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William Alan Butement (1904–1990)

by R. W. Home

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William Alan Stewart Butement (1904-1990), defence scientist and public servant, was born on 18 August 1904 at Masterton, New Zealand, eldest of five children of New Zealand-born William Butement, physician and surgeon, and his English-born wife Amy Louise, née Stewart. In 1912 the family moved to Sydney. Alan enrolled at Scots College in 1915 but the family moved again, to London. There he attended University College School (1917-22) and then studied at University College, University of London (B.Sc., 1926). After two years as a research student in physics, in 1928 he joined the War Office’s signals experimental establishment at Woolwich as a scientific officer, where he helped to develop radio communication equipment for the British Army.

In 1931 Butement and a colleague, P. E. Pollard, succeeded in detecting radio signals reflected from a metal sheet at a distance of one hundred yards (91 m), thereby demonstrating the principle of what came to be known as radar. The War Office showed no interest, however, and the project was dropped; not until 1935 was official interest in such possibilities aroused, thanks to the advocacy of (Sir) Robert Watson Watt. In 1938 Butement joined Watson Watt’s group at Bawdsey Manor research station in Suffolk as a senior scientific officer. There he played a major role in the development of the switched-beam technique that enabled targets to be located some twenty times more accurately than previously. The method was subsequently applied to detecting low-flying aircraft (these being undetectable by existing radar equipment), to directing fighter aircraft to their targets from the ground, and to locating submarines. Shortly after the commencement of World War II, he took charge of an army group that developed a highly successful radar control system for the searchlights used by Britain’s coastal defence gun batteries. He also invented what became the standard method of controlling fire against shipping, using radar echoes from the splashes caused by shells hitting the sea. Later he was a senior principal scientific officer in scientific research and development (defence) in the munitions section of the Ministry of Supply.

Butement was primarily responsible for one of Britain’s most important technical advances during the war, the proximity fuse: in effect, a tiny radar-set, built into a shell, that emitted radio signals and received reflections from the target causing the shell to explode at a predetermined range. The device dramatically increased the effectiveness of shell-fire. With the cavity magnetron that was the key to the development of microwave radar systems, it was one of the precious secrets the British passed to the Americans in August 1940 in exchange for the Lend-Lease agreement and on-going technical collaboration. In the later stages of the war, anti-aircraft shells fitted with proximity fuses played a major part in defeating both German VI flying-bomb attacks on London and Japanese kamikaze attacks on Allied shipping. He also invented and supervised the development of a secure radio-based method of battlefield communication using narrow beams of pulsed microwave signals, to replace the traditional telephone cable. His so-called `Wireless Set No.10’ was used with great success by Field Marshal Sir Bernard (Viscount) Montgomery.

In 1946 the British and Australian governments established a joint high-priority project to undertake research and development of guided missiles. The project included the development of extensive laboratory and workshop facilities in a wartime munitions factory complex at Salisbury, north of Adelaide, and a rocket testing range in the Australian outback supported by a new town, Woomera. Selected as deputy-chief of the project’s scientific staff, Butement moved to Australia with other members of the British team early in 1947. He and his British colleagues provided the initial scientific core of what became the Long Range Weapons Establishment, based at Salisbury. Some months after his arrival, he was appointed chief superintendent of the project, succeeding Albert Rowe.

In April 1949 Butement took up the new position of chief scientist within the Australian Department of Supply and Development (from 1950 Supply). The creation of this position was part of a major expansion of Australia’s defence-related scientific services. This growth encompassed the union of aeronautics (previously within the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research), the Defence Research Laboratories (later Defence Standards Laboratories) and installations at Salisbury and Woomera. Under Butement, these units collectively were known as the Australian defence scientific service. Part of the aeronautics group was transferred to Salisbury to form a high-speed aerodynamics laboratory, and new propulsion research and electronics research laboratories were established. All three were housed alongside the Anglo-Australian joint project, the research they undertook being closely linked to its needs. In 1955 the units on the Salisbury site, including the joint project facility, were merged to become a single entity, the Weapons Research Establishment, the head of which was answerable to Butement. Though ostensibly done for reasons of administrative convenience, the merger resulted in the joint project coming under Australian authority.

