Captain William Bowie remains today one of the best known and influential members of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic survey. The most prestigious award given by the American Geophysical Union is named in his honor.YouthBowie was born on May 6, 1872 in Annapolis, Maryland. By this time the Bowie family, mostly farmers, had inhabited the area for 200 years. Bowie spent the majority of his childhood attending school and helping to plow his family's fields. When he was 16 years old he helped a county surveyor to rerun the boundary lines of his neighbor's farm. It was this experience that first interested him in civil engineering. "I was greatly impressed when the surveyor cut his way through the woods and came to a stone marker that had been set many years before," Bowie recalled in the 1930 Lehigh University Alumni Bulletin. "Then he told me he could run a survey around a field and be able to compute its area from the angle and chain measurements. All this seemed to be much more interesting than plowing the fields." .


Before coming to Lehigh, Bowie attended St. Johns College in Maryland and Trinity College in Connecticut, where he earned both bachelors and masters degrees. His studies at Lehigh University earned him a B.S. in Civil Engineering in 1895. In 1922 Bowie returned to Lehigh to earn his doctorate in the same field. Bowie credited Professor Mansfield Merriman with encouraging him to become involved with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. "This life appealed to me, for I liked the out of doors and had in me something of the spirit of the explorer," Bowie wrote.

The U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey

Just a few days after his Lehigh graduation, on July 1, 1895, Bowie joined The U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, where he spent his entire career. During his first few years he was engaged in field work involving geodetic, topographic, and hydrographic measurements in the continental United States, Alaska, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. "I have seen much of the surface of the earth while making surveys of almost every kind," Bowie said. In 1909 Bowie was appointed Chief of the Division of Geodesy, U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. He held this position until his retirement from active duty on December 31, 1936. While chief of the division he greatly improved the simplicity and productivity of triangulation work with what is now called the "Bowie method." He urged the preparation of more maps of better quality and coordination between various map-making agencies of the federal government. During World War I Bowie served as a major in the U.S. Army in the mapping division of the Office of the Corps of Engineers. After the war he became an expert in the field of isostasy, the state of gravitational equilibrium between the earth's lithosphere and asthenosphere, and published a book, titled ''Isostasy,'' which was published in 1927 and became an instant classic.

Recognition and Awards

Bowie's achievements and contributions to the field of geophysics were recognized internationally by the National Academy of Sciences, the French academy of Sciences, and various academies in Norway, Mexico, Russia, and Finland. He received honorary doctorate degrees from Trinity College, Lehigh University, George Washington University, and Edinburgh University in Scotland. Bowie helped found the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and served as its first president from 1919-1922. He also served a second term as president, making him the only person to hold the position twice, from 1929-1933. In 1939, the William Bowie Medal was created by the AGU in Bowie's honor. It is the most prestigious American geophysical award and recognizes outstanding contributions to fundamental geophysics and unselfish cooperation in research. The first annual award was given to Bowie in 1939. Other awards include the Elliot Cresson medal in 1937 by the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia, the Charles Lagrange prize by the Royal Academy of Belgium in 1932, appointed officer in the Order of Orange-Nassau by the Queen of the Netherlands in 1937 and the decoration of the Cross of Grand Officer of the Order of St. Sava from Yugoslavia in 1939. Bowie died in August 1940, leaving behind his wife Elizabeth and son Clagett.

Monday, May 6, 1872
Annapolis, MD
Date of Death: 
Thursday, August 1, 1940
B.S., Ph.D. Civil Engineering
Notable Achievement: 
World-renowned former chief of the Division of Geodesy, U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey