Past and Future of the Civil Engineering School

The University of Sydney
Civil Engineering Graduates Association
Open Day – 17th June 1978
Address by Professor J.W. Roderick Challis Professor of Civil Engineering at The University of Sydney


In 1952, shortly after arriving in Australia, it was my good fortune to take part in the very impressive Centenary Celebrations of this great University. Listening to the addresses by delegates from universities around the world and to orations by distinguished Australians, my sketchy knowledge of the University began to reach back into time with growing admiration; and especially for the vision of those few men who accepted the challenge of founding this, the first university in Australia, way back in 1852. At that time there were in Eastern Australia less than 200,000 people of whom about 40,000 were to be found in what has been described as the straggling town of Sydney. In fact, it did not reach as far as the present site of the University.

Professor Warren and the Early Years

The ceremony of inauguration of the University of Sydney took place on 11th October 1852. In that year the first three appointments were: The Reverend Dr. Woolley as Principal and Professor of Classics: Professor Pell, Professor of Mathematics; and Dr. John Smith, Professor of Chemistry and Experimental Philosophy. In that last title there was at least the glimmerings of engineering.

Prof William Warren

Wh.Sc., M.I.C.E., M.I.E.Aust., LL.D. (1924)

But in that year of 1852 there was indeed a very real beginning to engineering at Sydney, for in Bristol in England was born William Henry Warren who was to become the first Professor of Engineering. Warren grew up in an age of great stability in the long and peaceful reign of Queen Victoria; prosperous years of the great boom of 1863 to 1873, coincident with the railway age – a development in which England was pre-eminent. He was educated at the Royal College of Science, Dublin, and Owens College, Manchester, and gained the coveted Whitworth Scholarship. It was therefore appropriate that a young man with this background should become a pupil or trainee engineer – in the works of the London and Northwestern Railway Company. But by 1875 began a change in England's fortunes; it was marked by a rapid decline in agriculture and the great expansion of the railways was virtually over. It was a period when emigration societies were striving hard to attract people of ability to the British colonies. It was not surprising then, that Warren after a few years of professional practice decided at the age of 29 to set sail for Australia in 1881.

After spending a few years in the public works department he was appointed to the newly created Chair of Engineering at this University, and thanks to the Challis bequest, at the handsome salary of nine hundred pounds per annum. Remembering the low cost of services in those days and the fact that there was no income tax this amounted to something like one hundred thousand dollars of today's money. Professors in those times may have not have been gods, but they were certainly able to live like princes in fine houses with a full complement of servants!

Warren gave his first lectures in a room in the Main Building but by 1885 Engineering had become a department in the School of Natural Philosophy, a low white building with verandah facing Parramatta Road where the old Union now stands. The course was one of three years leading to the degree of Bachelor of Arts; first year was spent in acquiring some Latin and Greek, mathematics, chemistry and the other natural philosophies. The next two years were the sole province of Professor Warren and with an average of three students – and sometimes none at all – the course was conducted in a happy, leisurely atmosphere for a period of nearly thirty years. And perhaps as well in an age when even the students wore waistcoats, watchchains and high stiff standup collars!

The Department consisted then of Warren's room where it is said he kept his books and whisky – watered down, as Bradfield has related, to an unreasonable degree by subsequent generations of students, – a small room where students consumed their lunch, and the lecture room. There was also a drawing office and machine shop which included the Professor's pride and joy, the Greenwood & Batley testing machine which as you know, still holds an honoured place in our present laboratory and is a monument to the early work on materials which formed the basis of Warren's well known book "Engineering Construction in Iron, Steel and Timber" published in 1894. In a second edition sixteen years later the word 'iron' has disappeared from the title and the statement in the Preface to this edition "wrought iron has been replaced by steel" is indicative of the great steps forward taken in Warren's time. A third edition in 1921 included a second volume entitled "Engineering Construction in Masonry and Concrete".

Civil Engineering in 1885


Over the twenty years to 1905 the teaching in the School was practically confined to civil engineering and it was not until 1892 that Mining and Metallurgy was added as an additional department. Separate departments of Mechanical and of Electrical Engineering were established in 1900 and 1905 respectively.

