I was invited to give a paper reviewing ionospheric radar research in Canada for the February, 2002 Winter Workshop of the CAP Division of Aeronomy and Space Physics. One question led to another, and what I ended up doing was looking into the origins of radar-based research in Canada.

In the fall of 2003, a Workshop was organized at UWO on "The Origins of Space Science Research in Canada." As part of this workshop I gave this talk once again. An audio recording was made of that talk. Below is an edited transcript of that November 2003 talk along with versions of most of the Powerpoint slides that accompanied the talk. The Powerpoint material and most of the images, are either adjacent to, or immediately above the corresponding text.

The Origins of Radar-based Research in Canada

The Origins of Radar-based Research in Canada

D.R. Moorcroft

Department of Physics and Astronomy

The University of Western Ontario

(Thanks to Peter Forsyth and Al McNamara
for their help in preparing this talk)

I give this talk here with a bit of trepidation, because although I acknowledged in Fredricton and I do again today the help from Peter Forsyth and Al McNamara for much of the background material, it still gives me a kind of funny feeling to be talking about things with people in the audience who actually experienced them rather than just read about them.

What is it that I am going to try to do with this talk? I actually started out a year ago with something quite different in mind, but what it ended up being was trying to answer questions such as these:

  • How was it that Canada came to be so active in radar research so soon after the war?
  • Who were the key people behind this radar-based research, and why did it develop where it did?

For the most part I am not going to say much about what happened after 1960. Radar research in Canada has included work both on meteors, on atmospheric phenomena and on auroral backscatter. I'm probably going to put an inordinate emphasis on the latter, just because that's what I'm most familiar with.


  • 1931 - NRC Radio Section established
  • 1932 - Dr. John Henderson (PhD with Appleton)
  • 1935 - Maj.-Gen. A.G.L. McNaughton new NRC President helped invent a cathode-ray tube direction-finder in the 1920s
  • 1936-38 - Henderson developed direction-finder for marine and air use, installed in Nova Scotia in 1938
  • 1938 - McNaughton was consulting with DND re detection of aircraft by electrical means
  • 1939 - Henderson sent to UK to be briefed on radar developments

Well, I call this prehistory but in fact it is crucial prehistory if you like, and it's what happened before the second world war, and it all happened at the National Research Council.

In 1931 the Radio Section was established and right after that John Henderson was hired and this was one of several key people that came to NRC. He had done his PhD with Appleton, and so he had already a background in ionospheric physics and radio wave propagation. The other important person was Major-General McNaughton who became the new president of NRC in 1935. He was a remarkable person who, even in the 1920s worked on the development of a cathode-ray tube direction finder. Between 36 and 38 Henderson, under McNaughton's direction, developed this for actual practical use, for marine and air purposes, and it was installed in Nova Scotia. At that time McNaugton was already thinking about the possibility of detecting aircraft by some electrical means, and was consulting with the Department of National Defence. So you can see that the seeds were already set within Canada to play some role in the exploitation and development of radar well before anyone in Canada actually realized that in Great Britain work was progressing so that this could become an actual, practical reality.

World War II

  • McNaughton contacted by Sir Charles Wright
    • you have expertise, get into this radar development
    • send physics graduates to UK Navy - badly needed
    • Peter Forsyth developed air-borne radar in UK, 1942-45
  • NRC became centre of radar development in Canada
  • McGill, Queens, Toronto, Western also involved in radar research
  • REL (Crown corporation) established to manufacture optical equipment, radar
  • During course of war, NRC designed more than a dozen different radars at many frequencies: 75, 95, 150, 200, 215, 2,800, 3,000, 10,000 and 24,000 MHz.
  • REL manufactured over 2000 radar sets, mostly for Navy, Army

In 1939 Henderson was sent to the UK to be briefed, and then the war started. I have Peter Forsyth to thank for this next bit of information. McNaughton was contacted by Sir Charles Wright, famous as an explorer, who already knew McNaughton. He essentially said you've got the expertise over there, so get into this radar development work. There is also a great need for people in the UK Navy with radar experience; the Air Force is soaking up all these people. We need some people for the Navy, so please send your graduates over here. Well, Peter Forsyth was one of these graduates, and went over and spent the war developing airborne radar in the UK for the rest of the war.

