Radar: History of Excellence

In the 1950s, Illinois football fans noticed a small, wooden shack perched high atop the west stands of Memorial Stadium. They didn't realize that this "secret shack" was being used by physicists to develop breakthroughs in radar technology. Many developments in radar were pioneered at the Control Systems Laboratory (now the Coordinated Science Laboratory) at the University of Illinois.

Researchers tracked cars passing in front of the AT&T building on Route 45. A coveted assignment for students was making sure that no one tampered with the equipment during football games. The bonus: free football tickets and a bird's-eye view of the game.

A key feature of this "Doppler" radar was "moving target lock-on," which made it possible for the radar to lock onto and track a moving target. Stationary objects showed up in green, while moving targets showed up in orange.

A further UI innovation was the MTI (moving target indicating) sentry radar. The portable device was small enough to be carried on a backpack. It was also the first radar to produce a sound signature instead of a visual image, so sentries did not have to watch a screen. Used in combat in Korea, the sentry radar was especially effective in maintaining vigilance at known traffic points under zero-visibility conditions. It could locate and recognize a man walking or crawling, as well as the movement of groups or vehicles, for a range of up to five miles.

The "cornfield system" was a model of a naval air-defense system designed to track radar hits on aircraft. It was one of the first applications of digital computer technology to complex decision-making. Elements of the system were incorporated into the U.S. Navy Tactical Data System. The project was dubbed the cornfield system to reflect the incongruity that a Navy defense system had been developed in the midst of an ocean of Illinois corn.

Another breakthrough was a side-looking airborne radar, which was used in Germany in the early days of the Cold War to peer across the Iron Curtain. A thin, 18-foot antenna was mounted along the side of an aircraft, permitting the plane to fly along a border and "see" laterally into enemy territory for a 40-mile range.

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