Edward George (Taffy) Bowen [1911-1991]

By Colin WardMarch 21st, 2011


Edward George Bowen was born on 14 January 1911 in the village of Cockett near Swansea, Wales, to George Bowen and Ellen Ann (nee Owen). He was the youngest of four children. Both of his grandfathers had served apprenticeships on clipper ships sailing around the Horn to Pacific ports in Chile and Peru, there to load ore for the busy refineries of Swansea. His father was a steelworker in a Swansea tinplate works, where he folded and flattened red-hot plates into the thin sheet steel needed, a task which required considerable skill and strength. He satisfied a love of music as the organist in the Congregational Chapel in nearby Sketty.

Edward Bowen had a keen mind and, at an early age, developed a lively interest in radio and also in sport, particularly cricket. At the primary school in Sketty, he won a scholarship in 1922 to the Municipal Secondary School in central Swansea. His senior years there coincided with the onset of bleak economic times in South Wales, but fortunately he was successful in again winning a scholarship which enabled him to enter Swansea University College. At first his intention was to concentrate on chemistry, his top subject, but he soon changed to physics and related subjects, a decision he never regretted.

He gained a BSc with first class honours in physics from Swansea University College in 1930, and an MSc on X-rays and the structure of alloys at the University of Wales in 1931 under the direction of Senior Lecturer Dr W Morris Jones, and Professor JV Evans.

It was Professor EJ Evans who, recognising Bowen’s intense interest in radio, arranged for him to take a PhD in the Physics Department of King’s College (London University) under the direction of Professor EV Appleton. 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 RA Watson-Watt and so came to play an important part in the early history of radar. He was awarded his PhD in 1934.

The war years

In January 1935 HE Wimperis, the Director of Research at the Air Ministry, asked Robert Watson-Watt, the Superintendent of the Radio Research Station, whether it would be possible to incapacitate an enemy aircraft or its crew by an intense beam of radio waves, or in more popular language by a ‘death ray’. Watson-Watt’s replied that such a ‘death ray’ was impracticable, but made the immensely valuable suggestion that radio waves might be used to detect, rather than destroy, enemy aircraft.

Following a successful demonstration of the reflection of radio waves by an aircraft in February 1935, the development of radar went ahead with Bowen, who had been recruited by Watson-Watt, playing an important part. While the two senior members (AF Wilkins and LH Bainbridge-Bell) took care of the antennas and the receiver, Bowen’s job was to assemble a transmitter from a miscellaneous collection of parts collected together in a hurry. Before the end of May he had the transmitter working. In the course of the next few months he increased the anode voltage to over 10 000 volts, well beyond the rated limits, and managed to raise the pulse power to over 100 kilowatts.

The first detection of an aircraft was made on 17 June 1935 when a clear radar echo was detected from a Scapa flying boat at a range of 17 miles. This was only the beginning; many improvements, such as shorter working wavelengths, larger antennas, greater transmitter power, and systems for measuring the height and direction of the target were soon introduced, and by early 1936 aircraft were being detected at ranges of up to 100 miles.

The success of this work prompted the decision to start work on a chain of radar stations (CH) to give warning of enemy aircraft approaching the coast. Watson-Watt decided that AF Wilkins would take responsibility for the radar stations while Bowen, at his own request, would tackle the highly speculative ‘ and at that time unique ‘ venture of putting radar in an aircraft.

Airborne radar

The problems of installing a radar in an aircraft which Bowen faced in the spring of 1936 were, to put it mildly, challenging. The most obvious difficulty was to reduce the size and weight of the equipment; the existing ground radars would fill a small house, weighed several tons and took many kilowatts of power. Bowen decided that a viable airborne radar should not exceed 200 lbs in weight, 8 cubic feet in volume and 500 watts in power consumption and that, to reduce the aerodynamic drag of the antenna, the operating wavelength would have to be about one metre ‘ a very short wavelength in those days.

These targets were very difficult to meet. In those days most radio components were large, heavy and unsuitable for use in the extremes of vibration, temperature and atmospheric pressure met with in military aircraft. The aircraft power supply was DC, variable in voltage and very limited in capacity. There were a number of other troublesome problems; for example, there were no solid dielectric cables to connect the radar equipment to the antennas. But the greatest difficulty of all was to generate enough power at short wavelengths in a transmitter that could be carried in an aircraft.

