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Archives at The Museum of Flight


Peter M. Bowers Photograph Collection and Papers

 Collection
Identifier: 2008-03-31
The Peter M. Bowers Collection is comprised of approximately 43,000 negatives and 150,000 prints, as well as glass plates, scrapbooks, transparencies, correspondence, writings, and research files and additional audio-visual materials. This collection is significant for its documentation, especially visual, on thousands of types of aircraft produced over the course of the twentieth century. The collection is arranged into six series: I. Photographs, II. Correspondence, III. Manuscripts, IV. Research Files, V. Audiovisual Material and VI. Personal.

Series I., Photographs, at more than 229 cubic feet, is by far the largest and most significant component of the collection, spanning the beginning of aviation history in the early 1900s until Bowers’ death in 2003. The vast majority of photographic items are black-and-white prints and negatives, though some color prints and transparencies are present. The series is divided into five subseries: aircraft files, non-aircraft files, glass plates, scrapbooks and albums, and the Eugene M. Sommerich collection.

The aircraft files include prints, negatives, and transparencies, totaling more than 210 cubic feet with more than 142,000 items. These files illustrate the first century of crewed flight. Because this collection was started during the period 1919-1945, when few resources existed documenting aviation history, the collection began as a self-education tool but became a resource for Bowers’ own publications and is a well-rounded collection. As a Boeing employee, Bowers had great access to photographs and information about their aircraft, and this is reflected in the collection as many official Boeing photographs are present. Other significant manufacturers, especially American ones, are well represented. Bowers also had a strong interest in gliders, “one-offs” and one-of-a-kind “home built” aircraft, and his involvement with the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) is especially rich in describing these types of aircraft. The hundreds of thousands examples of images flying machines in the collection attest to Bowers’ determination to document at least one of every aircraft every conceived.

The non-aircraft files consist predominantly of prints, making up about nine cubic feet of material, or about 2,800 items. These files include biographical subjects, general aviation subjects, and various groups, such as military branches and squadrons. The glass plate negatives include a large number of images related to Glenn Curtiss and his early aircraft as well as views of a variety of aircraft and dirigibles.The scrapbooks and albums, consisting of about five cubic feet, appear to be items collected from others. These cover various topics and seem to be primarily related to early aviation (circa 1910s-1920s). The Eugene M. Sommerich collection is a discrete set of items Bowers obtained from Sommerich, consisting of 1,826 medium-format black-and-white negatives of aircraft (about two cubic feet).

Series II., the Correspondence Series, consists of nine cubic feet of incoming letters dating from 1945-2003 and largely supports the Photographs series. The materials are arranged alphabetically by correspondent, including other notable aviation historians such as William T. Larkins and Gordon S. Williams. The correspondence is comprised of detailed letters describing trades of images, purchases, or quests to “fill known gaps” in understanding. There are very frequent references to loans, contested trades, etc., with correspondents who are since known to have passed, leading to the conclusion that, while he was generous and sympathetic to many diverse projects worldwide, he was a poor record keeper of what he had actually loaned out in good faith. Bowers rarely retained copies of his own outgoing correspondence which, inevitably, results in “hearing only half” of every conversation.

Series III. Manuscripts is made up of six cubic feet documents related to Bowers’ writings. Arranged alphabetically by title or subject, the files include drafts of his hundreds of articles, which were primarily written out by hand in pencil, though some are typewritten. With 350 files in this series, these files are not a complete representation of all his work. Given how prolific a writer he was, this appears to be a small fraction of his writing. Primarily present are drafts of articles rather than of his books.

The Research Files series (Series IV.) supports the Photographs series in that it provides more data and information on the aircraft that Bowers was researching. With 18 cubic feet of materials, thare a variety of types of documents, including drawings, articles, and reports. While most files are related to aircraft and manufacturers, some are biographical and some are on broader subjects. About two cubic feet of material makes up the Audiovisual series, which includes video tapes, film and audio recordings. The final series, Personal, is the smallest series at under one cubic foot, and consists of things like certificates, letters of commendation, clippings, and business cards.

A few boxes of unsorted materials remain unprocessed and will be integrated into the above series.