In fact the same thing was true here at Western. There was a Radio Physics Program developed. There was a very active program of research. I have already spoken in another talk here about how Western got into radar work, and in fact how Western proposed to NRC that they develop radar, unaware of anything that was going on outside of Western. Many of the graduates at Western went immediately from their degrees to ships in the North Atlantic.

Another key person was C.J. MacKenzie. When the war started, McNaughton left to lead the first battalion in the Canadian Army. He took a leave of absence from NRC and McKenzie, who had been the Dean of Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan took over as the Acting President at NRC and was really responsible for all the things that went on within NRC during the war.

NRC became the centre of all the radar work in Canada, and was responsible through communications - another interesting story about which there isn't time to tell - about how the heads of the departments from McGill, Queens, Toronto, and Western were called to Ottawa early in the war and briefed, but they were briefed in a way that didn't allow them to know exactly what it was all about because it was classified. They were essentially told well you should be thinking about problems to do with detection. Whatever it was, it was enough that when the heads of departments came back to their institutions, within a month had this proposal to develop radar for NRC.

At the same time Research Enterprises Limited was established in Toronto to manufacture optical and radar - I know about that because my father worked there. Those of you in the atomic and molecular physics area might be interested to know that Arthur Schalow spent a year overseeing the development of radar at REL for one year in the middle of the war. He was a graduate student at U of T.

What amazed me was to see just how many different radars were developed at NRC, and built within Canada during the war. Six or eight different frequencies, over 2000 complete radar sets built and shipped out. I'll just show you a few pictures, I'm not going to talk about any of them: a naval radar, various others, each one of these a separate development - some of them going into production, others only two or three built, but a tremendous variety, a tremendous effort.

Canadian war-time radar #1 Canadian war-time radar #2 Canadian ware-time radar #3
Canadian ware-time radar #4 Canadian ware-time radar #5
Canadian ware-time radar #6 Canadian ware-time radar #7 Canadian ware-time radar #8


  • NRC
    • microwave experience --> Covington's 10.7cm solar radio-telescope (1946)
    • McKinley --> meteor radar program (1947)
  • DRB
    • established 1947 to take over defence research role which NRC refused to continue with after the war.
    • took over labs from services (e.g. Naval Research Establishment, CARDE), and started new ones (DRTE, DRNL, Ft. Churchill)
  • Weather radar
    • started in 1943 as a Canadian Army project in Ottawa, led by Stewart Marshall.
    • Post-war, at DRB & McGill, until 1950, then McGill alone. (Stormy Weather)

So, at the end of the war there is this expertise within NRC, and also within several universities, and thus the basis was laid for making use of this material. At NRC they acquired experience with microwaves, which was one of the key developments in the course of the war, - before the war there had been no work at those frequencies as there had been no transmitters. Covington's 10.7 mm solar telescope was a direct result of that experience; Don McKinley also established his meteor radar program very soon after the war, in 1947.

One of the interesting things at that time, it seems, was a fairly vigorous discussion between NRC and the government about where this work should carry on, now that the war is over. McKenzie, who was by then the President of NRC said no way are we going to do all this classified stuff, we just don't want to have that within NRC. It was largely because of McKenzie's intransigence on this point that the Defence Research Board was established to take over the defence related activities that followed naturally out of this wartime work which was, of course, previously at NRC and all classified. This newly formed Defence Research Board took over several existing labs and established some new ones such as the Defence Research Telecommunications Establishment in Ottawa (although that wasn't what it was called first), and the lab up in Churchill, Manitoba, where I actually had my first contact with all of this, in 1955.

