage of electrical and electronic specialists, it had recruited top scientists and engineers, almost independent of discipline, who could bring fresh minds to this new technique of generating and manipulating short pulses of energy. We were all very young and the sky was the limit in taking responsibility. We also worked very hard because we knew in our bones that radar was essential to survival, as indeed it proved to be. Therefore, we gained a great deal of technical and managerial experience in a very short time.

Early in the war, I was given the responsibility for the design of the IFF (Identity Friend or Foe) Transponder that went into all allied ships and aircraft and, later, responsibility for the entire separate-band radar identification system (IFF Mark III). After the Tizard mission revealed the secrets of TRE to the United States government, a small U.S. contingent of senior scientists came to live in Malvern for a year, before returning to the U.S. to the MIT Radiation Laboratory. They included Isidore Rabi (who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1944). Years later, when he and I were on the NATO Science Committee together, we would exchange reminiscences of Malvern.

We worked very closely with the Royal Air Force in the development of radar equipment for their use. We had our own airfield with our own fleet of military aircraft of every type, flown by service officers but maintained by civilian crews. I did a lot of flying in the early years of the war testing the results of our laboratory efforts.

As a result of the link with RCA Victor, I was invited to join them as Director of Research, to create their first Canadian Research Laboratories, in Montreal. In the ten years from 1955 to 1965, the labs grew steadily to include divisions on wave propagation, semiconductor devices, systems, lasers and space.

We designed the first 400MHz transponder for the Alouette topside sounder satellite. We took over from the government the engineering design, construction and test of Alouette II and the ISIS series of satellites. We had a very friendly relationship with RCA in Princeton, which was headed at the time by Jim Hillier, another Canadian.

We competed freely with RCA for U.S. military contracts although it was against corporate rules. However, it was my policy never to compete unless I knew we could win. Ultimately, the corporation had more sense than to criticize a winner. Indeed, RCA Victor turned out to be an excellent environment in which to achieve innovative results. I was given all the freedom I wanted throughout my ten years there—I ran the labs the way I wanted them with only minimal constraints from the Canadian management and RCA International.

The post-war head of TRE, W. B. Lewis, had emigrated to Canada to create the Atomic Energy of Canada Research Laboratories. In 1951, he persuaded me to follow him to join the Eaton Electronics Lab at McGill University. This was an unhappy decision in one sense, for the Lab was small and its direction narrowminded; the university faculty meetings were always full of petty arguments. It was all very parochial and it was the first time I found myself unable to run things the way I wanted them.

Shortly after the Research Laboratories were completed, the parent corporation went through a bad financial period. One day I heard that the Executive Vice President was coming up from New York to announce a decision to close the Laboratories as a cost-saving measure. At that time, we had no outside contracts, nor had we sought any. The crucial board meeting was to be the following day. We had about eighteen hours to save the Labs. I thought of all the promises I had made to the excellent team I had assembled. I felt I could not let them down.

That evening I fabricated a totally fictitious report showing that the entire operation would be supported by outside contracts starting the following month. The cost to the corporation would be nothing. My secretary typed and bound the requisite number of copies of the report that evening, obtained the key to the boardroom from her sister, who was secretary to one of the executives, and placed a copy at the bottom of the pile of papers at each place in the boardroom.

I called a U.S. friend, who alerted Elmer Engstrom (who was then Vice President, Research and Development, but later became President of the Radio Corporation). The latter flew up to Canada and attended the meeting. He was the only person present who knew the report was there. So, it was even a surprise to the President of the Canadian Company when Engstrom called attention to it just as the hatchet man began to read the requiem on the Canadian Laboratories. The meeting broke up in confusion.

I was left only with the problem of financing the Laboratories from outside sources, which I did for the next seven years (during which time there was absolutely no further interference from management on either side of the border). When I left RCA Victor, under very friendly circumstances, the Executive Vice President who had suffered the setback ten years before, came up to Canada and, at a management meeting, good-humoredly told this story against himself. In all the ten years I was there, he had never let on that he knew. In this case, I think the end justified the means.

For productive innovation, I found that creativity tends to be stifled in any line organization, whether it be industry, university faculty or government department. The reason is simple: the line departments are restricted to pursuing the primary aims of the organization, which, for industries, is survival and profit; for universities, the production of educated people, and, for government, the line functions of policy and regulation.

Only by decoupling R & D, from the day-to-day line functions, can the essential full-time group of viable size be assembled and have the freedom to look at the long term without the distraction of immediate administrative problems. I found that it did not matter much whether such a quasi-independent establishment was affiliated to industry, university or government. The appropriate degree of decoupling from the line organization was what counted. As a consultant, I find that retirement has come on imperceptibly. It merely means taking on fewer commitments each year and finding more time for those nonpaying, personal projects that always seemed to be put off from year to year in the past.