Professor William Aitken Miller 1886-1958

His Life and Work
Lately Reader in Civil Engineering

This address, illustrated by lantern slides, was delivered in the Peter Nicol Russell School of Engineering on the 21st February, 1959, to a meeting of the University of Sydney Civil Engineering Graduates' Association by Mr. H. J. Vogan –a friend and a colleague.


Prof Miller

Mr. Chairman, fellow Graduates,

At a recent meeting of your Committee two decisions were reached. The first was most fitting–that arrangements should be made for a 'talk on Professor Miller and his life and work. The second was more difficult, namely the choice of a speaker, and in this instance I fear I cannot so readily agree with nor applaud the conclusion.

I do indeed feel very honoured, and I have given considerable thought as to what would be most apt and adequate, yet I feel that a speaker more facile and perhaps less ponderous would have done more justice to the occasion. On the other hand I realise that there are some advantages on my side in that 1 was a "foundation member" of that ever-growing band of his ardent admirers, and in addition it was my pleasure and my privilege to have worked with him for the whole of his lifetime in Australia.

William Aitken Miller was born in Scotland in 1886. He was trained at the Royal Glasgow Technical College, and at the Glasgow University where he obtained the degree of Bachelor of Science. He then obtained experience with Sir William Copland, Consulting Engineer, and in his father's firm of contracting engineers, James Miller and-Sons. During this period he also spent a great deal of time and energy on another great interest in his life–music. His special delight was in organ music and choral works: I believe that the professional income from training choirs helped him very considerably whilst attending his undergraduate course in engineering, and I do know that he always had an especially soft spot in his heart for any of our undergraduates who found it necessary to supplement his finances in other fields. He was also associated for some years with the world famous Orpheus Choir under Sir Hugh S. Roberton.

This linkage of music and engineering, at first sight perhaps unexpected, seems to have some deep roots. For many years in our Matriculation Regulations, where the subjects are classified into groups of correlated interests, we find that the only other subject placed with mathematics was music. Some of you will also remember with pleasure Professor William H. Warren with his lovely tenor voice, singing at professional level French and Italian Opera at our annual dinner of engineering graduates anti undergraduates. As an encore it always had to he "Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes". Never would he sing unless Archie Ranclaud; another of our engineers, was present as his accompanist. So far Professor J. W. Roderick, the third holder of the Chair and the third William, has not shown us his musical ability, but we are still hoping.

Miller's life in Scotland in those days wasn't all theory of structures and practice of music. The climate, the hours and the work were tough and hard, especially in the hurly burly of contractors' camps, and I remember "Willie" telling me a story of his early days when as a very young man he was threatened in his office by a large Irish navy. As he said, "luckily there was a pick handle nearby and I was able to maintain the rights of our profession". You will realize that he was already displaying one of his later traits - he was never afraid of getting down to do a job himself.

Another example comes to mind. Finding that knowledge of a foreign language had become a sudden necessity, he decided to teach himself French by reading French newspapers, which at the time, 1909, were full of Louis Bleriot's Channel crossing by aircraft. Luck held this time. Next morning he found that an essay on aeronautics was the main question on the examination.

Professor Miller arrived in Australia shortly before the 1914-18 War, from military service in which he was successfully restrained by action of Professor Warren who was deeply involved in war work. The Commonwealth Government was so greatly impressed by Warren's personal reputation, and by the high standard of our Materials Testing Laboratories that they readily granted his wishes in such matters.

Thus it was that Miller, at the completion of the war, found himself the tutor, guide, student adviser, and almost "in loco parentis" to the returned soldier undergraduates in engineering. Although officially he was concerned mainly with design he was able by the exercise of considerable tact to obtain the Professor's permission to cover much wider fields. Here it was that he first endeared himself as a person as well as a teacher to the undergraduates. Time permits me to quote only one example of the tremendous regard in which he was held by his students. The 1924 Civil graduates, the largest group up to that time, had annually since graduation held a dinner, at which Professor Miller was not only the guest but their old teacher, their friend, and in later years almost a colleague. This was a reunion which he really enjoyed and which he never missed save in one year, 1936, which he was in England. During the evening he was always presented with a cheque which, by mutual agreement, was devoted to building up a fine departmental library. Towards the close of his career we find another group, the 1950 graduates, carrying out a similar scheme.

