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Frank Philip Bowden (1903–1968)

by Alex C. McLaren and J. A. Spink

This article was published:

Frank Philip Bowden (1903-1968), physicist and physical chemist, was born on 2 May 1903 in Hobart, sixth of seven children of Frank Prosser Bowden, telegraph manager, and his wife Grace Elizabeth, née Hill, both Tasmanian born. Educated at The Hutchins School and the University of Tasmania (B.Sc., 1925; M.Sc., 1927), Philip did his postgraduate research in electrochemistry under A. L. McAulay. Awarded an 1851 Exhibition scholarship, in 1927 he entered Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge; he undertook further studies in electrochemistry with (Sir) Eric Rideal and obtained a Ph.D. in 1929.

At St Michael's parish church, Pimlico, London, on 12 December 1931 Bowden married Hobart-born Margot Hutchison. In the 1930s at Cambridge he turned his scientific interests to friction and lubrication. A series of brilliant experiments led him to develop a theory of friction that was to provide the foundation and stimulus of much of his later work, and bring him an international reputation. He realized that the area of real contact between two solid surfaces is small: consequently, when a force is applied normal to the surfaces, the local regions of contact deform, leading to strong adhesion; sliding causes high temperatures at the contacts (hot spots).

Following a lecture tour of the United States of America in 1939, Bowden was visiting Australia when World War II began. He offered his services to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and in November became officer-in-charge of its new section of lubricants and bearings which was to be established at the University of Melbourne. Bowden's team successfully combined fundamental studies with applied research useful to the war effort. They developed flame-throwing fuels, portable equipment for measuring the muzzle velocity of projectiles, and casting techniques for the production of bearings for aircraft-engines; in addition, they evaluated special lubricants for machine tools and aircraft. Bowden also showed the importance of hot spots in initiating explosion, chiefly in nitroglycerine; apart from its scientific interest, his work had implications for the safe handling of explosives.

In 1945 Bowden returned to Cambridge and next year was appointed reader. With financial assistance from the Ministry of Supply, he acquired equipment and built up a group dedicated to research on solid explosives, friction and lubrication. His experiments on the initiation of explosion led him to conclude that the reaction develops from a hot spot that must be capable of producing more energy by further chemical decomposition than is dissipated by processes such as thermal conduction. He carried out important work on the friction of non-metallic solids, including snow and ice. Other significant lines of inquiry included the nature of friction at high speeds, the effects of gases on the adhesion of initially clean surfaces, the structure and properties of absorbed boundary layers, and, in the late 1950s, the deformation and fracture of solids, particularly at very high strain rates. Bowden's fundamental investigations had practical applications. He forged links with several companies, set up a research establishment for Tube Investments Ltd and became a director (1958) of English Electric Co. Ltd. His advice was also sought by government: he was chairman (1955-62) of the executive committee of the National Physical Laboratory.

Bowden's group was made a sub-department of the Cavendish Laboratory in 1957. With David Tabor, he published The Friction and Lubrication of Solids, Part I (Oxford, 1950) and Part II (1964); Initiation and Growth of Explosion in Liquids and Solids (Cambridge, 1952) and Fast Reactions in Solids (London, 1958) were both co-authored with A. D. Yoffe. Bowden had received a D.Sc. from the University of Tasmania (1931) and an Sc.D. from Cambridge (1938); he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1948, made C.B.E. in 1956 and appointed to a personal chair in 1967. He had little stomach for theoretical analysis, favouring a direct experimental approach 'characterized by simplicity and elegance'.

His scientific integrity, enthusiasm, and concern for the personal and professional well-being of his staff earned Bowden respect, loyalty and affection. He enjoyed a happy family life. A 'lightly-built man with fine features', he had a complex character. Shy and reserved, gentle, charming and courtly, he was also tough and ambitious, and a shrewd judge of men and affairs. In his Strangers and Brothers series of novels, C. P. (Baron) Snow, a close friend from student days at Cambridge, 'drew on Bowden as the prototype of [Francis] Getliffe, the gifted, wise and sensitive scientist'. Survived by his wife, daughter and three sons, Bowden died of lung cancer on 3 September 1968 at Cambridge. His death cut short a still active scientific career.

Select Bibliography

  • D. P. Mellor, The Role of Science and Industry (Canb, 1958)
  • Dictionatry of National Biography, 1961-70
  • C. B. Schedvin, Shaping Science and Industry (Syd, 1987)
  • T. Bowden, The Way My Father Tells It (Syd, 1989)
  • New Scientist, 7, no 183, 19 May 1960, p 1266
  • Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of Royal Society (Lond), 15, 1969, p 1
  • Chemistry in Australia, 56, no 5, May 1989, p 157
  • Times (London), 4, 10, 13, 16 Sept 1968
  • CSIRO Archives, Canberra.

Citation details

Alex C. McLaren and J. A. Spink, 'Bowden, Frank Philip (1903–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 May, 1903
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia


3 September, 1968 (aged 65)
Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England

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