Union Notables

Dr. Lee Losee Davenport    class of 1931


Davenport worked at the Radiation Laboratory at MIT from 1940 until the end of the War. Image from MIT News, photo by Anne. W. Semmes

Dr. Lee Losee Davenport, '31, was a physicist best known for his development of anti-aircraft radar that was instrumental in the Allied victory in World War II. Davenport was born on Dec. 31, 1915, in Schenectady. His father, Harry L. Davenport, '13, was a high school mathematics teacher and assistant principal of Schenectady High School. Davenport was interested in science from an early age, building motors and a crystal radio set. After being offered scholarships at Union, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the University of Rochester, he choose Union, following in the footsteps of his father, grandfather Frank E. Davenport, Class of 1880, and grand-uncle Charles P. Sanders, Class of 1878.

Davenport majored in physics at Union. He credited Physics Chair Peter Wold for a defining impact on his career. Wold hired Davenport to make drawings for his college physics textbook. Wold also recommended that Davenport apply for a graduate assistantship to attend graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, where Davenport completed a master’s in ultraviolet spectroscopy in 1940. He began a Ph.D. study of x-ray diffraction, but was recruited in 1941 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Radiation Laboratory to develop a top-secret anti-aircraft radar system. The system was known as microwave radar or Signal Corp Radio #584. It was able to track enemy planes and determine the angle needed to shoot them down with anti-aircraft guns, a significant improvement over existing radar systems. The system aided European invasion forces by damaging German airpower. It was used in the D-Day landings (Davenport waterproofed the system for this purpose), against German V-1 buzz bombs launched against Britain in 1944, and in the Pacific theater. Davenport developed the device into the first radar-controlled or guided missile, the predecessor to drones. After the war, the University of Pittsburgh granted Davenport a Ph.D. in 1946 based on his classified work at MIT.

After the war, Harvard University hired Davenport to build a 92-inch cyclotron, the second largest in the world, and a nuclear laboratory. He also taught physics at Radcliffe College. In 1950 he was hired by Perkin-Elmer to build a computerized B-47 bombsight and eventually became executive director of the company. He later became vice-president, director and chief engineer of Sylvania Corporation and finally the president of General Telephone and Electronics (GTE) Laboratories. One GTE accomplishment during Davenport's leadership was the creation of bright red phosphor used in color TVs. He was also involved in the development of fiber optics and the internet. Davenport was honored in 1973 by election to the National Academy of Engineers, who cited his “original contributions to the development of radar, infrared analytical instrumentation, and leadership in development of communications technology.” He retired from GTE in 1980 as vice president and chief scientist. In his retirement, he served as communications and advanced technology consultant, and pursued his hobby of restoring antique cars.

As a life trustee of Union, Davenport was active, devoted and articulate in charting the future of the College. His special insights were borne of  his appreciation of education and his affection for Union.

Davenport died September 30, 2011 at the age of 95.