Over the next few years, Bowen and his group tackled and solved most of these problems. On 17 August 1937 a complete radar system, built at a wavelength of 1.25 m and installed in an Anson aircraft was tested in the air by two of Bowen’s group, AG Touch and KA Wood. Although they detected no aircraft, they obtained clear echoes from ships off the coast at Felixstowe at ranges of two to three miles. Following this flight the performance was greatly improved by increasing the wavelength to 1.5 m, which subsequently became the standard wavelength for metre-wave airborne radar.

In September 1937, hearing that an exercise was planned during which Coastal Command would search for the Fleet, Bowen gave a dramatic, uninvited, demonstration of the application of radar to aerial reconnaissance. Together with KA Wood he used the experimental 1.5 m radar to search for the Fleet in the North Sea under conditions of low visibility and, much to the astonishment of the Navy and Coastal Command, he found the aircraft carrier Courageous, the battleship Rodney and the cruiser Southampton. It was during this flight that they detected radar echoes from the aircraft of Courageous ‘ the first detection of an aircraft by a complete airborne radar. This demonstration was, as Bowen recalled, a landmark in the history of airborne radar

The airborne radar group now had two major projects, the detection of ships (ASV ‘ Air to Surface Vessels) and the interception of aircraft (AI ‘ Aircraft Interception). Details of Bowen’s work on ASV and AI can be found in the biographical memoir written by RH Brown, HC Minnett and FWG White (see Sources below). Highlights of this work are as follows:

When war was declared in September 1939, the main task of Bowen’s group was to help the RAF to fit radars to their aircraft, and in doing this they were entirely successful; within a few months, aircraft were being fitted with AI or ASV at the rate of about one per day. It is very much to Bowen’s credit that this was achieved in difficult circumstances.

ASV ‘ Air to Surface Vessels

The first installation of ASV MkI was made in a Hudson aircraft in December 1939. It could detect a 10 000 tonne ship at a range of about 20 miles and coastlines at 30 to 40 miles. About 300 sets were made and were fitted in Hudsons and Sunderlands of Coastal Command. In practice its main use was to aid navigation, not to find enemy shipping; it helped patrols to rendezvous with convoys (The Battle of the Atlantic, 1946), provided navigational assistance by detecting coastlines and, more popularly, helped aircraft to return to base using transponder beacons.

The engineering of the equipment, to make it more rugged and reliable, was carried out at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) under the supervision of a senior member of Bowen’s original group (AG Touch). The set which they developed (ASV MkII) was produced in far greater numbers than MkI; in the UK alone, 6 000 sets were made, and many thousands were produced in the USA and Canada. It was fitted to patrol and reconnaissance aircraft all over the world and used in anti-submarine patrols, anti-shipping strikes, convoy escort and many other duties. Its principal value was in the first phase of the Battle of the Atlantic when the Germans were using the captured French ports to give their U-boats easy access to the Atlantic. In April 1941 Coastal Command was operating anti-submarine patrols with about 110 aircraft fitted with ASV MkII, and the use of radar by these aircraft increased the daylight sightings of submarines significantly. More importantly, it made it possible to attack submarines at night as they travelled on the surface; in 1941-42 over 90 per cent of night attacks were made as the result of ASV contact. However very few of these attacks were lethal until the introduction in mid-1942 of a powerful searchlight (Leigh Light) that illuminated the submarine. The combination of this light with ASV MkII was so effective that the submarines tended to submerge by night and surface by day, thereby increasing their destruction by daytime patrols. This satisfactory state of affairs lasted for a few months until the Germans introduced a listening receiver ‘ Metox ‘ which warned the submarine of the approach of an ASV-equipped aircraft so that it could dive. As far as metre-wave ASV was concerned the introduction of this listening device marked the end of the first phase of the Battle of the Atlantic; the second phase was taken up by centimetre-wave radar.

AI ‘ Air Interception

Most of the early development of AI and ASV was done in parallel and they were able to share many of the same components. Nevertheless AI had its own peculiar problems; for example, the components had to work at higher altitudes, making it, among other things, more difficult to design a transmitter. Also AI is more complicated than ASV because it must guide the fighter to its target in three dimensions, and the range and relative direction of a fast moving target must be presented to the operator immediately and simply. Furthermore it must bring the night fighter so close to the target that the pilot can identify it visually before opening fire.

