If Robert Watson-Watt’s name doesn’t immediately ring a bell with you, you aren’t alone. It didn’t mean anything to the Canadian police officer who was running radar one day in 1956 and pulled Robert Watson-Watt over for speeding. If he had been a little sharper with his history, he might have thought twice about issuing a speeding ticket to the man who invented the radar technology that alerted the officer to the vehicle’s speed.
Watson-Watt, a Scotsman, was working as a meteorologist in the days leading up to World War II. When asked by the government to opine on a proposal to create a “death ray” to knock enemy bombers out of the sky, Watson-Watt proclaimed that such a contraption would never work. He offered something that did hold promise, however: a radio location device that would give advance warning about the approach of aircraft. His idea ultimately turned into radar — a technology that is vital to national defense, air traffic control, and — alas — speed limit enforcement on the highways.
The inventor of radar was 64 years old when he was driving on a Canadian road. His foot was a little heavy that day, and it wasn’t long before the flashing red light of a traffic cop commanded the speeding scientist to pull over.
When the officer explained that he was going to give Watson-Watt a ticket for speeding, Mrs. Watson-Watt’s wife exclaimed, “Don’t you know who you’re giving a ticket to?” As it turns out, the officer not only did not know who Watson-Watt was, but he didn’t even know what radar was. He referred to his radar device as an “electronic speedometer,” and proceeded to issue a ticket to the driver, which ultimately cost him a $12.50 fine. Watson-Watt took the ticket and exclaimed, “If I’d known what they were going to do with it, I never would have invented it!”
The good-natured scientist was never one to brag about his accomplishments or seek special recognition. In his autobiography, The Pulse of Radar, he modestly describes himself as, “…five-foot six, organically sound and functionally fortunate, if fat, after thirty years’ war of resistance to taking exercise. I’m a sixth rate mathematician, a second rate physicist, a second rate engineer, and a bit of a meteorologist, something of a journalist, a plausible salesman of ideas, interested in politics, liking to believe there is some poetry in my physics, some physics in my politics.”
He proved the poetry part a short time after the speeding ticket incident, when he set his pen to paper to record his musings about being the victim of his own invention:
Pity Sir 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.
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.