In 1897 student numbers began to increase and strain the very limited accommodation of the Engineering Department. It was therefore opportune that during a visit to London by Professor Warren in 1895, there occurred what has been described as a most fortunate meeting with Sir Peter Russell. As some of you will know he was one of the two brothers who much earlier had owned the prosperous iron foundry located in Russell Street, adjacent to the Darling Harbour Goods Yards. This firm was set up in 1855 – soon after the foundation of the University– and flourished there for many years. Unfortunately in 1875 there occurred a strike for increased pay which could not be resolved, and the outcome was that the Russell brothers sold out in June of that year and returned to London. Some twenty years later, at the time of the meeting with Professor Warren, Sir Peter was approaching his eightieth year and had no children to follow him. He was no doubt impressed by what Warren was able to tell him about engineering at Sydney University – so much so that he decided to endow a new Engineering School with a gift of fifty thousand pounds on 16th December 1895, and a like sum on his death in 1904 at the age of eighty-nine.

SIR PETER RUSSELL (circa 1890)

Peter Nicholl Russell

So it was that in 1909 the new building to be known as the Peter Nicol Russell School of Engineering (now the Woolley Building), was opened to provide for all branches of engineering. You will also know too that this same great benefactor is commemorated throughout Australia by the Peter Nicol Russell Memorial Medal, the senior award of the Institution of Engineers, Australia; the medal was first awarded in 1923 and most appropriately to Professor Warren.

The new building provided Warren with a well equipped Materials Testing Laboratory of world standard. The new equipment purchased at that time included the one million pound Amsler machine which still does excellent service as the largest capacity testing machine in this or any other Civil Engineering Department in Australia.

In 1909 the civil engineering course was still one of three years, though the Arts subjects had disappeared, presumably being replaced by descriptive geometry and mechanical drawing. However, in the belief that the facilities of the new building and the growing state of knowledge were good reasons for some extension of the course, a fourth year was added and provision made for practical experience to be obtained in the third year.

1900 - 1950

The first to graduate under the new by-laws, was a class of three students in 1913 and in a sense this brought to an end the most significant phase of the Warren era. In the next year, World War I was declared and Warren turned his whole attention and the laboratory facilities to war work for the government.

By the time the war was over, Warren had already passed the present retiring age and as you will see from the graph, had then to face up to a great influx of students augmented by returned soldiers of whom the 1924 graduates were the most representative year, and one which was to have a profound influence upon the development of the School as I shall relate.

In 1925 Warren retired at the age of seventy-three after forty-two years in the chair; he had acquired a great personal and professional reputation both here and overseas. He had served in many capacities – notably as the first President of the Institution of Engineers, Australia and he had had conferred upon him many honours, and most coveted was no doubt his honorary Doctorate of Laws received from the University of Glasgow. He died suddenly in 1926 long to be remembered as the great pioneer of Australian engineering.

In 1913 Warren was joined by a young assistant, William Aitken Miller who had been born in Scotland about the time the first batch of graduates was emerging from the Engineering School. Miller had qualified at Glasgow University and after obtaining experience with the well known Scottish consulting engineer Sir William Copeland, had worked for a period in his father's firm of civil engineering contractors. At that time Australia was flourishing and attracting unprecedented numbers of migrants. No doubt Miller was tempted by the thought of an exciting new country, little knowing that war would break out the year after he sailed away to Australia.

B.Sc., M.E.M.I.CE., A.M.IEAust.(1935)

Prof W A Miller

With Warren fully absorbed by his war task, it fell to Miller to do much of the teaching, a task for which he was particularly gifted – as his former students have related. It was therefore not surprising that after Warren's death when the University re-named the position the Challis Professor of Civil Engineering, Miller was to the satisfaction of staff and students alike – appointed to it in 1926. In that year there were four full-time staff with some part-time assistance and a graduating class of some twenty-five civil engineers. Thereafter student numbers ranged between eight and eighteen for some years

But Miller and his colleagues had no sooner recovered from the effects of the war years than the great depression of 1929~33 descended upon Australia. This was a devastating experience as it was in many other parts of the world. We rightly express concern about six to seven percent unemployment at present, but at the peak of that period one third of the workforce was said to be unemployed.

But for all these setbacks Miller strove to improve and modernise courses and devoted himself to the teaching of his students by whom he was regarded as both a teacher and a personal friend. It is part of our history that the 1924 graduates have been meeting together every year and Miller was their guest of honour to whom they presented a cheque for the departmental library he had established.

