Papers of Vivian Bowden, Lord Bowden of Chesterfield

Scope and Content

The papers of Lord Bowden comprise his correspondence files and copies of published writings. The collection documents his involvement in higher education, politics and public life from the period of his appointment as Principal of Manchester Municipal College of Technology in 1953 until his death. It includes very little material on his life and work before this period.

Bowden's files (BVB/1) cover various aspects of higher education policy including visits to foreign universities (particularly the U.S.A. and Canada), debates on policy such as the Rothschild Report (BVB/1/95), student unrest (BVB/1/73), the "Brain Drain" (BVB/1/49, 60, 69), the Flowers report on computing in higher education, 1966 (BVB/1/48) and his evidence to the Public Accounts Committee in 1966 on university funding (BVB/1/55). There are files concerning his political interests including detailed documentation of his work for the Labour Party Science Group (BVB/1/26).

There are several files reflecting Bowden's interests in computing, including the publication of Faster than thought (BVB/1/2-6, 168-171), Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace (BVB/1/82, 152, 163, 166-7, 169), plus academic and business applications of computers (BVB/1/34, 81, 83, 93 and 99). Bowden's interests in industrial training (BVB/1/29, 57 and 87), and graduate employment (BVB/1/43, 118-119) are extensively documented.

Bowden took an active interest in British industry and his papers contains files relating to machine tools (BVB/1/14, 66, 125), engineering (BVB/1/21) and tribology (BVB/1/58 and 112). Other files detail his work for public bodies and professional associations including the Electronics Research Council (BVB/1/19), Radio Research Board (BVB/1/27), NEDO working committee on data transmission (BVB/1/71), the Science Masters' Association (BVB/1/20), Association of Scientific Workers (BVB/1/42) and the Association of Colleges of Further and Higher Education (BVB/1/98). Also covered are public issues on which Bowden spoke or wrote: nuclear power (BVB/1/115, 129, 139), the European Economic Community (BVB/1/105, 107), and inflation (BVB/1/97, 116, 120-1, 124-127); the latter containing interesting comments not only on specialised matters of inflation accounting, but also on wider political and economic conditions in Britain in the 1970s. Bowden travelled extensively, and was an informed observer of other countries' higher education systems, particularly the U.S.A. (BVB/1/9, 31, 51, 108) and the Soviet Union (BVB/1/30).

Some information on Bowden's wartime work on radar and the development of Identification Friend or Foe is present, although it is not contemporaneous (BVB/1/113, 140-141). There are files on individuals with whom Bowden was associated: Lord Rutherford (BVB/1/136), Robert Watson-Watt (BVB/1/110) and A.P. Rowe (BVB/1/130).

Bowden's papers contain correspondence with friends and colleagues such as the scientists and academics Willis Jackson, Nevil Mott, Patrick Blackett, Stanley Gill, Robert Hanbury Brown and the businessman Peter Jost, with whom he discussed a range of issues. The Bowden papers are an important resource for a range of issues in post-war British history including: debates on the nature and purpose of the universities, relations between government and academe, government policies and practices on science and technology, the politics of "technocracy", and the performance of the British economy, especially matters of industrial training, fiscal policy and inflation.

Administrative / Biographical History

(Bertram) Vivian Bowden was born in Chesterfield in 1910, the son of Bertram Bowden, a teacher, and Sarah Bowden. He was educated at Chesterfield Grammar School and Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he took a double first in natural sciences. His postgraduate work was carried out at the Cavendish Laboratory, where he wrote his Ph.D. on the structure of radioactive nuclei. In 1934 Bowden was an ICI fellow at the University of Amsterdam, and following this, worked as a schoolmaster at Liverpool Collegiate School (1935-7), and Oundle School (1937-40). In 1940, he was appointed to the Ministry of Defence Telecommunications Research Establishment, where he undertook work on the development of radar, including a pioneering system for distinguishing between friendly and enemy aircraft. In 1943 he moved to the U.S.A. to work at the Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, where he assisted with the introduction of radar systems to the U.S. Bowden's work on radar identification was later adapted to post-war air traffic control systems.

Post-war Bowden worked briefly at the Atomic Energy Establishment, Harwell, before joining the engineering consultancy, Robert Watson-Watt and Partners (1947-1950), having previously worked with Watson-Watt on radar. In 1950, he joined Ferranti Ltd. as one of the first computer salesmen.

In 1953, Bowden was appointed Principal of the Manchester Municipal College of Technology. Bowden's reputation rests in part on his transformation of this institution into one of the country's leading technological universities. The College was owned by Manchester City Council, but had very close links to the Victoria University of Manchester, housing its Faculty of Technology. It provided a very wide range of vocational and academic education, and Bowden, considering the expansion of advanced technological education to be a national priority, tirelessly worked to improve the College's status. In this, he was to be very successful, as the College evolved into being a university in all but name. In 1956 Manchester Corporation relinquished control, and Manchester College of Science and Technology came into being, a chartered institution eligible for University Grants Committee funding. In 1965, this became the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, better known by its acronym, UMIST. During this period, Bowden oversaw the creation of new departments, and a major increase in staff and student numbers. Some twenty three new buildings were commissioned during his period of office, with the city centre campus being transformed as a result.

