William Bowie – Captain, United States Army U. S. Coast & Geodetic Survey

From a contemporary press report: 28 February 1937


Captain William Bowie retired from active duty on December 31, 1936, after 41-1/2 years of service, during which he won national and international recognition in the science of geodesy and geophysics.

His early education was in public schools and private academies and St. Johns College at Annapolis, Maryland, and he later received degrees at Trinity College (B. S., 1893, M. A., 1907, Sc. D., 1919), Lehigh University (C. E., 1895, Sc. D., 1922), and University of Edinburgh, Scotland (LL. D., 1936).

Entering the service of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey July 1, 1895, as a field engineer, his assignments included operations in many States of the Union, Alaska, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. In October 1909 he was appointed inspector of geodetic work and chief of the Computing Division, a title later changed to chief of the Division of Geodesy. He held this position continuously until the time of his retirement.

While chief of the Division of Geodesy, triangulation work was increased from 10,000 to 68,000 miles; leveling from 30,000 to 261,000 miles, gravity from 60 to 720 stations; and astronomical Laplace stations from about 32 to 390. Due to his inspiration and guidance many improvements in instruments, equipment, and field and office methods were made. When in 1924 a new method for adjusting a triangulation net was needed because of the vast amount of labor involved in the method then in use, he conceived the idea of the establishment of junction figures and the adjustment of the intervening arcs as separate sections. This method simplified enormously the work of such an adjustment.

An ardent advocate of good maps as a measure of national defense and economy and the conservation of our natural resources, he took advantage of every opportunity to emphasize the importance of control surveys as a prerequisite in the Nation-wide problem of surveying and mapping. He also initiated the movement which resulted in the adoption for the North American Continent of a single geodetic datum now known as the North American Datum of 1927; he was instrumental in the formation of the Board of Surveys and Maps, later to become the Federal Board of Surveys and Maps; and he took an active part in the creation of the division of surveying and mapping of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Captain Bowie is the author of over 250 publications or articles on triangulation, leveling, gravity, isostasy, and allied topics, and has contributed innumerable feature articles for newspapers and magazines.

During the World War, from August 1918 to February 1919, he served in the Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army, with the rank of Major.

In 1932 he was awarded the Charles Lagrange prize by the Society of Sciences of the Royal Academy of Belgium in recognition of his work in unifying the triangulation system of North America.

He is a member of the following scientific and engineering societies: Academy of Sciences of Norway; National Academy of History and Geography (Mexico); Russian Geographical Society; International Geodetic Association (President, 1919-33); International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (President, 1933-36); Pan American Institute of Geography and History (Honorary President, 1929); National Academy of Sciences; National Research Council; American Geographical Society; American Astronomical Society; American Society of Photogrammetry; American Geophysical Union (Chairman, 1929-32); American Association for the Advancement of Science; American Society of Civil Engineers (Chairman, Division of Surveying and Mapping, 1926); American Institute of Consulting Engineers; National Geographic Society; Society of American Military Engineers (Vice President, 1934); Seismological Society of America; Geological Society of America; South Carolina Society of Civil Engineers; Washington Society of Engineers (President, 1914); Federal Board of Surveys and Maps (chairman, 1922-24); Geological Society of Washington; Philosophical Society of Washington (President, 1926); Washington Academy of Sciences (President, 1930); Sigma Xi (President, D.C. chapter, 1935-37); Phi Beta Kappa; D.K.E. Club; and Cosmos Club.

Captain William Bowie, United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, retired, died in Mt. Alto Hospital in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday morning, August 25, 1940, after an illness of about 3 weeks.

Born in nearby Anne Arundel County, Maryland, May 6, 1872, the son of Thomas John and Susanna (Anderson) Bowie, Captain Bowie received his early education in the public schools and at private academies. He received degrees at Trinity College (B. S., 1893, M. S. 1907, Sc. D. 1919); Lehigh University (C. E. 1895, Sc. D. 1922); University of Edinburgh, Scotland (LL. D. 1936); and George Washington University (LL. D. 1937).

Entering the service of the Coast and Geodetic Survey on July 1, 1895, he served as a junior officer in the field and later as chief of a group engaged on triangulation and base line measurements in many states of the Union as well as in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Alaska, until his appointment as Chief of the Division of Geodesy in 1909. He rendered distinguished service in this position until his retirement December 31, 1936.

During the World War he was commissioned a Major in the Corps of Engineers, United States Army, and was assigned to the Mapping Division of the Office of the Chief of Engineers in Washington, D.C.

His brilliantly alert mind and thorough knowledge, coupled with his untiring energy, won for him a high place among the leading geodesists of his time. He was widely recognized, both in this country and abroad, for his notable engineering and scientific attainments and for his many valuable contributions to the advancement of his profession.

His development of the theory of isostasy gained him international recognition. He was awarded the Elliott Cresson medal in 1937 by the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia for his contributions to the science of geodesy. He was also awarded the Charles Lagrange prize by the Royal Academy of Belgium, 1932; made an officer in the Order of Orange-Nassau by the Queen of the Netherlands in 1937; and received the decoration of the Cross of Grand Officer of the Order of St. Sava from Yugoslavia in 1939.

The first impression of the medal of the American Geophysical Union, known as the William Bowie medal and established for award for distinguished attainment and outstanding contribution to the advancement of cooperative research in fundamental geophysics, was presented to Captain Bowie at the meeting of the Union in April 1939.

Captain Bowie was interested in many scientific societies and organizations to which he contributed much of his time. He was President, Washington Society of Engineers, 1914; President, Philosophical Society of Washington, 1926; President, Washington Academy of Sciences, 1930; Chairman, American Geophysical Union, 1919-22 and 1929-32; Chairman, Board of Surveys and Maps of the Federal Government, 1922-24; Member, Committee on Surveying and Mapping, American Engineering Council; President, Society of American Military Engineers, 1938; Chairman, Division of Surveying and Mapping of the American Society of Civil Engineers since its organization in 1926; President, District of Columbia Chapter of the Society of Sigma Xi, 1935-36; Honorary President, Pan American Institute of Geography and History, 1929 to date; President, International Geodetic Association, 1919-33; and President, International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics, 1933-36.

He was appointed Executive Secretary of the Society of American Military Engineers in December 1939, and served in that capacity and as editor of the society's magazine, until his death.

Captain Bowie is survived by his widow, Elizabeth T. Bowie; a son, Clagett Bowie, of Baltimore; and two brothers, John Bowie of Grassland, Maryland, and Major Edward Bowie of Berkeley, California.

Funeral services were held at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Washington, D.C., at 1:30 p.m. Friday, August 30, 1940, followed by burial in Arlington National Cemetery.


  • United States Army
  • DATE OF DEATH: 08/28/1940

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