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RADAR Comes Early - Part I


by Richard Smyers


Common knowledge says that Radar was invented in Great Britain, Germany and the United States in the last years before World War Two. Common knowledge has it wrong. When Heinrich Hertz made the first experiments with radio waves in 1886, he discovered that these waves could be broadcast and detected at a distance, thus establishing the foundation for wireless telegraphy, voice radio and eventually, television. He also discovered that radio waves could be beamed in a specific direction, and would reflect from large, solid objects. This effect makes Radar possible. Wireless telegraphy and then wireless voice transmissions were developed by the end of 1900, but radio location failed to follow them up. Nobody was really interested . . . but it could have been otherwise. It could have gone in a different direction, instead.

[In this AH, all events up to the end of 1906 are just as actually happened, with the exception of three Points of Divergence. After that, history takes a very different path.]



James Clerk Maxwell publishes his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, the first unification of the equations of electromagnetism.


Heinrich Hertz generates and detects the first known radio waves. He then discovers that they have all the properties of visible light, in particular that they are reflected from metallic objects, and to a lesser degree by other solid surfaces. These "echoes" can be detected with the proper equipment, although the range of the device is only 25 feet.



Hertz publishes the results of his radio experiments.



In Italy Guglielmo Marconi reads about Hertz's experiments and starts his own experiments with radio waves.



Commander Henry Jackson, a torpedo and electrical specialist in the British Royal Navy, is appointed to command H.M.S. Defiance, which is the torpedo school at Plymouth.

He also begins experimenting with radio.

By September, Marconi has developed a wireless telegraph system with a potentially useful range.



Commander Henry Jackson is successful in establishing radio communications between two ships in harbor.

In June, Commander Henry Jackson is promoted to the rank of Captain.

On July 27th, Marconi demonstrates his equipment to senior officials of the British General Post Office, sending messages a distance of just under a mile.

On September 2nd, Marconi gives a demonstration of his apparatus on Salisbury Plain, England, transmitting signals over a range of one and three-quarter miles. He meets Captain Henry Jackson at this demonstration, and they become friends.



Professor Ferdinand Braun builds the first cathode-ray tube oscilloscope.

In May, Marconi sends messages to the island of Flatholm in the Bristol Channel, a distance of 8.7 miles.

In July, Marconi demonstrates his equipment to the Italian Ministry of Marine, sending signals from the dockyard at La Spezia to the armored cruiser San Martino, at a range of 11 miles



On March 27th, Marconi communicates across the English Channel by radio.

In the Spring, Marconi loans three sets of his apparatus to the British Royal Navy for use during maneuvers. They are installed on the old battleship HMS Alexandra and the cruisers HMS Europa and HMS Juno. Captain Henry Jackson is the commanding officer of the Juno. In late July, during the maneuvers, the Juno receives wireless telegraphy messages from the Europa at a distance of 55 miles, and relays the messages to the Alexandra which is another 30 miles distant.

 Following the maneuvers, Captain Jackson recommends that wireless equipment should now be fitted in the fleet in general.

Ferdinand Braun patents a "sparkless antenna circuit" which greatly increases the broadcasting range of a radio transmitter.



In an article published in the June issue of "Century Magazine," Nicola Tesla writes that with radio waves "we may determine the relative position or course of a moving object, such as a vessel at sea, the distance traversed by the same, or its speed."

On December 23rd, R. A. Fessenden sends the first wireless voice message on Cobb Island in the Potomac River, Washington, D.C.



In January, Captain Henry Jackson reads Tesla's article suggesting that radio waves might be used to detect and track a ship at sea.

Captain Henry Jackson is elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society, in recognition of his work in the field of Wireless Telegraphy.

On December 12th, Marconi sends a radio signal from Poldhu, Cornwall, across the Atlantic Ocean to St. John's, Newfoundland.



During this year Captain Henry Jackson conducts experiments to see if Tesla's idea of using radio waves to locate and track a ship at sea is workable.

[First Point of Divergence. In fact, either Jackson never read Tesla's article, or else he read it, and never did anything about the idea.]

On December 5th, Marconi sends the first complete trans-Atlantic message by radio from Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, to Poldhu, Cornwall.



