James M. Watts

James M. Watts
West Plains, MO, USA
Death date
Fields of study


James M. Watts was born September 25, 1913, in West Plains, MO, to Franklin Watts and Effie McCleary Watts. He married Christine von Lilienfeld on July 27, 1960. Watts graduated from Georgia Tech with a master's degree in electrical engineering, in 1936, and began his career with the Tennessee Valley Authority. During World War II, he was working with Harry Wells on ionospheric sounding, in the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, which included operating a manual ionosonde on Christmas Island. He joined the National Bureau of Standards in 1946, as a member of Ross Bateman's Field Engineering Section in Sterling, Virginia. He operated a "portable" prototype Model C ionosonde on the National Geographic eclipse expedition to Brazil, in the spring of 1947. In 1951, he recorded signals from the 49.8 MHz Cedar Rapids transmissions in Bermuda, at a distance of 2601 km. In 1950, he and Jack N. Brown obtained one of the earliest reflections from the D region of the ionosphere, using a high-powered transmitter operating at 50 kHz. In 1952, Watts designed a low-frequency ionosonde, operating from 50-1100 kHz. The results from this work appeared in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

Watts moved to Boulder, in 1954, with the transfer of the NBS Central Radio Propagation Laboratory from Washington to Boulder. Watts was one of the pioneers in early whistler measurements. He had designed the Sunset field station, in the mountains near Boulder, consisting of a 3400-foot antenna, strung between two peaks some 800 feet above the canyon floor. An atlas of whistlers and audio-frequency noise, obtained from the site, was published in 1963, by Gallet, Jones, Frazier and Watts, as NBS Technical Note 166.

Watts worked out of the Ionosphere Research Section of CRPL during the International Geophysical Year (1957-1959). Peculiarities had been encountered in the chain of island-hopping 32-37 MHz ionospheric-scatter circuits spanning Hawaii to Okinawa, built in the mid-fifties for the military. An IGY mini-scatter circuit, at 50 MHz, was in place between Poro Point in the Philippines and Onna, Okinawa, as part of the US IGY sporadic E. Watts Watts and Lowell Tveten used this circuit, in 1958, to make the first oblique-incidence pulse measurements of an F-region scatter phenomenon that was then called the Far Eastern Anomaly. It was perhaps the first scientific measurement of what became a much-researched low-latitude phenomenon related to equatorial bubbles.

In 1958, Watts, working with Cliff Ellyett, published a survey of stratification in the ionosphere below 100 km. Watts and Kenneth Davies developed the Doppler method of measuring ionospheric movements in the late fifties. This consisted of recording, on slow-moving magnetic tape, the beat frequency of an ionospherically-reflected signal and a frequency-stabilized local oscillator. The beat frequency, of a few Hertz, was then converted to audio by playing back the tape a factor of 1500 faster. The spectrum, obtained from an audio-frequency analyzer, gave a measurement of the drift speed.

In 1959, Watts worked with Bob Knecht and Tom Van Zandt, in a feasibility study of a topside sounder for NASA. TOPSI (or Allouette in Canada) was launched under Canadian oversight in 1962. Watts chaired one of the technical sessions of the 1963 PGAP [now, AP-S] Symposium on Space Telecommunications.

Watts retired from the Department of Commerce Boulder Laboratories in 1972. He and his wife traveled extensively in the following years, as Christine had relatives in Germany, Austria, and Spain. They both loved music, and Watts was an accomplished pianist.

Watts died on October 13th, 1996.