And so the years passed on, Miller working, if possible, harder, and for longer hours; never sparing himself; always doing more and more for Warren, of whom he was almost a fanatical admirer, and/or his junior colleagues and his students. He tried hard to alter the attitude of those students who, in his own words, were "nothing but creators of algebra". Because he himself disliked long laborious calculations, he was ever devising "shortcuts" and neater methods, expending as he once said, "a great deal of work to save work". It is worth noting that Warren in Part II of his book, "Engineering Construction", reproduced one of these artifices for simplification of the analysis of the stresses in the rigid arch rib. Warren added, ""in my opinion the method possesses many advantages and will be found to be a valuable addition to the literature on the subject".

Prof Miller with colleagues

In 1926 the death of Warren, whose title was Professor of Engineering, Miller was appointed to the Chair of Civil Engineering. This was a new Chair and the appointment was truly earned and well deserved. There was an interesting and unusual prelude to this appointment, in that a number of our graduates presented a petition to the Senate setting out a strong case for his selection. I understand that their request received fitting consideration.

Looking back at the progress of Civil Engineering over the period 1931-51 under Professor Miller, one sees that there were five epochs: (i) First World War; (ii) Rehabilitation of returned men; (iii) World depression; (iv) Second World War; (v) Rehabilitation of returned men. These were troublous times for a head of a department offering him scant opportunity for normal planning and departmental development, and even less chance of putting ideas into practice.

Miller was nearly always short of staff, at times desperately so; he was limited in building space and equipment; he lacked funds, but he and his staff had any amount of hard work, overtime, calls from the Army for accelerated courses, evening classes, and plenty of students. At times they came in veritable hordes.

These were the conditions, especially from 1946 onwards, which took such a heavy toll of the health of Professor Miller, and left him physically, unable to enjoy to the full a well-earned retirement.

Let us now look at some of the changes which took place during these years.

Reference to the table below shows clearly the small numbers of full-time permanent staff, and the embarrassing disparity between their rate of increase and of the rate of increase in student numbers.

The table below and the graph show the remarkable variations in student numbers both in the Engineering School and the University.

Graph of student numbers




First year

Fourth Year























Increase from 1914-18 to 1939-51 (approx)




Note: First year numbers cover students in all engineering departments, whereas the fourth year numbers refer to civil engineering students only

In addition to the terrifying increase in student-staff ratio there has been a definite change in the character of the student himself. Without discussing here the cause, or possibly many causes of this change, there is little doubt that students now are less self-reliant and require much more assistance and "spoon feeding" than those of the 1914 period. In passing we note that in Great Britain one in six hundred of the population attend the universities, while in New South Wales one in two hundred are enrolled at the University of Sydney alone. Are we three times more, brilliant or are we now accepting a lower standard of matriculation?

Briefly reviewing the building situation during Miller's term

The construction of the isolated Workshop Block to the main PNR building by a three storey wing (1920).
The exodus of Electrical Engineering to the old Physics Building (1926).
The construction of the Aeronautical and Hydrodynamic Laboratories (2nd War period, 1939-42).
The new Concrete and Second Year Laboratories near the Electrical Building (Post 2nd War, 1946).
The addition of a gallery to the P.N.R. Lecture Theatre, increasing its seating capacity from two hundred to three hundred (Post 2nd War, 1945).

These extensions, though very welcome, gave only temporary relief to Civil Engineering, for as the humors of students continued to increase more rapidly, repetition of lectures and the quadruplication of laboratory classes eventually became necessary.

The Course
In spite of these difficulties many developments took place in the course. Whilst carrying on all the best traditions built up in Professor Warren's regime of forty-three years, Professor Miller enriched the course still further by many human and technical improvements.

