The History of Marine Electronics

Have you ever wondered about the history of all the electronic gadgetry you use on your boat? You probably know that radar and sonar have been around a while and have been used by the military from their beginnings. But what were they used for before that?

Heinrich Hertz began experimenting with radio waves around 1887. He found that metallic objects would reflect the waves. A few decades later, devices using this principle were being built and used for a wide range of purposes and in many areas of the world.

After the Titanic sinking in 1912, a need was seen for an instrument that could detect the underwater extent of icebergs. From there it was a small step to using the same technology to locate ships. Sonar, which uses sound waves rather than radio waves, can be used to detect objects underwater other than icebergs and other surface ships. It can be aimed straight down to measure depth and coincidentally “see” fish.

With abilities like these, it is small wonder the world's militaries adopted the technology and made adjustments and improvements to suit themselves. Most of these improvements were made during the first World War. Germany's use of submarines extensively for the first time during that war made sonar capabilities crucial to Allied ships. Without sonar at that time, the world might be a very different place now.

A Scottish physicist, Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt, developed a method for locating aircraft in England using radio waves in 1935. Nazi Germany was becoming more aggressive in Europe, and England wanted a way to protect itself from bomber aircraft that would be much more advanced than the Zeppelins the Germans used in WWI. By the time WWII started, England was ready to protect it's vulnerable coastline. Watson-Watt soon set out to design a radar device that could be carried by RAF fighter aircraft when the Luftwaffe began its night bombings.

Instruments that can locate other ships on the surface of the water, and can detect objects underwater, would certainly attract interest from other parties. From weekend fishers to big Hollywood producer/directors and well-funded university research departments, all can find uses for advanced sonar and radar. Devices are designed for specialized purposes like finding fish or searching the ocean bottom for sunken luxury sea liners and battleships. 

With the help of the Space Program and Silicon Valley, paper charts, astrolabes, sounding lines and sextants largely have been traded for GPS, computer integrated chartplotters, satellite television and autopilots. Automated vessel identifiers chirp ship identity, location and heading when sensors detect another ship in the vicinity. Devices like this may make it easier for ship captains to tell non-threatening approaching vessels from ones that may be bent on piracy. Distress beacons that can be picked up and transmitted by satellites in orbit can bring help more quickly and accurately than earlier methods.

All these were made possible by a scientist tinkering around in his lab with radio waves.