Bowden's initiatives at Manchester occurred at a time of growing concern about the UK's poor performance in technology at both academic and industrial levels. Bowden's skilfully exploited this to promote his own wide ranging programme of reforms of higher education, the economy, and government science policy. These were conveyed in a series of speeches and articles from the late 1950s onwards, winning Bowden the reputation as a persuasive exponent of "technocracy". This led to him being appointed to several public bodies: he was chair of the Electronics Research Council of the Ministry of Aviation, 1960-1964, a member of the Radio Research Board 1963-1964, and later chair of the working committee on data transmission of the National Economic Development Office. The Labour Party leader, Harold Wilson, attracted by "technocratic" reforms of the British economy, nominated Bowden to a life peerage in 1963. Bowden, in turn, was impressed with Labour's new-found interest in science and technology, and became involved with the Party's Science Group, chaired by Richard Crossman. When Wilson won the 1964 general election, he appointed Bowden minister of state for education and science, with responsibility for government civil science and higher education. Bowden's time in public office was not however considered a success and in 1965, he left the government and returned to UMIST, retiring as Principal in 1976.

Bowden continued to maintain a high public profile after his period in government; he gave numerous lectures and addresses at British and foreign universities, and to industry and professional bodies. He was a frequent speaker in the House of Lords, a prolific contributor to the press, and appeared on numerous TV and radio programmes. In the 1960s, the atmosphere seemed propitious to the policies Bowden was advocating: increased government expenditure on higher education; a bias in such expenditure to science and technology; an emphasis on applied technology, with close links between academe and industry; increased professionalism and expertise in the administration of scientific public policy; a strategic, co-operative approach to such matters as industrial and management training; and improved status for technically skilled experts within British industry.

In the event, Bowden was to be disappointed by the actual outcome of events, and by the 1970s he became pessimistic about the country's prospects. He was particularly concerned about the poor employment opportunities for science and technology graduates, and was critical of the USA's alleged role in causing a "brain drain" of talent, to sustain what he saw as undesirable expenditure on its military and space programmes. (Bowden also blamed the UK for encouraging a brain drain of its own of scientists and medics from the developing countries). Bowden was concerned about the vulnerability of British industry to inflation, believing that government fiscal policies were hindering reinvestment of profits. He developed an interest in inflation accounting, suggesting mechanisms of inflation indexation by which firms could protect themselves against the worst effects of rising prices. He pointed, rather optimistically, to Brazil's apparent success in implementing such a system to combat hyper-inflation.

Outside of politics and economics, Bowden was interested in the history of computing, having authored the standard work on the subject, Faster than thought in 1953, and also in the history of radar. He received a number of awards, including honorary degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (USA), Manchester, and Kumasi University, Ghana, an institution with which he had long associations. He was also presented with a Pioneer Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (USA) in 1973 for his wartime work on radar.

Bowden was married four times,and had a son and two daughters. He died at a nursing home in Bowdon, Cheshire on 31 July 1989.


Arranged into three main series:

  • BVB/1 - Subject and policy files;
  • BVB/2 - Published and unpublished writings;
  • BVB/3 - Miscellaneous items.

These items are arranged predominantly in chronological order.

Bowden's method of organizing his records did not draw a hard-and-fast line between his official papers as Principal of UMIST and those concerning his other activities, both semi-official and private. A single filing system appears to have been used, even though files on his external activities were not official UMIST records. It was decided, as far as it was feasible, to separate his personal papers from the UMIST Principal's files. There were certain difficulties in achieving this, as there was overlap between the subjects in the two sets of files. In general, this separation has been accomplished without compromising the provenance of the material. In cases where identifying provenance has been problematic, the material has been retained as part of the Principal's archive. This includes, for example, copies of all Bowden's outgoing correspondence between 1953-1976, which includes both official and private material. Researchers are advised to consult both sets of papers to get a comprehensive and consistent overview of Bowden's official and other activities.

Access Information

Most of the collection is open to any accredited reader, although some individual items have been closed for Data Protection reasons. Bowden's correspondence with members of his family is closed to public inspection.

The collection includes material which may be subject to the Data Protection Act 2018. Under the Act 2018 (DPA), The University of Manchester Library (UML) holds the right to process personal data for archiving and research purposes. In accordance with the DPA, UML has made every attempt to ensure that all personal and sensitive personal data has been processed fairly, lawfully and accurately. Users of the archive are expected to comply with the Data Protection Act 2018, and will be required to sign a form acknowledging that they will abide by the requirements of the Act in any further processing of the material by themselves.

Acquisition Information

Transferred to the University Archives from various locations in former UMIST buildings in 2004-5. The papers are believed to have been deposited by Lord Bowden in the 1980s. Some personal material was returned to the Bowden family in January 2015.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

A number of items within the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Keeper of Manuscripts and Archives, John Rylands University Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Appraisal Information

Some duplicate and ephemeral material has been removed.

Custodial History

Lord Bowden's papers appear to have been filed with his official papers as Principal of the College of Technology/UMIST. This was probably done for reasons of administrative convenience. Papers which were clearly personal in nature or relating to his non-official professional and public interests were extracted, and constitute this collection.


No further accruals expected.

Related Material

See the official files of the UMIST Principal for further information on Bowden's activities as Principal between 1953-1976 (GB 133 TPA).

Willis Jackson's papers, held at Imperial College Archives and Corporate Records Unit, contain correspondence with Bowden. Stanley Gill's papers held at the Science Museum also include correspondence with Bowden.


Many of Bowden's views on technological education and its relationship to industry are encapsulated in his Proposals for the development of the Manchester College of Science and Technology (Manchester 1956). See also the published and unpublished writings in BVB/2.