Christian Hülsmeyer of Düsseldorf experiments with radio waves, and designs a compact, workable radar system that he calls a Telemobiloscope.



In England Professor Ambrose Fleming builds the first and simplest form of radio tube, the diode.

The Royal Navy forms a wireless experimental section at H.M.S. Vernon, the torpedo school at Portsmouth, to develop wireless telegraphy (radio) equipment for the fleet.

On April 30th, Hülsmeyer applies for a patent on his Telemobiloscope. It rings a bell whenever the receiver picks up a signal echo, and it is said to have a range of several hundred yards.

On June 9th, Hülsmeyer's Telemobiloscope is demonstrated from a small ship in Rotterdam harbor to representatives of a number of shipping companies. It detects ships at a range of 3,000 meters.

On June 10th, the British patent on Hülsmeyer's Telemobiloscope is filed, describing it as "a Hertzian-wave projecting and receiving apparatus adapted to indicate or give warning of the presence of a metallic object such as a ship or a train. . ."

Article "The Telemobiloscope" appears on page 388 of Volume 2 of "The Electrical Magazine"

On September 22nd, British Patent No. 13,170 is granted on Hülsmeyer's Telemobiloscope.

On October 21st, Admiral Sir John A. Fisher becomes First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy.


In a letter to Captain Henry Jackson, Marconi writes: "As was first shown by Hertz, electric waves can be completely reflected by conducting bodies. In some of my tests I have noticed the effects of reflection and deflection of these waves by metallic objects miles away.

It seems to me it should be possible to design apparatus by means of which a ship could radiate or project a divergent beam of these rays in any desired direction, which rays, if coming across a metallic object, such as another steamer or ship, would be reflected back to a receiver screened from the local transmitter on the sending ship and thereby immediately reveal the presence and bearing of the other ship in fog or thick weather." Based on this, and his own experiments based on Tesla's suggestion, Jackson strongly recommends that the Admiralty order research into this possibility of a 'ship detection apparatus.'

[Second Point of Divergence. In fact, Marconi noticed the reflection effect of radio waves fairly early in his career, but said nothing about it until he mentioned the fact in a speech in 1922.]

Marconi patents a horizontal directional aerial.



In Italy, Artom and his pupils Bellini and Tosi devise a series of improved radio direction-finding systems.

In America Lee DeForest announces the development of the first triode, which has three elements and enables radio signals to be amplified.

Hülsmeyer tells the British Admiralty about his Telemobiloscope, and it is brought to the attention of Captain Henry Jackson. He promptly recommends that the group investigating detection of ships by use of radio waves purchase two Telemobiloscopes for testing and comparison to their own ideas. First Sea Lord Admiral J. A. Fisher hears of this, and orders the experiments in radiolocation of ships to proceed immediately.

[Third Point of Divergence. In fact, when Hülsmeyer told the British Admiralty about his Telemobiloscope, they ignored the device. Apparently neither Jackson nor Fisher ever heard about it.]

At 2:12 AM on May 30th, in heavy fog, the British battleship Montagu runs hard aground on Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel. Salvage is not possible, so the Montagu is stripped and broken up in place.

On October 25th, in the United States, Lee De Forest applies for a patent on the triode.

On December 24th, Fessenden makes the first extended broadcast of the human voice, from Brant Rock, Massachusetts.



The Royal Navy begins experimenting with the Telemobiloscope as an aid to navigation at night and in foggy conditions. Captain Henry Jackson points out that such a device would prevent accidents like the grounding of the battleship Montagu in 1906. He also suggests using a cathode-ray tube to give a visible sign of the signal's echo.



On February 8th De Forest is granted an American patent on the triode.



On January 23rd, 26 miles south of Nantucket in heavy fog, the White Star Lines' Republic is rammed by the Lloyd Italiano liner Florida. Rescue ships are called to the scene by radio. The White Star Lines' Baltic has to grope through the fog for twelve hours before reaching the stricken Republic. After the Baltic has taken all of the passengers and crew of the Republic on board, the crippled ship is taken in tow, but the Republic sinks about 8:00 PM on January 24th.

