Edward George Bowen bigraphy, stories - Physicists

Edward George Bowen : biography

14 January 1911 - 12 August 1991

Edward George 'Taffy' Bowen, CBE, FRS (14 January 1911 – 12 August 1991)R. Hanbury Brown, Harry C. Minnett and Frederick W.G. White, Edward George Bowen 1911-1991, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol.9, no.2, 1992. ; republished in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society of London, 1992. 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. He was also an early radio astronomer.

The Tizard Mission

Bowen went to the United States with the Tizard Mission in 1940 and helped to initiate tremendous advances in microwave radar as a weapon. Bowen visited US laboratories and told them about airborne radar and arranged demonstrations. He was able to take an early example of the cavity magnetron. 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 10 cm 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 engines and nuclear physics.

Ground-based radar

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), initially just covering the approaches to London. The team at Orfordness was enlarged as a result, and in March 1936 a new headquarters was acquired at Bawdsey Manor.

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.


In the closing months of 1943 Bowen seemed to be at "loose ends" 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 CSIRO 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.

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