Daventry Experiment: Arnold Wilkins and the Birth of Radar

75 years ago Arnold Wilkins suggested that aircraft could be detected by reflections from a beam of radio waves. He demonstrated his idea to an observer from the Air Ministry in a field at Upper Stowe in Northamptonshire on 26th February 1935. Only five years later the radar shield that was developed from Wilkins’ successful demonstration played a crucial role in preventing a Nazi invasion of Great Britain.

Arnold Wilkins had turned Watson Watt’s thinking away from ‘death rays’ designed to harm pilots of hostile aircraft to the far more plausible notion of aircraft detection. This was Wilkins’ great suggestion. He followed up his idea with all the calculations that form the content of the so called ‘ Watson Watt Memorandum’ (unfortunately, Watson Watt omitted Wilkins’ name from this important document) and then Wilkins designed and carried out his demonstration of radio detection of aircraft at Daventry to convince the Air Ministry that his idea would work.

Great Science by Arnold Wilkins: all three components – the idea, the theory and the experiment – were contributed by Wilkins.

Watson Watt took Wilkins’ idea forward most vigorously – and he deserves credit for that – but it is not credible to refer to Watson-Watt alone as the inventor of British radar.

Arnold Wilkins made the fundamental scientific contributions to this vital discovery.

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