Marconi and Ferdinand Braun are jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics, for the development of wireless telegraphy.


On January 25th, Admiral Sir John A. Fisher retires from the Royal Navy.

After three years of extensive experiments, trials and development, the first operational WIDAR (WIreless Detection And Ranging) sets are installed on the British battleship Dreadnought and the battlecruiser Invincible. Newspapers report that "this new device will aid in navigation and prevent collisions at sea, such as the one last year between the Republic and the Florida."



Fessenden is hired by the Submarine Signal Company to develop an underwater device capable of transmitting Morse Code. The Fessenden Oscillator is developed within a year.

On September 20th, the White Star liner Olympic and the British cruiser Hawke collide in the Spithead Channel, outside Southampton, in daylight. Considering this event, what happened to the Republic two years ago, and the difficulty that the Baltic had in reaching the scene due to fog, the directors of the White Star Line ask the Admiralty if its new detection equipment could be installed on their three new liners, the Olympic, the Titanic (fitting out) and the Gigantic (building) in order to offer practical experience in its use and to insure greater safety at sea.

On October 24th, Winston Churchill is appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. One of his first acts as the cabinet minister for the Royal Navy is to authorize a trial installation of WIDAR apparatus at Admiralty expense for the new White Star liner Titanic, then under construction.



On April 10th, the new White Star liner Titanic, the first merchant ship to be equipped with WIDAR, leaves Southampton, England, for New York, on its maiden voyage. The equipment is operated by a Royal Navy Lieutenant, a Petty Officer and four Ratings.

On Sunday, April 14th, about 6:15 PM on the Titanic, Second Officer Charles Lightoller, the officer of the watch, tells Sixth Officer James Moody to calculate when the ship will reach the ice that other ships have reported to the Titanic by wireless (radio). Moody reports that it will be about 11:00 PM. At 9:30 PM Lightoller tells Moody to telephone "the crow's nest and tell the lookouts to keep a sharp eye out for ice, particularly small ice and growlers" (very small icebergs). Lightoller also tells the Royal Navy officer in charge of the WIDAR equipment that the ship might encounter field ice or icebergs at any time, so they should notify the bridge at once if they detect any objects ahead.

At 10:00 PM when he is relieved by First Officer William Murdoch, Lightoller tells Murdoch that the ship "will be up around the ice some-where about 11:00 o'clock, I suppose."

He adds that the lookouts have been instructed to be alert for small ice ahead, and that the WIDAR office will report any object they detect to the bridge at once. At about 11:33 lookout Frederick Fleet reports to the bridge that there is a 'dark mass' on the horizon, directly ahead of the ship. Murdoch assumes that this is a lane of open water through the ice field which lies ahead. At 11:34 the WIDAR equipment gets a signal return from something directly ahead of the Titanic; the signal rapidly grows stronger, and at 11:36 the Royal Navy lieutenant in charge reports to the bridge that there is a large, stationary object directly ahead of the ship. Murdoch orders a hard turn to port and stops the engines. At 11:39 the helm is reversed to swing the stern away from the object, which is now seen to be an iceberg. At 11:41 the Titanic misses the underwater part of the iceberg, but runs into field ice to the west of it. This causes some underwater damage at Boiler Room Number 4.

On Monday, April 15th, after surveying the damage, and with Boiler Room Number 4 partly flooded, the Titanic works around a large mass of field ice and icebergs, and then continues its voyage to New York.

On Wednesday, April 17th, the Titanic arrives at New York. The fact that the WIDAR equipment made it possible for the ship to avoid a direct collision with an iceberg is soon known to the press. The White Star Line trumpets the fact that the new device makes the Titanic the safest ship at sea. WIDAR sets are ordered by White Star for installation on the Olympic and the Gigantic. The Cunard Line requests similar equipment to be installed on their two biggest ships, the Lusitania and the Mauretania. Since these two ships are marked for use in wartime as Royal Navy auxiliary cruisers, the Cunard Line's request is granted, at Admiralty expense.



On April 27th Fessenden detects a sound echo from an iceberg on the Grand Banks, off Newfoundland, at a range of two miles with his underwater signalling equipment, which is mounted on the U. S. Coast Guard cutter Miami.

