Saturday, 17 October 2015

20 Physicist Edward 'Taffy' Bowen

20. Edward ‘Taffy’ Bowen (photos: Stepney Lane, E.G. Bowen) – 17 October 2015

With the opening of the University’s second campus, it is fitting that one of Swansea University’s most accomplished graduates is to be honoured with a blue plaque.   Physicist Edward Bowen was born in Cockett in 1911, and graduated from Swansea University in 1930.  His involvement in the development of radar technology played a crucial part in the outcome of the Second World War.

Following graduation he conducted research with a cathode-ray finder in the course of research for a doctorate from King’s College, London.  He was recruited to work in the radar development team in 1935, particularly on the detection of aircraft by the reflection of radio waves.  As part of a team of five people working at Orford Ness on the coast of Suffolk, Bowen’s task was to assemble a transmitter.  An aircraft could be detected at a range of 17 miles initially, but by early 1936 this was improved to distances up to a hundred miles.  The team was enlarged, and moved to a new research station at Bawdsey Manor near Felixstowe, to develop the radar system. 

‘Taffy’ Bowen concentrated on whether, with the challenges of the size and weight of the equipment, radar could be installed in an aircraft - and it needed to operate in cold and vibrating conditions.  Gradually the difficulties were overcome, until in September 1937 he demonstrated the application of radar by using it to locate part of the British Fleet in the North Sea.  Amid conditions of poor visibility he used radar in an aeroplane to locate the aircraft carrier Courageous, battleship Rodney and cruiser Southampton.

In 1938 he married Enid Williams from Neath, whom he had met at Swansea University: they were to have three sons. 

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Bowen’s team moved to St Athan airfield in the Vale of Glamorgan, and were engaged in trying to detect a submarine by radar.  They developed technology to enable aircraft to detect a submarine at a range of 15 miles, which was to be a major asset in the Battle of the Atlantic.  By April 1941 110 aircraft of RAF Coastal Command were fitted with radar to look out for submarines, and the search patrols drastically cut losses of Allied shipping when fitted with the powerful Leigh light.  Bowen went to North America with the British Technical and Scientific Mission (the Tizard Mission) and helped to initiate advances in microwave radar as a weapon.  He visited laboratories in the United States, informed them about airborne radar, and arranged demonstrations.  The Tizard Mission forged technological links between Britain and America over a year before the United States entered the war.  

In late 1943 Edward Bowen was invited to Australia to join the Radiophysics Laboratory, and after the war he gave addresses on the development of radar and its potential peacetime applications.  He also encouraged radio astronomy and the construction of the 210ft radio telescope at Parkes, New South Wales.  He secured funding from the American Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations for this large radio telescope, in return helping to establish American radio astronomy at the California Institute of Technology.

At the inauguration of the Parkes radio telescope he said ‘The search for truth is one of the noblest aims of mankind and there is nothing … which lends the human race such dignity as the urge to bring the vast complexity of the Universe within the range of human understanding.’  ‘Taffy’ Bowen's research turned from tracking aircraft by radar to tracking the Apollo space missions by radio telescope.  He was awarded a CBE in 1962, and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. 

This cricket-loving giant of 20th century physics declined to take out Australian citizenship, and following a stroke in 1987 he died in Sydney in 1991 aged 80.  His blue plaque will be unveiled on Thursday 29th October at Stepney Lane, Cockett where a white plaque marks his 12 years there.

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