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The Rich Science Heritage of Wales

(June 01, 2012)

The Rich Science Heritage of Wales

It isn't that Welsh scientists receive a bad press, more that they have virtually no press at all. Welsh scientists have long punched above their weight, yet receive little recognition outside their fields. In the first of a fascinating series of profiles on Welsh scientists, Dr Neville Bowen Evans, winner of the Science and Technology Medal at the 2011 National Eisteddfod, highlights the achievements of Eddy Bowen, who was instrumental in early RADAR research and development.

 

Portrait - E G BowenE G Bowen

 

Edward George Bowen (1911 – 1991)

 

My interest in the work of E. G. Bowen began when I was about eight years old. Although I was probably too young to appreciate the significance of the initial stimulus, which was a comment often made by my parents, 'Eddie Bowen used to do odd things on Mynydd Newydd Common'. By any stretch of the imagination, even for an eight-year-old, this was an intriguing comment. I knew where Mynydd Newydd (literally, New Mountain) was; it was an area of rough, common land, between Fforestfach, my home village, and Morriston, where the Swansea Crematorium is now, although it did not exist in my childhood. I had often walked or cycled to Mynydd Newydd.

But who was Eddie Bowen, and what was odd about what he did? Whatever it was that he did, it was clear from the admiration in the tone of my parents’ comment that what he did was clearly worthy. Some clarification emerged when they re-phrased their comment and stated, 'Eddie Bowen used to do odd things with radio on Mynydd Newydd Common'. Of course, at eight years of age, some degree of mystery remained, because 'radio' was the name of the bulky object that sat on a shelf in our kitchen and from which came music and sounds of people talking, some serious and some funny. Why would he take such an object up to Mynydd Newydd?

My interest in Eddie Bowen was soon sharpened when I learned two more facts about him. First, he played cricket with my father and uncle. Second, he was the son of George and Annie Bowen who attended Saron Chapel, where we also went every Sunday. In my experience, both George and Annie were perpetual smilers, so their offspring had to be special.

Some ten years later I became a student of physics at the local university college (now known as Swansea University) and attended lectures by the professor, Frank Llewellyn-Jones, a wonderful raconteur. Among his stories was one about famous past students of the department, including one E. G. Bowen. Slowly, it dawned on me that this E. G. Bowen was the same Eddie Bowen of my childhood.

The context of his fame was that he was one of the first three pioneers of RADAR (Radio Detection and Ranging) – hence the connection with the 'odd' things he did on Mynydd Newydd Common. In the 1930s Britain was threatened by Hitler's ambitions, supported by vast arms production. Some people in government circles in Britain wondered whether the new science of radio might offer some form of defence, perhaps in giving early warning of approaching aircraft. It was in this vital research that Bowen made his mark. His memory is still revered in the title, 'Father of Airborne Radar', in acknowledgement of his leading role in compacting all the equipment of terrestrial radar into the cockpit of an aeroplane. This was a huge advantage to the British Air Force at the time of the Battle of Britain.

 

Portable RADAR unit near Pearl HarbourPortable RADAR unit near Pearl Harbour in 1942; built using technology passed on to the USA by Eddy Bowen in 1940

 

Two other facts about Bowen deserve mention, because they illustrate the high esteem in which he was held. First, in 1940 Churchill decided that Britain’s radar secrets should be shared with the USA - known as the Tizard Mission. One of the two scientists in the group charged with this responsibility was Bowen; he was later awarded the Medal of Honour by the USA. Second, with the war ended, the British Government recognized notable contributions by individuals to the war effort; for his, Bowen received £12,000. You do the sums for the equivalent in today’s money.

While many people know of his international radar work, far fewer know of his contribution to the establishment and development of broadcast radio in Wales. In the 1930s BBC London was totally opposed to the development of regional radio, much to the anger of many people in Wales. When the Director–General of the BBC (the redoubtable John Reith) realized that he was losing the political-cultural debate, he invoked spurious scientific arguments which contended that the mountains of Wales would impede the proper transmission of radio signals. Eddie Bowen applied his physics to demonstrate the absurdity of this contention and London had to succumb.

 

Parkes Observatory, NSW, Australia.The radio-telescope at Parkes Observatory, New South Wales, Australia; brainchild of Eddy 'Taffy' Bowen


Parkes Observatory II,NSW, Australia.

Bowen was invited to join the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Radiophysics Laboratory, Canberra, Australia, after the war. In 1946 he was appointed Chief of the Division of Radiophysics, where he researched further developments in radar; the pulse method of acceleration of elementary particles; and air navigation, which resulted in the Distance Measuring Equipment (DME), used in civil aviation.

Still in Australia, Bowen played a key role in the development of radioastronomy. He designed the 210 ft radio telescope at Parkes, New South Wales. At its inauguration in 1961 he 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." Bowen's radio telescope played an important role in the US space program, tracking many space probes, including the Apollo missions.

So, when you next travel by air or by boat and listen to BBC Radio Wales or Radio Cymru, offer a brief comment, 'Thanks/Diolch Eddie'.

Bowen is but one of many Welsh people who have made distinctive contributions to science; part of our rich culture.

Neville Evans, 1 June 2012

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Dr Neville Evans, in his series Scientists of Wales:

     ERH Jones; December 2016
Elwyn Hughes
; September 2016
Gareth Roberts
; June 2016
Ezer Griffiths; March 2016

Handel Davies; December 2015
Mathematicians of Wales; September 2015

Professor Eleri Pryce; June 2015

William Robert Grove; March 2015

Frank Llewellyn-Jones; December 2014

Professor Julie Williams; September 2014

Ieuan Maddock, F.R.S.; June 2014

John Houghton, F.R.S.; March 2014

David Brunt, F.R.S.; December 2013

Professor John Beynon; September 2013

John Meurig Thomas; June 2013
Robert Recorde and William Jones; March 2013
Richard Tecwyn Williams, F.R.S; December 2012

Lyn Evans; September 2012
E G Bowen; June 2012

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