The first complete installation of AI was flown in a Fairey Battle on 9 June 1939. It gave a maximum range of 12 000 feet with a Harrow as a target; the minimum range was about 1 000 feet and in mock interceptions the display seemed easy to use. A week or so later Bowen gave the Commander in Chief of Fighter Command (Sir Hugh Dowding) a successful demonstration; within a few weeks the airborne group was committed to fitting AI into 30 Blenheims for trials by 25 Squadron at Northolt. This program at Northolt was premature; not only was the AI equipment inadequately engineered, no proper provision was made for training and maintenance. Nevertheless the trials did expose one important fact; they showed that in order to make a successful interception with AI, it was essential to control the path of the fighter with a precision that could not be achieved by the existing system of fighter control. The problem was overcome by the development of a radar with a narrow rotating beam and plan-position-indicator; the first Ground Control Radar (GCI) was delivered to the RAF in October 1940.

Bowen’s group developed an improved version of AI (MkIII) and helped to fit it into the Blenheims of various night-fighter squadrons. The final version of AI was introduced into service as AI MkIV in Blenheims and Beaufighters in the autumn of 1940. AI MkIV did everything which Bowen had originally visualised for a metre-wave AI set. It was the last and vital link in an elaborate and successful system of hunting enemy bombers that involved the coastal CH stations, inland GCI radars, radar beacons and transponders, VHF radio and AI-equipped Beaufighters with their Hispano cannons. In the hands of a skilled crew, AI MkIV was remarkably effective, and in the heavy night raids of 1941 the AI-equipped fighter proved to be the principal weapon of air defence at night ; thus in May 1941 over 100 enemy aircraft were definitely shot down at night using AI compared with 30 by anti-aircraft guns.

The Tizard mission

In August 1940 Bowen left the UK as one of seven members of a Mission, led by Sir Henry Tizard, to disclose recent British technical advances to the USA and Canada. Bowen’s job was to tell them all about British radar. He took with him not only information on all existing and projected equipment, but also an early sample of the cavity magnetron, the essential and highly secret key to the development of centimetre-wave radar that had just been invented by JT Randall and HAH Boot at Birmingham University.

The Tizard Mission, in which Bowen played such a large part, was highly successful. It drew the attention of the Americans to the importance of radar as a weapon of war, introduced them to airborne radar, accelerated the development of centimetre-wave radar by giving them the cavity magnetron and, owing much to Bowen, helped them to set up the highly successful Radiation Laboratory.

At CSIR/CSIRO Radiophysics

In the closing months of 1943 CSIR’s Fred White (later Sir Frederick and Chairman of CSIRO)) was in the USA and when visiting the Radiation Laboratory at MIT, met Bowen again for the first time since King’s College, London. Bowen seemed to be at a loose end. His work in the USA was virtually finished and the invasion of Europe by the Allies was imminent. In Australia, the Radiophysics Laboratory was still hard at work helping the Australian and American forces in the Pacific (see Radar). It was proposed to Sir David Rivett Chief Executive Officer of CSIR, that an offer be made to Bowen to come to Australia to join the Radiophysics Laboratory. Rivett agreed and Bowen arrived in Sydney on 1 January 1944. Bowen recalled how he consulted Tizard and received the reply: They seem to need help in Australia. Go there my man.

When Bowen arrived in Sydney, security conditions on radar information were gradually being lifted. CSIR was planning the return to peacetime work and within a year Fred White, who had been Chief of the Radiophysics Laboratory, had joined the Executive Committee in Melbourne. This was a period of great change; the Japanese surrendered in August 1945 after the atomic bombs had been dropped, and all hostilities in the Pacific ceased. In May 1946, Bowen was appointed Chief of the Division of Radiophysics. One of his first actions was to organise and edit A Text Book of Radar, a collective work by the staff of the Laboratory.

