After attending Brechin High School , he was accepted to University College, Dundee (which was then part of the University of St Andrews but became the University of Dundee in 1967). He graduated with a BSc in engineering in 1912, and was offered an assistantship by Professor William Peddie. It was Peddie who encouraged him to study radio, or "wireless telegraphy" as it was then known.
His early experiments were successful in detecting the signal, and he quickly proved to be able to do so at long ranges. Two problems remained however. The first was locating the signal, and thus the direction to the storm. This was solved with the use of a directional antenna, which could be manually turned to maximize (or minimize) the signal, thus "pointing" to the storm. Once this was solved the equally difficult problem of actually seeing the fleeting signal became obvious, which he solved with the use of a cathode-ray oscilloscope with a long-lasting phosphor. Such a system represented a significant part of a complete radar system, and was in use as early as 1923. It would, however, need the addition of a pulsed transmitter and a method of measuring the time delay of the received radio echos, and that would in time come from work on ionosondes.
At first he worked at the Wireless Station of Air Ministry Meteorological Office in Aldershot, England. Then in 1924 when the War Department gave notice that they wished to re-occupy their Aldershot site, he moved to Ditton Park near Slough (to the west of London). The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) already had a research station there, and in 1927 they were amalgamated as the Radio Research Station, with Watson-Watt in charge. After a further re-organisation in 1933, Watson-Watt became Superintendent of the Radio Department of NPL in Teddington.
The prospect of aerial bombardment of civilian areas was causing great anxiety with modern heavy bombers able to approach from altitudes that anti-aircraft guns were unable to reach. Worse, with the enemy airfields only 20 minutes away, the bombers would have dropped their bombs and be returning to base before the intercepting fighters could get to altitude. The only solution would be to have standing patrols of fighters in the air at all times, but with the limited cruising time of a fighter this would require a gigantic standing force. Something needed to be done.
It was at about this time that Nazi Germany claimed to have a "death-ray" which used radio waves, and claimed it was capable of destroying towns, cities and people. The committee's chair, H.E. Wimperis, visited Watson-Watt at Teddington in 1934, asking about the possibility of building their own version of such a death-ray, specifically for use against aircraft. Watson-Watt quickly returned a calculation carried out by his assistant, Arnold Wilkins, showing that such a device was basically impossible to construct, and fears of a Nazi version soon vanished. However he also mentioned in the same analysis "Meanwhile attention is being turned to the still difficult, but less unpromising, problem of radio detection and numerical considerations on the method of detection by reflected radio waves will be submitted when required."
On 12 February 1935, Watson-Watt sent a memo of the proposed system to the Air Ministry, entitled Detection and location of aircraft by radio methods. Although not as exciting as a death-ray, the concept clearly had amazing potential and Watson-Watt was promptly asked for a demonstration by the committee, chaired by Sir Henry Tizard. This was ready by 26 February and consisted of two receiving antennas located about ten km away from one of the BBC's shortwave broadcast antennas at Daventry. Signals travelling directly from the station were filtered out, and a Handley Page Heyford bomber flown around the site (passive radar). Such was the secrecy that only three people witnessed the test, Watson-Watt, his assistant Arnold Wilkins, and a single member of the committee, A.P. Rowe. The demonstration was a success: on several occasions a clear signal was seen from the bomber. Most importantly, the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, was kept quietly informed of radar's progress.
Only two weeks later Wilkins left the Radio Research Station with a small party, including Edward George Bowen, to start further research at Orford Ness. On 2 April 1935, Watson-Watt was granted a patent for radar. By June they were detecting aircraft at 27 km, which was enough to stop all work on competing sound-based detection systems. By the end of the year the range was up to 100 km, at which point plans were made in December to set up five stations covering the approaches to London.
One of these stations was to be located on the coast near Orford Ness, and Bawdsey Research Station was set up there to become the main centre for all radar research. They soon conducted "full scale" tests of a system that would soon be known as Chain Home, attempting to detect an incoming bomber by radar. The tests were a massive failure, with the fighter only seeing the bomber after it had passed its target. The problem was not the radar, but the flow of information from the trackers to the fighters, which took many steps and was very slow. Watson-Watt immediately attacked this problem, and set up the system with several layers of reporting that were eventually sent to a single large room for mapping. Observers watching the maps would then tell the fighter groups what to do via direct communications.
By 1937 the first three stations were ready, and his new reporting system put to the test. The results were clearly successful and an immediate order for an additional 20 stations was sent out. By the start of World War II 19 were ready to play a key part in the Battle of Britain, and by the end of the war over 50 had been built. The Germans were aware of the construction of Chain Home but were not sure of their purpose. They tested their theories with a flight of LZ 130, the Graf Zeppelin II, but concluded the stations were a new long-range naval communications system.
Even as early as 1936 it was realized that the Luftwaffe would turn to night bombing if the day campaign did not go well, and Watson-Watt had put another of the staff from the Radio Research Station, Edward Bowen, in charge of developing a radar that could be carried by a fighter. Night time visual detection of a bomber was good to about 300 m, and the existing CH systems simply didn't have the accuracy needed to get the fighters that close. Bowen decided that an airborne radar should not exceed 90 kg (200 lb in weight, 8 ft³ (230 L) in volume, and require no more than 500 watts of power. To reduce the drag of the antennas the operating wavelength could not be much greater than one m, difficult for the day's electronics. Nevertheless such a system, known as "AI" - Airborne Interception, was perfected by 1940, and were instrumental in eventually ending the Blitz of 1941. Bowen also fitted airborne radar to maritime patrol aircraft (known in this application as "ASV" - Air to Surface Vessel) and this eventually reduced the threat from submarines.
In July 1938 Watson-Watt left Bawdsey Manor and took up the post of Director of Communications Development (DCD-RAE). In 1939 Sir George Lee took over the job of DCD, and Watson-Watt became Scientific Advisor on Telecommunications (SAT) to the Air Ministry, travelling to the USA in 1941 in order to advise them on the severe inadequacies of their air defense efforts illustrated by the Pearl Harbor attack.
His contributions to the war effort were so overwhelming that he was knighted in 1942. In 1952 he was awarded £50,000 by the British government for his contributions in the development of radar. He spent much of the post-war era in Canada, and later the USA, where he published Three Steps to Victory in 1958.
On one occasion, late in his life, Sir Watson-Watt reportedly was pulled over in America for speeding by a radar-gun toting policeman. His remark was, "Had I known what you were going to do with it I would never have invented it!"
In 1966, at the age of 72, he proposed to Kathryn Jane Trefusis Forbes. Trefusis-Forbes, who at that time was 67, had also played a significant role in the Battle of Britain as the founding Air Commander of the Women's’ Auxiliary Air Force, which supplied the radar-room operatives.
From that time, they lived together in London in the winter, and at The Observatory – Trefusis-Forbes' summer home, in Pitlochry, Perthshire, during the warmer months. The marriage was not considered a universal success – certainly by members of Kathryn Jane’s family. Nevertheless, the couple stayed together until they died – Dame Kathryn in 1971, Watson-Watt in 1973. Both are buried in the church yard at Pitlochry.
He died in Inverness.