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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published January 22 2012

Eriksmoen: Father of military radar has ties to North Dakota

The college professor who built the first experimental radio station in North Dakota later became known as the father of military radar.

Albert Hoyt Taylor, was born Jan. 1, 1879, in Chicago. After graduating from high school in 1896, he enrolled at Northwestern University. He dropped out in 1899 to work for Western Electric, and in 1900 became a physics instructor at the State Agricultural College in East Lansing, Mich. (now Michigan State University). By continuing to attend summer classes, Taylor earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Northwestern in 1902.

After earning a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Taylor was named an assistant professor in 1905. He completed his Ph.D. at the University of Goettingen in Germany in 1909.

The University of North Dakota hired Taylor in 1909 to head up its physics department. In Wisconsin, Taylor had been instilled with what became known as the “Wisconsin Idea.” It meant that besides a commitment to the institution where he taught, he had a responsibility to the community and to the state. Largely for this reason, he took under his wing Earl Reineke, a bright young high school dropout from Fargo, to help him build what Taylor called a “radio-electric station.”

The first experimental radio station was established in San Jose, Calif., in 1909. According to Louis Geiger’s “University on the Plains,” Taylor “established a radio station in 1911, one of the first college radio stations in the U.S.” By 1913, he began broadcasting standard time signals and official weather forecasts. The transmission antenna he used was 12 feet wide, 130 feet long and 80 feet above the ground. Reineke, Taylor’s assistant on much of the station work, wrote that Taylor tapped into a wire for the Grand Forks electric railway system for power.

Taylor became the first UND faculty member to enlist when it appeared the U.S. would become involved in World War I. On March 13, 1917, he was appointed lieutenant with the Naval Reserves and assigned to the Great Lakes Naval District in Chicago. While there, he established a laboratory to research underground and underwater radio reception. On Oct. 12, Taylor was transferred to Belmar, N.J., and named transatlantic communications officer in charge of high-power stations along the Atlantic Ocean. In 1918, he was named head of the experimental division of the Naval Air Station at Hampton Roads, Va., and put in charge of developing a practical aircraft radio.

In 1919, Taylor was sent to the Anacostia area of Washington, D.C., to oversee the Aircraft Radio Laboratory. He resigned from the Navy in 1922, but remained at Anacostia as a civilian employee. That fall, he and his assistant, Leo Young, noticed that radio waves were reflected by passing ships in the Potomac River. It meant sea vessels could be detected even when they could not be seen. The Naval Research Laboratory was established in 1923 and Taylor was appointed superintendent of its radio division. In June 1930, Taylor, working with Young and Lawrence Hyland, discovered that airplanes could also be detected by using radio waves. Taylor proposed to the Navy that this system be used for detecting ships and aircraft.

Radio waves were able to locate objects at sea and in the air, but they could not accurately determine the distance and speed of the objects. In the early 1930s, Taylor came up with the idea that by use pulses instead of steady streams of sound waves, these problems could be overcome. He hired Robert Morris Page as an assistant, and instructed him to develop a prototype that used pulses. In 1934, Page built a workable model. The next step was to build a unit small enough that it could be placed aboard a ship. This was achieved in 1937. Taylor and his team then built an even smaller model that used one antenna instead of relying on separate systems for transmitting and receiving. “Based on this, Page, Taylor, and Young are usually credited with building and demonstrating the world’s first true radar,” despite the fact that the term “radar” was not used until 1940.

On March 28, 1944, Taylor became the first recipient of the Medal for Merit from the U.S. government. He was given this award “for his contributions to the discovery and development of radar.” He retired from the Naval Research Laboratory in 1948 and wrote his memoirs, “Radio Reminiscences: A Half Century.”

Taylor died on Dec. 11, 1961. Much of his legacy was the people that he inspired. He had a great influence on Page, Young, and Hyland and also on his students at UND. One of Taylor’s prize pupils was Raymond Heising, who held over 100 patents in association with the radio. Taylor’s assistant in Grand Forks, Earl Reineke, established WDAY, the first commercial radio station in the northwest.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.