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Bowen, Edward George (1911–1991)

by R. Bhathal

This article was published online in 2014

Edward George Bowen (1911-1991), engineer and radio physicist, was born on 14 January 1911 at Cockett, Swansea, Wales, youngest of four children of George Bowen, sheet-metal worker, and his wife Ellen Ann, née Owen. As a boy Edward took a keen interest in radio technology, which sowed the seeds for his future technical career. Educated at the municipal secondary school in Swansea, he won a scholarship to study physics at the University College of Swansea, University of Wales (BSc, 1930; MSc, 1931). He gained a PhD (1934) at King’s College, University of London, under the supervision of (Sir) Edward Appleton.

During 1933 and 1934, Bowen had worked with a cathode-ray direction finder at the radio research station at Slough. While engaged in this work, he was noticed by (Sir) Robert Watson Watt, who in 1935 wrote a secret government memorandum on the possibility of detecting aircraft by means of radio waves. This was a turning point in Bowen’s life, for he joined Watson Watt’s team, working on experimental ground radar at Orford Ness, Suffolk. As a result of their experiments, a chain of radar stations was set up to provide warning of approaching enemy aircraft. When the group moved to the Bawdsey Manor research station in 1936, he was given the responsibility of building an airborne radar system. He created the first such system, which was successfully tested in September 1937. During 1938 his group worked on two major projects, the detection of ships (Air to Surface Vessels, or ASV) and the interception of aircraft (AI). On 27 December 1938, he married Enid Vesta Williams, a science teacher whom he had met at the University College of Swansea, at Horeb Baptist chapel, Skewen, Wales; they later divorced.

Bowen’s other major contribution to his country’s effort in World War II was as a member of Sir Henry Tizard’s mission from August 1940, informing the Americans about Britain’s radar research. He exhibited an early sample of the cavity magnetron, demonstrated airborne radar, and assisted in developing centimetre-wave radar at the newly established radiation laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Appointed OBE in 1941, he was awarded the American Medal of Freedom in 1947.

As his work in the United States was coming to an end, Bowen was offered a job at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s radio physics laboratory in Sydney. He arrived on 1 January 1944. In May 1946 he was appointed chief of the division of radio physics with CSIR (from 1949 the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization). At the end of the war, the division had a group of highly talented physicists and engineers. Two programs emerged under Bowen’s direction: cloud and rain physics, which he led, and radio astronomy, headed by Joe Pawsey. Bowen was a pioneer of cloud seeding and rainfall experiments in Australia, although his ideas about the influence of meteoric dust on rainfall were not universally accepted. In 1957 he received an honorary doctorate of science from the University of Sydney.

Perceiving that further advances in radio astronomy required large aerial systems, Bowen pursued the idea of establishing such a project in Australia. His decision to set up the Parkes radio telescope produced his most enduring legacy to astronomy in Australia. The telescope, which was built with financial assistance from the Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Foundation, opened on 31 October 1961. It has since been employed in major astronomical discoveries and space missions, including moon landings by American astronauts, and has become a national icon. In 1962, Bowen was promoted to CBE.

Bowen’s contribution to the establishment of the Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring, near Coonabarabran, was also significant. Chairman of the interim joint policy committee for much of its existence, he became chairman of the telescope board in February 1971. In late 1972, however, he was appointed scientific counsellor at the Australian embassy in Washington, DC. The telescope opened on 16 October 1974, and was hailed as a technological masterpiece. A fellow of the Australian Academy of Science since 1957, in 1975 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

Known as ‘Taffy’ to his colleagues, Bowen remained a staunch Welshman to the end of his days, and refused to become an Australian citizen. He had ‘an enthusiastic and engaging manner’ (Hanbury Brown, Minnett, and White 1992, 151) and enjoyed cricket and sailing. Survived by three sons, he died on 12 August 1991 at Chatswood and was cremated.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Bowen, E. G. Radar Days (Bristol: Adam Hilger, 1987)
  • Gascoigne, S. C. B., K. M. Proust, and M. O. Robins, The Creation of the Anglo-Australian Observatory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)
  • Hanbury Brown, R., Harry C. Minnett, and Frederick W. G. White. ‘Edward George Bowen 1911-1991.’ Historical Records of Australian Science 9, no. 2 (December 1992): 151-66
  • Robertson, Peter. Beyond Southern Skies: Radio Astronomy and the Parkes Telescope (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Additional Resources

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Citation details

R. Bhathal, 'Bowen, Edward George (1911–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bowen-edward-george-17857/text29444, published online 2014, accessed online 18 November 2018.

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