Staff-Student Relationship
One of his most important contributions was to change the staff-student relationship. Miller, setting the example to his staff, brought about a gradual change from the old impersonal attitude towards students to a more personal one wherein each student was known individually to every member of the staff. Lectures became less austere, questions were put and answered, and brief friendly discussions took place. Alas, when student numbers mounted to nearly five hundred in the first year, such ideals had to be abandoned.

Departmental Library
The departmental library started as a small bookcase with about half-a-dozen books available only to our fourth year men. From this the library took life and has grown until the total number of books and periodicals now approaches two thousand.

Foreign Literature
Miller himself was a constant reader of French, German and Swiss journals. He felt it was to the fourth year students' advantage to translate an article from a foreign journal, abstract it, and discuss it in a seminar. This practice had later to be discontinued as so many students were unable to read a foreign language.

Post-Graduate Courses
The first post-graduate course in civil engineering was instituted by him in 1931. He, with three of his colleagues. gave evening lectures and demonstrations in structures, materials, hydraulics, and, surveying. Much of the subject matter was centred about work developed by members of the staff.

Aeronautical Engineering
With his own ever-ready help and encouragement, two members of his staff in 1926 organised the first course to be held in Sydney on the subject of aeronautical engineering. This was followed some five years later by the Taylor Memorial Lectures and other private and public courses. It is interesting to reflect that today many of the senior positions in the aeronautical field are filled by graduates in civil engineering. A Civil graduate is the only Australian who has designed aircraft which has a very valuable English export market.

Soil Mechanics
The germ of this modern complaint, soil mechanics, goes back to x93o when an investigation was carried out for the Department of Main Roads on the stability of black soil and sand mixtures. In those days this was rather an achievement as little was known of the "Science of Mud Pies". As the science gradually developed overseas, more orthodox methods and lectures came into being, but the big step ahead in this direction came after Miller's retirement.

Visual Aids
The use of visual aids in a large way was not possible on account of lack of funds. However the generous use of lantern slides, the introduction of epidiascopes and of motion films to a lesser degree, and the use of numerous lecture room models and exhibits, marked the introduction to this form of teaching technique. :

Experimental Work
A strong point in Miller's policy was the development of experimental work in laboratory, field and drawing office, anti although this absorbed time for both staff anti students the results were more than satisfactory.

Growth also took place in experimental work in connection with fourth year theses. This contrasted strongly with the theoretical essay writing of former years.

As early as 1926, tutorials were introduced for second year students and were carried on most successfully until the numbers of students made the task impossible.

Six Months' Experience
The complete freedom granted to the student to carry out his six months' practice in third year gave rise to a casual, irresponsible attitude on the part of many students. Professor Miller's policy requiring a report which had to be presented at a seminar created an important change in the attitude of the student, enabling him to derive more benefit from his field work, and more important still, it helped to transform a mere schoolboy into a young engineer ,with the beginnings of a professional outlook

Survey Camp
The project of a survey camp originated by Professor Miller has always proved to be more than satisfactory. In fact it is thought that this camp and our six months' practice are two of the outstanding features of the course.

Soon after his appointment to the Chair, Miller encouraged his staff to reorganise completely the course in hydraulics from the old system based on numerous "variable constants" to one in which basic principles were those of Osborne Reynolds and Lord Rayleigh, coupled with the recent German developments. Practically all the usual analytical treatments were recast so that they were developed logically from the basic mathematical equations.

Review of Standards
At the end of ten years in the Chair, Professor Miller travelled to Britain, partly on sick leave and partly to obtain a measure of his stewardship by making a comparison with standards overseas. He came back reassured that the course here was probably above the average standard, and in many fields welt ahead of the best he had seen overseas. For example in several cases he was able to inform Ph.D. students of the results which they would finally obtain in their experimental work, as this work had already been traversed by our fourth year men ht their normal course. He was led to consider whether, perhaps, too much was being attempted in Sydney. This reaction, rather than one of boastfulness, was typical of Miller. Comparisons are very difficult but not entirely unnecessary, even though at times they may be invidious.