During processing of the collection it became apparent that some major components to be expected in Bowers’ collection were absent. Most notably, the aircraft produced by the U.S. manufacturer Curtiss was a consuming interest for Bowers; he in fact produced a seminal work in the acclaimed Putnam series devoted to Curtiss, Curtiss-Wright and its entire product line. However, it was found that entire series of aircraft described in this very same volume were missing entirely from his carefully organized negative files, and the Correspondence series, which abounds with detailed discussions about his many book projects, is almost entirely devoid of exchanges relating to Curtiss. These materials were apparently separated from the collection prior to its acquisition by The Museum. Bowers’ also lost a portion of his photo collection to a fire in the 1990s. It is unknown how much or what exactly was lost in the fire, though some of Bowers’ friends estimate that the fire consumed 50-70% of his collection, including not only images but aircraft parts, research files, and manuscripts.

Dates

  • circa 1900s-2003

Creator

Language of Materials

The majority of materials are in English. Some materials are in German, French and Italian.

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research but has not been fully processed. Access to the collection may be limited or may require additional processing time. For more information contact us.

Conditions Governing Use

The Museum of Flight (TMOF) Archives is the owner of the physical materials in the archives and makes available reproductions for research, publication, and other uses. Written permission must be obtained from TMOF archives before any publication use. TMOF does not necessarily hold copyright to all of the materials in the collections. In some cases, permission for use may require seeking additional authorization from copyright owners. Consult repository for more details.

Extent

249 Cubic Feet

Overview

Peter M. Bowers (1918-2003) was an aeronautical engineer at The Boeing Company for 36 years but was more noted as an aviation historian who wrote several dozen books and close to 900 articles on aircraft. This collection is notable for the approximately 150,000 photographic images he amassed during his career, as well as his writing and research files. The materials span the early 1900s to 2003.

Biographical Note: Peter M. Bowers

Peter M. Bowers (1918-2003) was an aeronautical engineer at The Boeing Company for 36 years but was more noted as an aviation historian considered to have encyclopedic knowledge. He wrote several dozen books and nearly 900 articles on historic aircraft. He was also an avid aviation photographer and home-built aircraft enthusiast.

Born May 15, 1918 in San Francisco, California to Wilder J. and Lloyd Bowers, Peter Meiere Bowers was a child of the Great Depression, and grew up in the midst of the practical evolution of manned flight. His mother was an aircraft modeler and won several competitions in California with rubber-band powered models of her own creation. Bowers, too, was an avid modeler and as a youth was known to have spent his free time making models of World War I-era aircraft. He even began contributing drawings and articles about his models to nationally-distributed model magazines by 1937.

In 1940, Bowers enrolled in the Boeing School of Aeronautics in Oakland, California. This two-year aeronautical engineering program included engineering classes as well as mechanical training. When the United States entered World War II, he joined the Engineering Cadet program for the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF). He was commissioned in 1943, serving in the China-Burma-India Theater as a Maintenance and Technical Intelligence Officer. Then he worked for the USAAF’s Aircraft Recognition Program. During the war he also pursued his hobby as a photographer. In 1947 he was hired on by Boeing as an aeronautical engineer. He worked there for 36 1/2 years, retiring in 1983.

Alongside his Boeing career, Bowers researched aviation history and wrote extensively. He wrote articles for such magazines as Wings and Airpower, and in 1972 he began contributing to General Aviation News with his recurring column “Of Wings and Things.” Among his books, he contributed to the acclaimed Putnam series with titles on Curtiss, Boeing and U.S. military aircraft, and he wrote numerous other monographs.

Having grown up watching Germany’s defeat in World War I, Bowers launched a single-handed crusade to document German and Austro-Hungarian aviation. He connected with like-minded aviation historians in Germany and elsewhere, including Heinz “Heini” Nowarra and others. After World War II, he again attempted to document the wartime Luftwaffe (destroyed German air force), fearing that this, too, would escape documentation in the post-war period in a nation brought to the verge of destruction.

Bowers and his historian peers, often described as “The First Wave” of aviation historians to be produced in this country, conducted in-depth research via voluminous correspondence, copious notes, and of course the and the growth of quality amateur photography. As part of his research, he built up a vast collection of aviation photography with images of his own and with prints that he collected from others. Among his friends were Gordon S. Williams, Bill Larkins, and Harold Martin. Bowers relied on his friends, colleagues, and other correspondents to provide images and information, rather than conducting much primary research himself in archival repositories.

At some point, Bowers became interested in soaring aviation (gliders), and made a concerted effort to document the extraordinary growth and popularity of this relatively inexpensive way to fly post-war. Many of the gliders he documented and photographed were “one-offs” or one-of-a-kind “home built” gliders.

