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RadLab evolves into modern RLE

Radar, an acronym for radio detection and ranging, was patented by British scientist Sir Robert Watson-Watt for meteorological applications in 1935. Since practical applications for airborne microwave radar had not been developed before World War II, the government of England requested assistance from the US National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) to develop this capability.

Britain's secret Tizard Mission was dispatched to Washington, DC in September 1940 to introduce the 10-centimeter cavity magnetron. In October 1940, MIT was chosen for the site of an independent laboratory that would be staffed by civilian and academic scientists from every discipline. Fourteen months before the US entered World War II, MIT's new Radiation Laboratory began its investigation of microwave electronics.


During World War II, large-scale research at the Radiation Laboratory was devoted to the rapid development of microwave radar. Projects included physical electronics, microwave physics, electromagnetic properties of matter and microwave communication principles. The "RadLab" designed almost half of the radar deployed in World War II, created more than 100 different radar systems, and constructed $1.5 billion worth of radar.

At the height of its activities, the RadLab employed nearly 4,000 people working on several continents. What began as a British-American effort to make microwave radar work evolved into a centralized laboratory committed to understanding the theories behind experimental radar while solving its engineering problems.

The RadLab formally closed on December 31, 1945, and its staff members resumed their peacetime activities. In its wake remained tons of surplus equipment and the concept for a basic research center that was to continue in MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics.

On January 1, 1946, under the sponsorship of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development, RadLab's Basic Research Division continued work at MIT as a transitional organization. Under the leadership of Director Julius A. Stratton and Associate Director Albert G. Hill (who passed away on October 21-see obituary on page 9 in this issue of Tech Talk), it continued investigation on problems in physical electronics that involved cathodes, electronic emission, and gaseous conduction. In microwave physics, the electromagnetic properties of matter at microwave frequencies were studied. Modern techniques were applied to both physics and engineering research, and in microwave communications, engineering applications were emphasized. On July 1, 1946, the Basic Research Division was finally incorporated into the new Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 30, 1996.

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