I have mentioned the meteor work at NRC. There was also the atmospheric weather radars. This was a very active program during the war. Obviously weather is as important for wartime circumstances as it is for civilians, so it had been since 1943 a Canadian army project. Initially Stewart Marshall, who later went to McGill, was in Ottawa working on that with the Canadian Army. After the war it was simultaneously at DRB and McGill, and then eventually all moved to McGill, and became what is known as the Stormy Weather Project.

Auroral Radar - Saskatchewan

Early 1948
  • Peter Forsyth was preparing for medical school when Balfour Currie, returning from meeting in Ottawa, asked if he would help modify a radar to be borrowed from the Navy to seek radar echoes from aurora.
  • This turned out to be a 3000 MHz surveillance radar. It was modified and operated, but no auroral echoes were detected.
3000 MHz radar antenna

Well, what about auroral radar? Here is where Peter [Forsyth] should be getting up and saying this instead of me. Early in 1948 Peter was actually planning to be a doctor. When Balfour Currie, who had just been to Ottawa, came back and said you know we really should try and see if we can get radar echoes from the aurora - because Peter had spent the war working on radars he was the natural one to turn to - Peter said sure he would be happy to see what he could do. Of course, the radar they had was a 3000 MHz radar, and those of you who know anything about auroral backscatter will realize that there is no way you can get echoes of any significant number at such a short wavelength. So they didn't see anything. The picture above shows the antenna of the radar that didn't see anything.

Auroral Radar - Saskatchewan

  • With the aid of Nate Gerson, the USAF provided two huge 106 MHz early-warning radars. One went to Saskatoon, the other to NRC (McKinley), where it was to be modified to 56 MHz
  • First Canadian auroral echoes were detected with this radar in 1949 (paper in Nature, April, 1950).
  • As a result, Peter Forsyth decided to do his PhD on auroral echoes, rather than go into medicine.
106 MHz radar antenna and data

Now we come to a person who played a very interesting role. He was responsible for establishing that auroral conference which I mentioned in 1951 and before that did a number of other things which we will be probably talking about from time to time this afternoon. Nat Gerson provided two huge 106 MHz early warning radars. One went to Saskatoon, the other went to NRC. The first Canadian auroral echoes were detected with this and published in 1950. As a result of that Peter decided maybe he would do physics instead of medicine. The picture, above, is of the antenna and some of the early data.

Auroral Radar - Saskatchewan

1948-49 - Postscript
  • Around 1990 a phone call came to the Department of Physics at the University of Saskatchewan asking if they had an SCR-270 radar with a particular serial number
  • They did! It was the original radar which detected the incoming Japanese planes arriving to bomb Pearl Harbor (that information was ignored).
  • For over 40 years that radar had been sitting “buried” in Saskatoon. It is now at the Historical Electronics Museum near Baltimore.
The Opana radar then and now.

Now there's an interesting postscript. In 1990 the people in Saskatoon got a phone call, and they were asked if they had a radar with a particular serial number. So the technician went out into the field, cleaned off the dirt and looked at the serial number, and sure enough they had it. This was the early warning radar that was located in Hawaii - the "Opana" radar - and which detected the incoming flight of Japanese planes, and which information for various reasons was not acted on. This radar had been, as it were, buried in Saskatoon for some 40 years. It is now at the Historical Electronics Museum in Linthicum, Maryland. I show here pictures of the antenna from Peter's paper from 1950, and as it is now, at the Historical Electronics Museum.

Auroral Radar - Saskatchewan

  • The modified radar came to Saskatoon from Ottawa, and a combined dual-frequency antenna was constructed.
  • Simultaneous observations of auroral echoes were observed at 56 and 106 MHz (1953 paper)
  • In 1951, Peter Forsyth finished his PhD and was hired to work at the Defence Research Telecommunications Establishment(DRTE) at Shirley Bay, near Ottawa, but since the facility didn't exist yet, he continued at Saskatoon for another year. It was a year later when he moved to DRTE, where he remained until 1958, rising to the position of Superintendent of the Radio Physics Lab.
Saskatoon dual frequency radar and data

