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Oboe and Alec Reeves

Radar (Radio Detection and Ranging) was first developed in Britain in the 1930s. This online exhibition looks at the scientists and engineers behind the development of radar during World War Two.

During the early years of the war it became apparent that the German Luftwaffe were using a radio navigation system for night bombing, with catastrophic results. Work was quickly begun to develop a rival system. The first contender was GEE, a navigational system developed by R J Dippy which used ground-based radar-type pulses detected from the aircraft. 

An alternative was a system developed by A H Reeves, known as Oboe. The Oboe system, like GEE, was based on the detection of radio signals from ground stations. Planes would fly in an arc directly over the target, navigating by signals from two radio base stations (known as Cat and Mouse). Despite early doubts, it was extremely accurate and proved to be immensely valuable in the run-up to D-Day.

A. H. Reeves

Alec Reeves

Alec Reeves was born on 2 March 1902 in Redhill, Surrey. His father was Surveyor to the Royal Geographical Society and had met Livingstone, Stanley and Gordon of Khartoum. After graduating in engineering from Imperial College, London, Alec joined International Western Electric, a radio equipment manufacturer which was later taken over by International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT).

In 1925 Reeves went to the ITT laboratories in Paris, where he helped build the first cross-channel radio-telephone links. He also patented his Pulse Code Modulation system, which dealt with the problem of interference by turning analogue signals, such as sound, into digital signals in the form of on-off pulses.

On the outbreak of War, Reeves managed to escape from France on a coal boat. Although a pacifist, he believed that Hitler needed to be defeated and joined the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) at Malvern for war work. It was here that he developed the Oboe navigation system which was to have such an impact on the outcome of the war.

Reeves returned to ITT after the war, pioneering the use of semiconductors. He was also one of the first people to look at the use of light for communications, inspiring the development of the first practical optical fibre system. He has been described as 'the father of the information age'.

More information can be found in the Alec Reeves biography.