William (Bill) Watt

1912 - 1985

Developed carbon fibre. Born in Edinburgh, Watt was raised by his mother, his father, a printer, having died when he was only three. He was educated at North Merchiston Primary and George Heriot's School, before taking a job as a laboratory assistant in the East of Scotland College of Agriculture. He studied at Heriot-Watt College and then, as an external student, the University of London, graduating with a degree in Chemistry. He worked briefly in industry before joining the research laboratories of the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough in 1936. By 1944, he was working on high-temperature materials for use in jet engines, rocket motors and nuclear reactors. He developed a graphite nose cone for the British Blue Streak missile system, which was eventually cancelled by politicians in 1960. From the late 1950s he was involved in the development of a viable process for the manufacture of carbon fibre. Carbon fibre is an important composite material which is stronger and lighter than metal and used in aviation, to form sports car bodies, sports equipment, and in many other applications. Thin filaments for carbon are incorporated into resin and baked to create a reinforced plastic.

He retired from the RAE in 1975 and went on to serve as Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Surrey. Watt was awarded an OBE for his work in 1969, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1976 and presented with an honorary doctorate by Heriot-Watt University three years later. In 2015, Watt's carbon fibres featured on a set of postage stamps showcasing the eight most important British inventions of the last century.

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