In June Fessenden's apparatus is successfully tested in the harbor of Boston, Massachusetts.

In October the British Admiralty begins tests of Fessenden's apparatus, which are so successful that a large fitting program of this gear is recommended. It is decided to begin by fitting the equipment in submarines for underwater signalling.

Following three years of trials on the Dreadnought and the Invincible, and the experience gained on board the Titanic, a batch of 25 improved Mark II WIDAR sets is ordered for installation on Royal Navy battlecruisers and Dreadnought-type battleships.



The Titanic, the Olympic, the new Gigantic, the Lusitania and the Mauretania are all now equipped with WIDAR. Royal Navy experience with the new equipment shows that it is possible for ships to maintain their formation in heavy fog and at night without showing any lights. It also detects battleships and battlecruisers at three to five miles in the same conditions, making it possible to bring guns to the ready and have them trained in the proper direction before a potential foe can be sighted. It is suggested that a WIDAR set mounted ashore at a harbor entrance could give warning of the approach of hostile cruisers at night or in poor visibilty. A second production batch of 25 Mark II WIDAR sets is ordered.

On June 28th, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife are assasinated by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo.

On July 16th, a Naval Review of the active and reserve ships of the Royal Navy is held at Spithead, the roadstead between the Isle of Wight and the naval base of Portsmouth.

On July 26th the British fleet's dispersal following the Spithead Naval Review is cancelled.

On July 28th, Austria declares war on Serbia, and the British ships are ordered to their war bases.

On July 31st the Imperial German Navy High Seas Fleet is ordered to move from its main base at Kiel in the Baltic to its North Sea bases.

In August John Pomeroy (Australian) submits a design for an explosive bullet to the British War Office, but meets no encouragement.

On August 1st, the German Kaiser orders a general naval mobilization.

On August 2nd, the British Admiralty orders full naval mobilization.

On August 3rd, Germany declares war on France.

On August 4th, Great Britain declares war on Germany.

On August 10th, the Royal Navy increases its order for WIDAR equipment five-fold.

Shore-based WIDAR stations are ordered to be set up at major seaports and naval bases from Dover up the east coast, to provide warning if German warships approach under cover of night or fog.

On August 28th, German light forces clash with British light forces and battlecruisers in the Battle of Heligoland Bight. The Mark II WIDAR set on the British battlecruiser Lion gives clear warnings of the presence of German light cruisers before they are seen, and accurate ranges, until a shell from the German light cruiser Köln damages the WIDAR aerial.

On September 3rd, the Admiralty is given responsibility for the defence of England against air attacks.

On October 30th, Admiral Sir John Fisher is reappointed to the position of First Sea Lord.

On November 3rd, German warships bombard the British east coast port of Yarmouth for a short time, while British and French warships bombard the Turkish forts along the Dardanelles.

On December 5th, the first shore-based Royal Navy WIDAR station begins operating at Dover.

On December 8th, the Battle of the Falkland Islands is fought. Smoke hampers the British ships' visual gunnery control throughout the action, but the Mark I WIDAR set on the British battlecruiser Invincible provides useful ranges to the German ships, until it is put out of action by repeated shocks from the firing of the battlecruiser's main battery.

On December 16th, along the northeast English coast, Scarborough is shelled by the German battlecruisers Derfflinger and Von der Tann, while Hartlepool is shelled by the battlecruisers Seydlitz and Moltke, and the armored cruiser Blücher.

On December 21st, a German Navy Friedrichshafen FF29 floatplane drops two small bombs into the sea just off Dover's Admiralty Pier.

On December 24th, another FF29 drops one bomb close to Dover Castle. The WIDAR operators report that they got echoes from the plane on December 21st, but these were not identified at the time as indicating the approach of a hostile aircraft. Similar echoes were received from the plane on December 24th, twenty minutes before it was sighted from the ground. This report is sent to the Admiralty in London.

On December 27th, the report from the Dover WIDAR station concerning the December 21st and 24th air raids is read by Winston Churchill, and by First Sea Lord Admiral John Fisher.


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