Bowers was also one of the very first home builders of aircraft in the post-war period. After receiving his own pilot’s license in February 1948, he began designing his own aircraft. The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) had formed in 1952, and Bowers was instrumental in launching the Seattle chapter in 1956, becoming its first president. The EAA held a homebuilt design contest, for which Bowers developed the Fly Baby, ultimately winning the contest in 1962. He published plans for this “kit” aircraft, likely selling more than 5,000 copies. He used a convention of numbering his sets of plans; for example, the first one sold in the calendar year 1964 was 64-1. As a direct consequence, many of those who actually completed their own Fly Babys used this number as the required FAA Manufacturers Serial Number. At least 69 have been identified, but there were probably many more, as some builders invented their own numbers and named them after themselves, such as the Hagedorn Fly Baby 1-As, as built by Dan Hagedorn.

Bowers also took part in the construction and nation-wide demonstration of a 1912 Curtiss Pusher aircraft, a replica Wright “Vin Fiz,” several World War II-era replicas, the legendary Peer Gynt, a Detroit Gull primary glider, and, finally, the Bowers Model 5 “Namu” light cabin aircraft.

Bowers was active with the American Aviation Historical Society, Antique Aircraft Association, and the Soaring Society of America. He was inducted into the EAA Homebuilder’s Hall of Fame posthumously in 2004, after passing on April 27, 2003 from cancer.

Arrangement

The collection was maintained at Bowers’ home and packed onsite by Museum staff and transferred directly to The Museum. Original organization was maintained as much as possible, though the original organizational system was very idiosyncratic. Only some materials were filed in cabinets, but the majority of things were simply stacked on any available surface in his home, including sofas, tables and the floor. Rooms were photographed before packing, the stacks of items were packed in order, and original locations noted on boxes in order to track and preserve any original organization.

After transfer to the Museum, the collection was more carefully surveyed and the following arrangement was determined:
  • Photographs
  • Aircraft files
  • Prints
  • Negatives
  • Transparencies
  • Custodial History

    Peter M. Bowers, an avid supporter of Northwest aviation, was a founding member of the Museum of Flight, and as such, he willed his entire collection to the Museum. After his death in April 2003, some members of the Bowers family contested the bequest in court, but the courts ultimately ruled in favor of the Museum. Museum of Flight employees documented, boxed up and removed the collection which was found scattered throughout his basement, office and garage at his home in Seattle. The collection was moved to the Museum in June of 2005. A small addendum, which had been stored with a friend, was delivered to the Museum in 2021.

    Accruals

    No further accruals are expected.

    Existence and Location of Copies

    Materials from this collection have been digitized and are available at The Museum of Flight Digital Collections.

    Related Materials at the Museum of Flight

    Similar photographic collections in our holdings:
    • William T. Larkins Photograph Collection, 2014-08-20
    • Gordon Williams collections (multiple accessions)
    • John Klinkam Photograph Collection, 2008-07-16
    • Jack Lambert Photograph Collection, 2011-06-25
    • Bernard Schureman Photograph Collection, 2012-10-24

    Sources

    In addition to information found within the collection and in-depth knowledge of our Curator Emeritus Dan Hagedorn, the following sources were used:
    • The Museum of Flight Biographical Files
    • Wikipedia. “Peter M. Bowers.” Accessed August 12, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_M._Bowers
    • BowersFlyBaby.com “Peter M. Bowers,” Access August 12, 2020. http://www.bowersflybaby.com/bowers/

    Processing Information

    The collection has not yet been fully processed but processing work is ongoing. Most of the collection is accessible but some portions, including the Personal series, Audiovisual series, and the slides and transparencies within the Photographs series, remain inaccessible pending processing. For more information contact us.
    Title
    Guide to the Peter M. Bowers Photograph Collection and Papers
    Status
    Completed - Level 2
    Author
    N. Davis, D. Hagedorn, archives staff and volunteers
    Date
    2020
    Description rules
    dacs
    Language of description
    English
    Edition statement
    1st edition

    Repository Details

    Part of the The Museum of Flight Archives Repository

    Contact:
    9404 East Marginal Way South
    Seattle Washington 98108-4097
    206-764-7874


    The Museum of Flight | 9404 E. Marginal Way South | Seattle WA 98108-4097 | 206-764-5874
    Contact us with a research request
    curator@museumofflight.org