October 27, 2021

Joan Curran – Brilliant Boffin

BRILLIANT BOFFINS! -the extraordinary, brainy, and often oddball men and women of Malvern

The story of radar and Malvern isn’t just about the men though – there were many brilliant women too. One such was Joan Cullen, who invented “WINDOW”. (The Americans later dubbed it “chaff”).

She got a BSc from Cambridge before they ever awarded them to women, and rowed in the very first Oxford/Cambridge women’s boat race. Whilst her colleagues were working on perfecting radar, she put her mind to what might confuse it.

She spent hours at her kitchen table cutting up tin foil in precise measurements – and came up with a radar countermeasure that worked brilliantly and is still used to this day.

Thousands of tin foil strips when dropped from a plane can scatter a radar signal until it is meaningless. It also creates “phantom” signals that can fool a receiver into thinking there are incoming ships that aren’t there.- and so it was used on D Day to fool the enemy we were landing at Calais.

She and her husband later went to the USA and worked on The Manhattan Project. He was knighted for his war work – she wasn’t – but it’s thought her invention made a greater impact than his!

Fellow scientists said she had “the scientific equivalent of gardener’s green fingers!” because her work was so practical. She later went on to have three sons (all PhDs!) and a daughter who was born handicapped.

She gave up science and devoted herself to campaigning for the disabled.

A pretty remarkable woman – just one of the boffins in Malvern.

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