The radar in Ottawa was modified to be a dual-frequency radar, and that led to auroral echoes on two different frequencies. The picture shows this massive antenna, and some of the data obtained with it. In 1951 - [An aside: I'm telling you all this because it explains how the use of radar spread to different places. I hadn't realized until I prepared this talk - although I have been with Peter since the very beginning of my involvement - just how important he was in spreading radar around.] In 1951 he finished his PhD and was hired to work at the very new DRTE, so new that it didn't have a building yet, so he stayed around for another year, and then went to DRTE where he stayed until 58. When he left in 58 he was Superintendent of the Radio Physics Lab., which was where I met him initially as a summer student.

Auroral Radar - Saskatchewan

  • Al McNamara was working with McKinley, when in 1952 he jumped at the chance to do a PhD on radar at Saskatoon.
  • First continued work with 56 - 106 MHz radars
  • DRB supplied a 90.7 MHz transmitter, which became part of the double-Doppler radar. The observations with this radar were probably the first auroral Doppler measurements with a pulsed radar.
Saskatoon double-Doppler radar data

Now it's Al McNamara's turn to wrinkle his eyebrows as I say things that aren't quite right. Al was working at NRC with Don McKinley (I have already mentioned his involvement in radar) and it was suggested that since Peter had left, Balfour Currie had a radar that he needed someone to work with; Al, having previously had a glimpse of this work before, decided this would be a great thing to do and went off to do his PhD with Currie at Saskatoon. The interesting thing about Al's work was that he developed a so-called double-Doppler radar, and here in this picture are some of the first, I think the very first, Doppler spectra from a pulsed radar from the aurora in Saskatoon - part of your thesis, I think it is.

Well, Al finished his PhD in Saskatoon and then went back to NRC, and established a program at NRC which continued, with Don McDiarmid, for several decades. Al was also responsible for the IGY radars which operated in 1957, and which we are still puzzling over, some of those data. In fact, Wayne Hocking is sitting in the back, and Wayne was just telling me that he's seen evidence this past summer from an antenna which he has up in Resolute Bay of echoes similar to those which you got in that IGY experiment, so we're hoping to pursue that.

Auroral Radar - NRC

  • 1954 - Al McNamara completed his PhD, and returned to NRC, and established a program at NRC which continued (joined later by Don McDiarmid) for several decades.
  • 1957 - Al was responsible for the IGY radar network, which made observations at higher magnetic latitudes than ever before, some of which continue to puzzle us!
Now at DRTE lots of things went on that I probably don't know about, but Peter's experience with radar led to the idea of a communication system using reflections off meteors, the Janet system, forward bistatic communication via meteors. I worked with Colin Hines in the summer of 57, and I remember looking at the visibility of meteors on forward scatter circuits, and I guess that was the tail-end of this program on forward scatter, but it was quite a large activity, and it established what is almost a uniquely Canadian way of using auroral radars bistatically. It's really become a Canadian specialty.

Radar Research at DRTE

  • A group under Peter Forsyth carried out a program of studies using bistatic radar. They used meteor scatter to develop a meteor-burst communication system (Janet), and studied radio auroral forward scatter as part of clutter studies. This research was classified until near the end of this period.
  • It marked the first of a long series of CW radar studies which have become a Canadian specialty.

The Prince Albert Radar

  • This 400 MHz radar, a duplicate of the Millstone Hill radar, was built near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan with funding from the U.S. Air Force (no doubt Nate Gerson was behind this as so much else), the location chosen to take advantage of the expertise at U of S. It was opened in 1959 with a ceremony that included a message from Dwight Eisenhower to John Diefenbaker being bounced off the moon from Millstone to the Prince Albert radar.
  • Unfortunately the radar was destroyed by fire little more than a year later. It was rebuilt in the mid-1960s, and subsequently converted to a remote sensing satellite receiving station.
  • This radar detected the only incoherent backscatter signals ever received in Canada (unpublished work), until very recently.
Prince Albert Radar under construction

