Edward George Bowen
Edward George 'Taffy' Bowen, CBE, FRS (14 January 1911-12 August 1991) was a British physicist who made a major contribution to the development of radar and so helped win both the Battle of Britain and the Battle of the Atlantic.
Edward George Bowen was born at Cockett near Swansea, Wales, to George Bowen and Ellen Ann (n�e Owen). George Bowen was a steelworker in a Swansea tinplate works.
Edward Bowen was highly intelligent, and so was able to get a good education by winning scholarships. From an early age he developed a strong interest in radio and cricket. He entered Swansea University College and read physics and related subjects. He graduated with a First-Class Honours degree in 1930 and continued with postgraduate research on X-rays and the structure of alloys earning him an MSc in 1931.
He completed his doctorate under Professor E.V. Appleton at King's College London. As part of his research, Bowen spent a large part of 1933 and 1934 working with a cathode-ray direction finder at the Radio Research Station at Slough and it was there that he was noticed by Robert Watson-Watt and so came to play an important part in the early history of radar. He was then recruited by Watson-Watt in 1935.
A Committee for the Scientific Study of Air Defence had been established under the chairmanship of Henry Tizard. Before the first meeting of that committee in early 1935, the Government asked Watson-Watt whether an intense beam of radio waves, a 'death ray', could bring down an aircraft. Watson-Watt reported that a 'death ray' was impracticable, but suggested that radio waves might be used to detect, rather than destroy, enemy aircraft.
After a successful demonstration in February 1935 of the reflection of radio waves by an aircraft, the development of radar went ahead, and a team of five people including Bowen was set up at Orfordness under the cover of doing ionospheric research. Bowen's job was to assemble a transmitter, managing quickly to raise the pulse-power to over 100 kilowatts.
The first detection of an aircraft was made on 17 June 1935 at a range of 17 miles. By early 1936 after many improvements, aircraft were being detected at ranges of up to 100 miles. This caused work to be started on a chain of radar stations (Chain Home or CH), initally just covering the approaches to London. The team at Orfordness was enlarged as a result and a new headquarters acquired, Bawdsey Manor, in March 1936.
Bowen, at his own request, was moved on to investigating whether radar could be installed in an aircraft. However Bowen was able to save the day when a demonstration of the new transmitter at Bawdsey Manor failed. Before a disgruntled Sir Hugh Dowding returned to London, Bowen gave him an impromptu demonstration of an experimental radar, built as part of his airborne radar programme, which was detecting the aircraft at ranges of up to 50 miles. After working through the night, Bowen resurrected the old transmitter at Ordfordness for the following day's demonstration which allowed the Government and RAF to continue with the extension of the chain of coastal stations.
Installing radar in an aircraft was difficult because of the size and weight of the equipment and the aerial. Furthermore the equipment had to operate in a vibrating and cold environment. Over the next few years, Bowen and his group tackled and solved most of these problems. For example he solved the problem of the power supply in aircraft using an engine-driven alternator and he encouraged ICI to produce the first radio-frequency cables with solid polythene insulation.
Further refinements continued until September 1937, when Bowen gave a dramatic and uninvited demonstration of the application of radar by searching for the British Fleet in the North Sea in poor visibility, detecting three capital ships. Bowen's airborne radar group now had two major projects, one for the detection of ships and the other for interception of aircraft. Bowen also experimented briefly with the use of airborne radar to detect features on the ground such as towns and coastlines to aid to navigation. This was used to great effect in the Second World War by bombers over Germany.
World War Two
On the outbreak of war Bowen's unit was moved to St Athan. One of the first things that Bowen did there was to try to detect a submarine by radar. By December 1940 operational aircraft were detecting submarines at up to 15 miles range. Development of this technology had a major effect on winning the Battle of the Atlantic and eventually enabled forces to be built up in by sea for the invasion of Europe.
In April 1941 RAF Coastal Command was operating anti-submarine patrols with about 110 aircraft fitted with radar. This increased the detection of submarines both day and night. However very few of the attacks were lethal until the introduction in mid-1942 of a powerful searchlight, the Leigh light, that illuminated the submarine. As a result the U-boats had to recharge their batteries in daylight so that they could at least see the aircraft coming. The radar and the Leigh light together cut Allied shipping losses dramatically.
Developments also continued in air interception and a radar with a narrow rotating beam and plan-position-indicator was developed and used by the RAF to direct fighters in October 1940. Early versions of airborne radar were fitted to Blenheims but had limited minimum and maximum range. However in the hands of a skilled crew, later versions in 1941 were remarkably effective, and in the heavy night raids of 1941 the radar-equipped fighters were the main weapon of air defence at night. In May 1941 over 100 enemy aircraft were shot down at night using radar compared with 30 by anti-aircraft guns.
The Tizard Mission
Bowen went to the United States with the Tizard Mission in 1940 and helped to initiate the tremendous advances in microwave radar as a weapon. Bowen visited the various US laboratories and told them about airborne radar and arranged for demonstrations.He was able to take an early example of the Cavity magnetron that was about to enable centimetre-wave radar. With remarkable speed the US military set up a special laboratory, the MIT Radiation Laboratory for the development of centimetre-wave radar, and Bowen collaborated closely with them on their programme, writing the first draft specification for their first system. The first American experimental airborne 10cm radar was tested, with Bowen on board in March 1941, only seven months after the Tizard Mission had arrived.
The Tizard Mission was highly successful almost entirely because of the information provided by Bowen. It helped to establish the alliance between the United States and Britain over a year before the Americans entered the war. The success of collaboration in radar helped to set up channels of communication that would help in other transfers of technology to the United States such as jet enginess and nuclear physics.
In the closing months of 1943 Bowen seemed to be at a loose end because his work in the USA was virtually finished and the invasion of Europe by the Allies was imminent. Bowen was invited to come to Australia to join the Radiophysics Laboratory and in May 1946 he was appointed Chief of the Division of Radiophysics. Bowen addressed many audiences on the development of radar, its military uses and its potential peacetime applications to civil aviation, marine navigation and surveying.
In addition to developments in radar, Bowen also undertook two other research activities: the pulse method of acceleration of elementary particles; and air navigation resulted in the Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) that was ultimately adopted by many civil aircraft.
He also encouraged the new science of radioastronomy and brought about the construction of the 210ft radio telescope at Parkes, New South Wales. During visits to the USA, he met two of his influential contacts during the war, Dr Vannevar Bush who had become the President of the Carnegie Corporation and Dr Alfred Loomis who was also a Trustee of the Carnegie Corporation and of the Rockefeller Foundation. He persuaded them in 1954 to fund a large radio telescope in Australia with a grant of $250,000. Bowen in return helped to establish US radio astronomy by seconding Australians to the California Institute of Technology.
Bowen played a key role in the design of the radio telescope at Parkes. At its inauguraion in October 1961 Taffy Bowen said "...the search for truth is one of the noblest aims of mankind and there is nothing which adds to the glory of the human race or lends it such dignity as the urge to bring the vast complexity of the Universe within the range of human understanding."
The Parkes Telescope proved timely for the US space program and tracked many space probes including the Apollo missions. Later Bowen played an important role in guiding the optical Anglo-Australian Telescope project during its design phase. This was opened in 1974
Bowen also instigated rain-making experiments in Australia in 1947 and continued after he retired in 1971.
At the University in Swansea he had met his future wife, Enid Vesta Williams, from nearby Neath. They married in 1938 and had three sons: Edward, David and John. Bowen had an enduring love of cricket and played regularly. He also became a keen sailor.
In December 1987, he suffered a stroke and gradually deteriorated. He died on 12 August 1991 at the age of 80.