William Sansome Tucker

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Major William Sansome Tucker, DSc, OBE[1] (1877 Kidderminster, Worcestershire - 1955 Barnstaple, Devon)[2] was an English pioneer in acoustical research.

Early life[edit]

Tucker was born in Kidderminster, the son of William Tucker, an artist painter, and his wife Anna. Tucker married in Chorlton-on-Medlock, Lancashire, in 1906.


Tucker lectured on physics in London. Following the outbreak of World War I, Tucker joined the British Army as a private soldier. He was posted to the Experimental Sound Ranging Station at Kemmel Hill in Belgium which was under the command of Lawrence Bragg.[3] As part of the London Electrical Engineers, Territorial Force, Tucker was granted a commission, being promoted from lance corporal to temporary second lieutenant, General List in April 1916.[4]

At Kemmel Hill, Tucker undertook research into 'sound ranging': the process of using microphones and mathematics to determine the position of enemy artillery. Bragg had been wracked by doubts and problems with the military command structure. Tucker formed an experimental sound ranging section, which spearheaded the development of an effective system of 'sound ranging' enemy guns. Vital to the success was Tucker's invention of a 'hot wire' microphone, capable of identifying the shell sound wave and the following report of the gun that fired it. The break-through had come from Bragg, who found that the water closet at the farmhouse where he was billeted, allowed him, once seated inside, to detect sound and pressure differences of shell waves and gun waves as they passed overhead.[citation needed]

Tucker researched how to cool platinum wire with the air currents caused by the sound-waves they were detecting. Mouse-holes and rum jars provided a clue here, as there were two mouse-holes by Tucker's bed and he noticed a draught of cool air whenever the gun-wave arrived. Tucker devised a microphone consisting of a thin, electrically heated wire, stretched over a small hole in a container (he used rum jars). The decrease in the electrical resistance of the wire as the gun-wave struck was recorded by a galvanometer.[citation needed]

Tucker had to send for platinum wire to be delivered to him at Kemmel Hill, before he could run trials. The rapid oscillations of the shell waves had almost no effect on the wire, whilst the gun-reports resulted in well-defined 'breaks' on the cine film used as a detector, due to the deflection of the wire by the pressure of the gun wave. By September 1916, Tucker's new microphones had been supplied to all sound-ranging sections.[citation needed]

In 1917, sound-ranging was further developed, so that allowances could be made for poor weather conditions. Tucker developed a system of moveable microphones to improve detection techniques, allowing for a high degree of accuracy in determining the position of the enemy guns. By the end of the war it was possible to determine where the gun was pointing, and how large it was.[citation needed]

The technique could also be extended to listen out for enemy aircraft; as a result, Tucker became Director of Acoustical Research, Air Defence Experimental Establishment, Biggin Hill. His work eventually led to vast parabolic 'sound mirrors' being constructed from concrete. Some of these sound mirrors still survive along England's south coast, such as those to be found at Denge, near Dungeness, to the west side of a lake slightly north of Lydd-on-Sea, and others uncovered in 2014 at Fan Bay near Dover.[5] Tucker's work was superseded by the development of radar, which made sound-ranging using the great concrete mirrors obsolete.[citation needed]


  1. ^ "Birthday honours". Flight. 7 June 1928. p. 414. 
  2. ^ Hannah Gay (2007). The history of Imperial College London, 1907-2007. Imperial College Press. p. 144. 
  3. ^ J.N. McKie. "John Tindale (1878-1969) and the Genesis of the Radio-Telescope". Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society. 37: 679. Bibcode:1996QJRAS..37..663M. 
  4. ^ "Second Supplement to London Gazette". The London Gazette. 7 April 1916. p. 3769. 
  5. ^ "Fan Bay sound mirrors". Early warning sound mirrors.