Then there was the Prince Albert Radar, a 400 MHz radar; this was a duplicate of a radar at Millstone Hill operated by Lincoln Labs and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This was funded by the US Air Force, and I daresay Nat Gerson's hand was there behind the scenes, I don't know .. It was there, chosen to take advantage of the expertise that had built up in Saskatoon. One of the interesting things about that was that there was a message from President Eisenhower to John Diefenbaker, bounced off the moon from Millstone to the new Prince Albert radar. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by fire a little more than a year after it was put into operation. That actually put some theses into jeopardy, as I recall, but fortunately not mine. One thing which I have never seen remarked on: I know that there were incoherent scatter echoes obtained with this radar, although they don't appear to have been published. As far as I know those were the only incoherent scatter echoes that were ever obtained on Canadian soil until Brian Jackel, my PhD student, did that at Algonquin Park a few years ago. Above is a picture of the Prince Albert radar under construction. It is now used for satellite tracking.

People and Places

  • In 1958, Peter Forsyth returned to Saskatoon as Professor and Chief Research Scientist of the recently established Institute of Upper Atmospheric Physics. He and Alex Kavadas, who had arrived a couple of years before, firmly established Saskatoon as a centre for auroral backscatter research which it has remained ever since.
  • UWO's tradition of radio physics research dates back to the 30s, largely driven by the energy and imagination of Gar Woonton. He left Western in 1948 to set up the Eaton Electronics Research Lab. at McGill, but radio work continued at UWO. That was consolidated in 1961, when Peter Forsyth moved to UWO as the new Physics Department Head.

Well, I've said almost everything there is to say about NRC, DRB and McGill, but there is a little bit more to be said about Saskatoon and Western. If it weren't for this I probably wouldn't be here. I worked at DRTE for a year; in 1958 Peter Forsyth went to Saskatoon as a professor and as the Chief Research Scientist of what was then called the Institute of Upper Atmospheric Physics, and I followed Peter there to be a graduate student. He and Alex Kavadas, who had arrived a couple of years before, really established Saskatoon as a center for auroral backscatter studies, which it remains to this day.

At Western, we have a tradition of radio physics research which dates right back to the 30s, mainly in the person of Gar Woonton. In the 30s things were different, and he didn't ever get a PhD, you didn't need PhDs then. He spent half his time working in a bio-medical lab building instrumentation for them, running the local amateur radio station, and generally becoming extremely knowledgeable about radio propagation, and transmitters and equipment. At Western he really led the work on radar development during the war. In 1948 he left Western to set up the Eaton Electronics Research Lab at McGill. Radio work continued here, and in 1961 Peter Forsyth came to Western and really consolidated that work when he took over as department head.


  • More than anything else, in preparing this talk I have been struck by the impact of a few key individuals at the National Research Council.
  • It is interesting to speculate on how this field might have developed in Canada if, over 60 years ago, NRC had not had people with the experience of Henderson, McNaughton and Mackenzie (Dean of Engineering, UofS, and acting President of NRC during the war), and who made the decisions they did.

More than anything else, I have really been struck by how a few key people changed the course of radar work in Canada. If it hadn't been for people like McNaughton, Henderson, and McKenzie at NRC, it is very likely that there would have been no radar development in Canada during the 2nd World War, and the whole course of these various research areas in Canada would have been very different.

Many people have been involved at various stages in the establishment of radar-based research, but it really is, and I see Peter shaking his head, but I think it is true - there are several key people: McKinley, who provided Al with the opportunity to carry it on in a separate area, Stewart Marshall at McGill, and Peter Forsyth, who sort of sowed the seeds both in Saskatoon, in DRTE and here at Western. And that's it.


The pictures of radars built in Canada during the Second World War are reproduced from Radar Development in Canada: The Radio Branch of the National Research Council of Canada 1939-1946, by W. E. Knowles Middleton, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo, 1981. The pictures of early auroral radars and radar data are reproduced from papers published in the Canadian Journal of Physics. The picture of the Prince Albert Radar is reproduced from an article in Physics in Canada.