Large scale fundamental research was not possible for several reasons, such as the national exigencies mentioned earlier, and the extremely low staff-student ratio. Teaching too, was always given priority of place. Nevertheless a great deal of valued assistance in many forms- advisory, experimental, analytical - was given by the department and by individual members of his staff to Commonwealth and State departments, semi-governmental authorities and to industry generally, strengthening goodwill and the reputation of this department . As far as his own personal research work was concerned, it is unfortunate that, save for his thesis for the degree of Master of Engineering, little was published. His work seems to fall into two correlated spheres, the first being the analytical study of statically indeterminate structures; the second sphere was that known today by the high-sounding title, "Experimental Stress Analysis".

The advantages of model analysis were early foreseen by Miller, who was working here at the same time that Beggs in Princeton and Gottschalk in Buenos Ayres were developing the small-displacement-celluloid and large-displacement-spline models respectively. This was in the early 1920's.

Miller's main contribution would have been in the spline type of model very simply held by pins, but Gottschalk, with whom he was corresponding, suddenly produced the "Continostat", which consisted of splines held in elaborate, patented type of supports. Being forestalled was a disappointment to Miller, none-the-less because it is a not uncommon happening among research workers.

Simultaneously he was developing the Beggs' celluloid-model-method and determining its reliability and accuracy as compared with calculation. When satisfied in this regard, he made use of it for such investigations as the influence of arch rise upon economy, and especially the interaction between floor system and arch rib. An actual application of this was made in x936 to assist the Department of Main Roads in the design of what was for that time a large, rigid, arch bridge replacing Warren's suspension bridge at Northbridge. The experiments confirmed Miller's earlier views that it was on the unsafe side to neglect this interaction effect. The corresponding mathematical analysis involved equations with twenty-eight unknowns.

Miller the Man
Now I come to the most difficult part of this address, Miller the man. I feel that I must steer a steady course between Scylla and Charybdis - the overpowering desire to talk in superlatives of one I 'knew and loved so well, and the man's own insistence upon the barest of comment on his own actions.

May I summarize as I knew the man–quiet, reliable and solid, knowledgeable, modest, generous, kindly and lovable, though slow but sure in initiating friendships, and puritanically honest in thought and action.

In the gathering here, where I will not be misunderstood, I would add that he naturally hail inherited some of the attractive dourness from his Scottish ancestry. He valued men for their personal worth and integrity, and such matters as position, birth or "the old school tie" at no time carried any weight with him.

Loyal to his countries of birth and adoption, to his university, to his staff and to his students, he yet treated loyally as something intrinsic not needing to be bolstered with words. The story is told how, after many years of valuable service on the City of Sydney Board of Appeal in relation to Building Regulations, it became necessary, due to reorganization under a new Act, for all members to swear an oath of allegiance. This he indignantly refused to do, preferring to retire from this position of distinction.

He was a remarkable blend of conservatism and liberalism. He was a great admirer of those early giants of engineering, such as Rankine, Bach, Osborne-Reynolds, Unwin, Bauschinger, Muller-Breslau, Brunell and Telford, and he scorned such slogans as "It must be right–it's modern". New methods though, he would gladly accept if they could be proved better than the old. This process of satisfying himself could often be expensive in midnight oil.

Flag at half mast on Prof Millers Death

He hated deceit, sharp practice and intrigue, and had imagined that these could be troubles of the past when he gave up the contractors' Camp for the ivory tower. But alas, he found on occasion that cliques and intrigues were rampant. It was with great self control that, at such times, he mostly followed a gentleman's course. I very well remember another occasion when an auditor came in to question him about the procedure relative to testing fees. The air was electric from the start, but when by innuendo some suggestion was made that irregular practices could occur, the balloon burst, and I have always thought that the safe removal of the astonished auditor from our office was one of the outstanding feats of my career.

On another occasion a suggestion that he might be associated with practices which at the worst might be slightly astute led to an amusing climax. He was being driven home across the Harbour Bridge and had just cleared the main arch when his colleague, who was a consulting engineer and a bright businessman to wit, said, "Miller, with my push and your brains there would be no stopping us". Immediately, in spite of all protestations about pedestrians on the roadway, he insisted on being set down and found a somewhat dangerous pathway home among the multitude of cars and their awestricken drivers.