With the cessation of the war, the skilled staff of the Division began to look around for work of interest to themselves and of importance to Australia. The professional staff of Radiophysics had grown to 66 by 1945, with several important newcomers recruited from the British and Australian services and Bowen was conscious of his responsibility to them. Two lines of research grew up naturally and became the predominant interests of the Division: radioastronomy and cloud and rain physics. The first grew out of the curiosity of JL Pawsey who repeated the observations of JS Hey in England on the jamming of radar receivers by radiation from the sun. Research on cloud and rain physics was started by Bowen in 1946 when I Langmuir and V Schaefer in the USA reported that rain could be induced by seeding clouds with dry ice. These two programs absorbed the attention of a considerable proportion of the staff until Bowen’s retirement. Details of some of this research can be found at Radio astronomy at Dover Heights, Radio astronomy ‘ observing explosions on the sun and Cloud seeding.

Bowen had also undertaken two other research activities. These were the pulse method of acceleration of elementary particles, with Pulley and Gooden, and more extensive work on air navigation with Victor Burgmann. The latter resulted in the Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) that was ultimately adopted for all civil aircraft flying in Australia on internal routes (see Radar).

The radiotelescope at Parkes

In the first decade following the end of the war Radiophysics established an enviable reputation in the new science of radioastronomy. It was a time of exciting discoveries and innovative ideas, a time when a new observing system could be quickly tried out. The outstanding Australian successes in this period were recognised when URSI elected to hold its 10th General Assembly in Sydney in August 1952, the first meeting of an international scientific union ever held outside Europe or the USA. But by then the era of improvised equipment was drawing to a close and the era of big science was soon to begin.

Radioastronomy now needed aerial systems with much higher resolution and able to collect more of the extremely weak signals arriving at the Earth. One approach was to develop a very large parabolic-reflector aerial and as early as 1948 Bowen had been convinced that this was the best solution. Bernard Lovell at Manchester University in 1952 was the first to set off down this path. Bowen was very conscious that the British government had funded the project at a cost far beyond the resources of Radiophysics. Nevertheless he persisted and in the end was successful. For details see Parkes radio telescope construction.

On 31 October 1961 the Governor General, Lord de Lisle, was invited by the CSIRO Chairman, Dr FWG White, to perform the opening ceremony; Bowen followed with a speech of thanks. The occasion was a grand affair in spite of the unusually high wind. The ceremony was attended by a large assembly of Radiophysics staff, Chiefs of CSIRO Divisions, academics, industrialists and local people.

Bowen was delighted with the performance of the new instrument. In 1963 he wrote It is clear from the figures that the telescope is one of superlative performance and provides both surface and pointing accuracy which is approximately double that called for in the original specifications

The Anglo-Australian telescope

In the first decades after the War, there was much discussion about the need for a large optical telescope in the southern hemisphere. The matter was taken up formally by the Royal Society of London and the Australian Academy of Science on a joint basis towards the end of 1963. Their discussions were lengthy, and at the end of June 1965 submissions for the construction of a 160-inch (3.8 m) Anglo-Australian telescope were presented to both governments. A long delay then ensued.

In the months that followed, the Australian government was non-committal on the Anglo-Australian proposal despite British pressure. A firm commitment had been delivered by WL Francis, the Secretary of the Science Research Council, that Britain would fund half the cost of designing and building a 3.8 m telescope.

The Australian Academy of Science asked LGH Huxley and Bowen to seek an interview with the responsible Minister, Senator Gorton. Once a few matters had been clarified, they found the Minister was very much in favour of the Anglo-Australian proposal. In May he announced the agreement of the two governments to build a 3.8 m optical telescope on Siding Spring Mountain near Coonabarabran, New South Wales, the site of an Australian National University observatory.

Details of the construction of the Anglo-Australian telescope can be found in the biographical memoir written by RH Brown, HC Minnett and FWG White (see Sources below).

The telescope was officially inaugurated on 16 October 1974 in the presence of HRH Prince Charles. When operations commenced in 1975, the telescope was accepted as a technological tour de force. In the words of Gascoigne: The mounting and the optics were clearly of the highest standard, but what created the real impression was the computer control system, which was comprehensive, versatile and efficient to a degree beyond anything previously contemplated

Taffy Bowen had successfully guided the project through the complex years when the design of the telescope was evolving and had overcome other problems of great difficulty to arrive at last at a highly satisfactory result. In the words of UK Professor Fred Hoyle: there is no doubt that a large share of it (the credit) must go to Taffy Bowen. Without him the telescope would have been only a shadow of what it was eventually to become.