Under Butement’s leadership, the defence scientific service became an important contributor to Australia’s overall research effort, taking on a role analogous to that played in the civilian economy by CSIRO, which was now debarred from doing defence-related work. His position as a first-division officer, equivalent to head of a department, helped him to establish working conditions more suitable for scientific research than those prescribed by the normal Public Service Board regulations. Several hundred graduates were sent to Britain for research training.

By this time Butement himself was no longer a hands-on scientist but an administrator. He had not lost his flair for invention, however, and he continued to throw up ideas for others to pursue. Inevitably, many proved not to be feasible, prompting an only half-joking aphorism within the service: `a think of Butey is a chore forever’. Others, however, succeeded. Among the developments that he claimed to have himself initiated were a rocket engine that used a semi-solid paste extruded into the firing chamber as propellant, and the Malkara anti-tank guided weapon that was in due course adopted by the British and Australian armies as standard equipment. He encouraged the WRE to establish working links with scientists and engineers at the University of Adelaide, and it was to this university (D.Sc., 1961) that he submitted a thesis describing his principal contributions to defence technology. His success as a leader of research teams and later as a science administrator owed much to his strong but engaging personality. Appointed OBE in 1946 in Britain, he was promoted to CBE in Australia in 1959.

At the earliest British atomic weapons tests, at the Monte Bello islands, Western Australia, in October 1952, and at Emu Field, South Australia, in 1953, Butement was one of three observers present on behalf of the Australian government. Although said in government press releases to have made an independent evaluation of the hazards, the group had no authority; their presence seems to have been intended merely to give an impression of Australian involvement and to reassure the Australian public on the safety of the tests. Butement led the party that identified Emu Field and Maralinga as suitable sites for atomic weapons tests on the Australian mainland, and was a member (1955-57) of the board of management responsible for co-ordinating the various government departments and civilian contractors engaged in the construction and management of the test range. During the same period, he was also a member of the atomic weapons tests safety committee established by the Australian government in preparation for the planned detonations at Maralinga.

Butement had married Ursula Florence Alberta Parish on 17 June 1933 at St Philip and All Saints Church, North Sheen, Surrey. When they moved to Australia in 1947, they lived at first in Adelaide, but following his appointment as chief scientist they settled in Melbourne. In 1966, not wishing to transfer to Canberra, he resigned his position to become, for a five-year term, director of research for Plessey Pacific Pty Ltd, the Australian subsidiary of the British electronics manufacturer. A journalist observing him at this time wrote: `He is a quiet man. His well groomed greying hair and trim moustache give a first impression of unflappable calm, but the intense movements of his hands betray the nervous energy within’.

In 1969 Butement read a paper to the Australian Industrial Research Group, an association of managers of industrial research laboratories, advocating the formation of an Australian academy of applied science. His speech has been widely seen as the spark that led to the incorporation in 1975 of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences. The new body arose out of widespread dissatisfaction among applied scientists and engineers about their effective exclusion from the Australian Academy of Science under the latter’s electoral procedures, which put a heavy emphasis on scientific publications as the chief qualification for membership. Butement was a member of both the steering committee and the council of the new academy. A foundation fellow, he was appointed an honorary fellow in 1979.

Throughout his life, Butement loved working with his hands. In addition to his professional skills in electronics, he was an enthusiastic ham-radio operator and an adept carpenter, metalworker and mechanic. He was a convinced Christian, adhering to the Catholic Apostolic Church and later the Anglican Church. Survived by his wife and two daughters, he died on 25 January 1990 at Richmond, Melbourne, and was buried in Warrandyte cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. G. Crowther and P. Whiddington, Science at War (1947)
  • P. Morton, Fire Across the Desert (1989)
  • B. Williams, Dr W. A. S. Butement (1991)
  • J. Wisdom, A History of Defence Science in Australia (1995)
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 6, no 2, 1985, p 137
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Apr 1968, p 17.

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Citation details

R. W. Home, 'Butement, William Alan (1904–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


18 August, 1904
Masterton, New Zealand


25 January, 1990 (aged 85)
Richmond, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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