Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett, born 18 November 1897 in Kensington, London, was the son of a stockbroker. At thirteen, he entered Osborne Royal Naval College and in 1912 transferred to the Dartmouth Royal ·Naval College. Throughout World War I, he served at sea, initially as a naval cadet, and saw action in the battle of the Falkland Islands in 1914 and the battle of Jutland in 1916. Promoted to the rank of lieutenant in May 1918, the Admiralty sent him to study at Cambridge in January of 1919. He liked the Cavendish Laboratory and resigned from the Navy to continue his studies there as a civilian. After passing the final honors examination in mathematics in May 1919, he passed the physics final honors examination two years later.
Among his teachers at Cambridge was Lord Ernest Rutherford, one of England’s greatest physicists. Rutherford won the Nobel Prize in 1909, and in 1919 had just been appointed Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics at the university. As a student and after completing his physics studies in 1921, Blackett participated in experiments under Rutherford exploring the possibility of the artificial transmutation of the elements by alpha particle bombardment. For 10 years, he continued at the Cavendish Laboratory with Rutherford, who suggested that Blackett consider working on an improved version of the Wilson cloud chamber.
Blackett’s Nobel laureate in 1948 was for further development of the cloud chamber and discoveries in the field of nuclear physics and cosmic radiation. Earlier in 1946, he was awarded the highest award the United States can make to a civilian, the Medal for Merit. This was for his operational work in connection with the anti-U-boat campaign during the war.
His varied roles as a civilian in the technological aspects of warfare started in the mid-1930s. Along with his highly regarded scientific acumen, Blackett brought a deep understanding of the system aspects of successful weaponry and the application of scientific analysis to the operations of war.
Blackett firmly grasped the importance of the relationships and understandings between the scientist and the equipment end user, the military. He understood the significance of collecting reliable data on the results of weapons used as the essence of determining equipment performance. This was another aspect of Blackett’s effective application of scientific methods and the use of statistics to wartime technological problem-solving.
During mid-January 1935, Blackett was appointed to serve on the Committee for the Scientific Survey of Air Defence, under the chairmanship of Sir Henry Tizard, who had been selected to head the Committee the previous year. The Committee’s purpose was “to consider how far recent advances in scientific and technical knowledge can be used to strengthen the present methods of defense against hostile aircraft. “1 During its five-year existence, the support, and implementation of radar stand out as one of the Committee’s important contributions. When war came in 1939, the whole east and southeast coast of England had operational radar chains. This was one of the factors in winning the Battle of Britain in 1940.
At the beginning of World War II Blackett joined the instrument section of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Fainborough, where he made a major contribution to the Mk 14 bombsight for the Royal Air Force. This bombsight, brought to completion by another scientist, removed the need for a level run before bomb release and was in use by the Bomber Command from 1942 until the end of the war.
By August 1940, Blackett was the science advisor at the headquarters of the Anti-Aircraft Command at Stanmore. Here he was involved in studies and analysis to enhance the use of radar data to direct gunfire. The analysis team for gun-laying radars included a physiologist, an astronomer, a mathematician, and physicists. The results led to a significant reduction from 20,000 to 4,000 in the number of rounds needed to down an enemy plane.
The magnitude of the U-boat problem and the need to address a range of solutions directed his assignment in March of 1941 to the Operational Research Section of Coastal Command. His duties included studies of methods of attack and determination of the proper depth for depth charge explosions on submarines. Studies regarding planned flying and maintenance of Coastal Command aircraft resulted in a doubling of the flying hours per month for a given number of planes and personnel. To Blackett and his operational research colleagues is attributed the concept of painting the submarine-searching planes white instead of a dark color to lessen the opportunity for a U-boat to discern patrolling planes against the background of the sky.
In May 1941, Blackett wrote a memorandum proposing a detector buoy astern of convoys to detect shadowing or trailing enemy submarines acoustically and then to transmit the information by radio to the ship.2 At about that time, J.T. Tate and L.B. Slichter of the United States National Defense Research Committee heard of the idea while in Great Britain on an exchange mission concerning anti-submarine devices. This ultimately led the following year to the development of the sonobuoy at Columbia University’s Underwater Sound Laboratory in New London. The sonobuoy met with success during the war and to the present continues to play an important role in current anti-submarine warfare.
Additionally, Blackett’s wartime interests included analysis of the strategic value of aircraft, escort duty on convoys, general sweeps over the Atlantic, patrolling of the Bay of Biscay, and the effectiveness of 10 em radar. By June 1943, the U-boat menace was somewhat mastered.
After the war, Blackett’s career continued at the University of Manchester where be had become Professor of Physics in 1937. He established a school of cosmic ray research and stimulated the development of other research interests, which led to the creation of the first chair of radio astronomy at the University of Manchester and to the building of the Jodrell Bank Experimental Station for radio astronomy 20 miles south of Manchester. Construction started in 1952 and the station was in operation by the fall of 1957. It has one of the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescopes with a reflector 250 feet in diameter.
Blackett’s scientific and technical interests were broad, ranging from work with magnetometers and measurements of the magnetic properties of rocks back 500 million years in time to conceptual thinking about the continental drift theory. In 1945, he worked at the highest government levels, to support the development of the computer industry. He became president of the Royal Society in 1965, an appropriate acknowledgment of his many talents.
A final note, Blackett is reported to have been kicking off at a students’ football match when he was informed of his winning the Nobel Prize.
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