Taffy Bowen retired from CSIRO on 14th January 1971 after 24 years as Chief of the Division of Radiophysics. Bowen’s Division of Radiophysics was quite unlike others in CSIRO. It had been founded in 1939, in the utmost secrecy, to work on wartime radar for the fighting services. Several scientists spent the war in the fighting services and when demobilised came to Australia and joined in the remarkable post-war researches that Bowen headed. Two such men were John Paul Wild and John Bolton. The former, who succeeded Bowen as Chief of Division, has this interesting analysis of Bowen as his predecessor:

I was one of several young research scientists who joined the CSIR Radiophysics Laboratory in the early post-war years. The Chief, Taffy Bowen, was firmly in command: young, confident, cheerful and breezy, always optimistic and giving the impression that he knew exactly where he was going. He had supervised the transition of the laboratory from its wartime program of military radar to its new peacetime policy. By the mid 50s the Laboratory’s activities had narrowed down to two large programs ‘ cloud physics under Taffy’s direction and radio astronomy under Joe Pawsey’s. Both programs stood high in international repute.

Taffy then decided to enter the radio astronomy arena himself and set his mind on the construction of a giant radio telescope. Such was our reputation at the time, combined with Taffy’s influence and diplomacy in the USA, that half the cost needed to fund this project came from the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations. The major credit for the existence and success of this instrument must go to him.

The other major work which owes much to Taffy is the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT). As Chairman of the AAT Board he steered the 3.8 m optical telescope to fruition, again showing his great skill in choosing and supervising the contractors.

The world will remember Taffy firstly as a member of the three-man team that developed radar to help save the day for Britain in 1940 ‘ secondly as the dynamic post-war leader of the Radiophysics Laboratory; and thirdly as the engineer who brought to successful completion two major astronomical instruments of his era.

John Bolton, clearly an admirer, goes further with this sympathetic summary of Bowen’s contribution:

There can be no question that Taffy’s most important contribution to science was his wartime work in airborne radar and there may be millions of people in the world today who are quite unaware of their debt to him.

His second contribution was the holding together of the wartime Radiophysics Lab and the conversion into one of Australia’s most effective research centres. It is perhaps noteworthy that no less than five staff members were elected to the Royal Society before he himself was similarly and belatedly honoured.

Bowen’s personality was complex. In the relaxed first interview with Robert Watson-Watt and Jimmy Herd, he was challenged to sing the Welsh national anthem. This brought a response from Bowen that he would do so if they would sing the Scottish anthem. He remained a firm friend and admirer of Watson-Watt from then on.

Throughout his life he remained an ardent Welshman and in Australia rejoiced in the name of ‘Taffy’. He refused the opportunity of taking Australian citizenship and thus sacrificed the possibility of Australian honours. In December 1987, he suffered a stroke at his home in Sydney. In spite of dedicated medical attention and the care of his family and friends, his condition gradually deteriorated. He died on 12 August 1991 at the age of 80.

Honours and awards

Bowen’s election to the Royal Society in 1975 was supported by posthumous letters from Sir John Cockcroft FRS and by Sir Harold Hartley FRS. His personal wartime work on radar, his telescope at Parkes for radioastronomy and his contribution to the understanding of cloud seeding were sufficient. He was elected to the Australian Academy of Science in 1957 and was awarded a Fellowship of his University College in Swansea.


1975 Fellow, Royal Society of London
1957 Fellow, Australian Academy of Science
Fellow and first President, Australian Institute of Navigation
Fellow, Royal Astronomical Society
Foreign Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Foreign Member, US National Academy of Engineering
Honorary Fellow, King’s College, London
Honorary Fellow, University College, Swansea


1962 Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) ‘in recognition of contributions to the development of science in Australia’
1957 DSc (Honorary), University of Sydney
1951 Royal Commission Award to Inventors in the United Kingdom
1950 Thurlow Award of the American Institute of Navigation ‘ ‘for the most outstanding contribution to the science of navigation during 1950
1947 Medal of Freedom USA ‘ for contributions to the US war effort
1941 Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE)

Committees and Boards

1971-73 Chairman of the Anglo-Australian Telescope Board
1967-71 Chairman of Joint Policy Committee of the Anglo-Australian Telescope
1962 Vice-President of the Australian Academy of Science