Normally, however, his self control was tremendous anti few have seen him aroused to that anger which bursts forth with sharpened words and argument, and by its very unexpectedness gives added powers to its assault. To my knowledge these so rare outbursts only occurred when one of his colleagues or his beloved department were being unjustly attacked.

He was blessed with an excellent memory, which enabled him to have almost a photographic record of references to literature, and. to recall faces, names and information about his students past and present. In this latter direction he was not quite in the class of W. A. Selle, who was phenomenal.

Teaching, in its widest form, he considered was a more important function of a university than did many of his colleagues, and he was indeed a teacher of the first order. To many hundreds of students who passed through the "School" during his leadership, the death of Professor Miller will mean a sad, personal loss. In his quiet, lovable attitude towards his fellow men, in his strong sense of loyalty, and in his personal identification with their problems, his students found friendship as well as inspiration.

Those staff members who had the opportunity of working under his guidance realize that theirs was no) mean privilege. At no time did he force his views or opinions on his colleagues; but he was always ready when need arose, to postpone his own tasks in order to discuss the problems of others, invariably offering the fruits of his wisdom and experience in the form of sound practical advice or constructive criticism.

It was characteristic of his attitude that the teaching of descriptive geometry, unpopular with students and staff alike, was year after year undertaken by "Willie", as he was affectionately known to all. He firmly held the view that unpleasant duties should not just be thrust upon juniors, and equally firmly he believed that "freshers" should have contact with and guidance from the head of the department. His methods were successful, although one wit was heard to remark that "learning D.G. was bad enough, but learning it in Gaelic was the unkindest cut of all".

Professor Miller was the most modest as well as the most charitable of men. Often he would decry his powers of expression, saying that he had learned English as a foreign language, but those who knew his writings were struck by his neat turn of phrase and impeccable style. No idle gossip ever passed his lips, and of his friends he would hear no wrong. He could always be relied upon to produce a kindly explanation of any action, perhaps misconstrued by others as a slight fall from grace. Generous to a fault, he disliked any parade of it, and so it was typical of him that the most expensive badge he could buy for a charity was always under the lapel of his coat.

His modesty, alas, is a trial and tribulation to his biographers.

It is largely due to his lifelong devotion that the School has acquired an almost human personality, which I am told many graduates in other faculties admire in ours, as it is unfortunately so often missing in their own.

Gentlemen, may I conclude by quoting the words which Horace applied to his own works. They are taken from the last Ode of Book III, and evidently Horace considered that his successful introduction of the Grecian style into Latin verse was an outstanding achievement. I would apply them to the life work of William Aitken Miller:-

"Exegi monumentum aere perennius .... "
and for those who learnt their Latin with a different pronunciation, I might be permitted to repeat the line in our mother tongue and even to extend the quotation:-

"I have raised a monument more lasting than bronze, and more sublime than the regal elevations of pyramids, which neither the wasting' shower, the unavailing North Wind, nor an innumerable succession of years and the flight of seasons, shall be able to demolish.

"I shall not wholly die .... "

Additional information on William Aitken Miller Provided by Ian Bowie, Honorary Associate, Department of Civil Engineering

Born: Kirkintilloch, Scotland, 15 February 1886 Died: Sydney, New South Wales, 19 November, 1958

His early training was at the Royal Technical College, Glasgow. He received a Bachelor of Science (in Civil Engineering), from the University of Glasgow, 1913. He performed his practical experience with his father's construction company.

He was a Lecturer in Civil Engineering, The University of Sydney, from 1914, and received a Masters of Engineering from The University of Sydney in 1921.

Miller was the first to hold the title of Professor of Civil Engineering at The University of Sydney (1926 - 1951) after the retirement of W. H. Warren as Professor of Engineering.

Professor Miller extensively researched the use of scale models and analogues in the design of structures, an application being in the design of the 1937 arch bridge at Northbridge, New South Wales.