Fascination with wireless plotted his radar course

Kenneth Budden
Kenneth Budden
jpns-19-08-17 retro Aug 2017

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The letter in The News (from E J Saunders, July 8) which disputes the sole credit given to Robert Watson-Watt for the invention of radar, prompts us to remember the role of a Portsmouth man whose contribution is often overlooked.

Ken Budden’s passion for science led him to work on a project that was to help successfully thwart Adolf Hitler’s plans to invade Britain.

In January 1933 Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. Two weeks later, a 17-year-old boy stood up and delivered a paper to the Portsmouth Grammar School Literary and Philosophical Society. The subject was ‘radioactivity’.

Budden was born in Shadwell Road, North End, in 1915 and joined Portsmouth Grammar School in 1928. As a young boy, he took an avid interest in wireless, making crystal and early valve sets and even attempting, unsuccessfully, to receive the early television transmissions.

In the sixth form, Budden was urged to compete for a scholarship at Oxford or Cambridge. Three years later he gained first class honours at St John’s College, Cambridge, and embarked on a PhD, joining a radio research group at the Cavendish Laboratory.

Hitler invaded Poland and, shortly after war was declared, Budden was awarded his PhD.

He then joined a group of scientists engaged in what was known as RDF (Radio Direction Finding). The acronym ‘radar’ – RAdio Detection And Ranging had not then come into use.

As part of Watson-Watt’s team, Budden became involved in the development of a chain of radar stations, including the selection of suitable sites, which played a crucial role during the Battle of Britain.

Radar was integrated into a sophisticated command and control network under Fighter Command, and, according to Sir William Sholto Douglas, ‘the Battle of Britain might never have been won... if it were not for the radar chain’.

From about July 1940, Budden worked at the Telecommunications Research Establishment at Worth Matravers, near Swanage, on the development of Ground Control of Interception, which sought to track incoming bombers and the fighter aircraft that were trying to intercept them.

With the heavy losses of cargo ships and the introduction of the convoy system in the Atlantic, Budden was also involved in the installation of rotation radar aerials on ships.

After the war Budden returned to Cambridge as a demonstrator in the Cavendish Laboratory and as a Fellow of St John’s College.

In 1961 he published Radio Waves in the Ionosphere and in 1966 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in recognition of his experimental and theoretical work on the propagation of very long radio waves.

Watson-Watt played the leading role in the development of radar, but he recognised that it was a team effort.

When a Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors was established to hear claims, Watson-Watt submitted a claim on behalf of himself and six other scientists. In it he listed a number of inventions which, cumulatively, constituted the radar system which had helped defend Britain during the war.

‘We seven appear as a single indivisible group,’ he argued.

Kenneth Budden was one of the seven.