Recovery from the depression was slow and worse was to follow as rumours of another war filtered through. By 1939 Australia was involved in World War II which was to transcend all other endeavours for the next six years. The School and its staff were again caught up in the war effort and all normal development was brought to a halt. Nor was it any better when war was over; for as you will see from the graph the students came – as one commentator put it – in veritable hordes. The peak year was 1949 in which some seventy-nine civil engineers graduated. Just as the 1924 graduates were mainly returned servicemen of the first world war, so these 1950 graduates saw service in the second world war. They too meet annually and make donations to the department; one of the great occasions was the dinner they gave for the 1924 graduates to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary.

Seen in retrospect, those immediate post-war years were a grim triumph for Miller and his four colleagues who somehow managed to battle through with some part-time assistance. The task had taken its toll of Miller's health and when he retired in 1951 he had given so generously not only of his professional knowledge – but of himself. Looking back to the beginning on the many untroubled years of the Warren era, Miller was indeed the unfortunate one; his tenure beset by wars, a depression and periods of financial stringency made progress no more than a laborious edging forward. Miller died in 1958– and for those of you who would know the full measure of the man– I commend to you the published address to this Association in 1959 given by Mr. H.J. Vogan, an eloquent tribute entitled "PROFESSOR W. A. MILLER – His Life and Work".

Roderick on himself

And now something on my own background. I was born in Canada in the year in which Miller arrived in Australia. I grew up in Wales and went to university in Warren's home town of Bristol where it was for me a great honour to have my degree conferred by Winston Churchill. There followed some years in the aircraft industry, back to the University to start work on the plastic theory, to an appointment at Leeds and then to Cambridge to re-join Professor Baker (now Lord Baker of Windrush) to continue our work.

By 1951 I had spent some ten years of my life working under most congenial conditions with one of the most inspiring people I have ever known. Years of probing and researching by a wonderful team brought to fruition one of the very exciting concepts in structural engineering.

The work virtually completed, I found myself in the happy circumstances of having the choice of accepting my present appointment or making my future in the beautiful city and rarified atmosphere of academic Cambridge. To be brief, I chose to go where I believed the action to be – and so it was that I too took ship for Australia.

And how did I face up to my new task? Perhaps I can best answer that by digressing to recall a dinner given by the old Engineering Club shortly after I arrived. Replying to a toast, I remarked that Warren was the first William, Miller the second and I too was a William; could I then draw any guidance from historical analogy? Warren as William the Conqueror seemed most appropriate, as did Miller as William Rufus, 'the builder who carried on the good works of his predecessor; but William the Third turned out to be something of a mixed bag – but he did have one interesting characteristic, he was always very successful in getting money out of parliament or elsewhere for his various schemes.

And I make no apology for having tried to live up to what you might call that prophecy.

Mind you, I needed to have that kind of outlook. To put it mildly those early years of the 1950's were full of challenge. I had inherited a department which had been subjected to all the indignities of university poverty and in which for six years immediately after World War II a remarkably small staff had battled with an almost impossible teaching task. They had played a major part in the First and Second Year teaching for an intake of some 480 students in 1946 and had succeeded in graduating nearly eighty civil engineers in 1950.

But the mammoth task was accomplished in buildings, sadly neglected for nearly ten years; the conduct of laboratory work was a triumph over adversity and any room not immediately required for teaching had become a repository for rubbish. Some of you will have heard me tell of the clean-up campaign which culminated in our opening the windows of a disused part of the old P.N.R. Drawing Office and literally hurling the rubbish to the ground. As we dug deeper we discovered the partly built – or perhaps partly dismantled – fuselage of Professor Leech's aeroplane. If it had never flown before, it certainly did that day.

Most of my time at that stage was spent pestering and cajoling the Vice-Chancellor, the late Sir Stephen Roberts. He did what he could but our conversation usually ended with his saying "YES I WOULD IF I HAD THE FUNDS" but the spirit of everyone in the Department was wonderful and I had the invaluable support of Jimmy Vogan –Reader in Civil Engineering – a great academic who was also a wonderful source of information about University personalities, by-laws and what have you. I must, too, acknowledge the considerable debt I owe to my other colleagues of those years 'Doc' Aston, Mr. Potter and Mr. Gray, now Professor Gray of the University of Wollongong.

We cleaned up, painted up, broke all the union rules, but eventually succeeded in rejuvenating facilities and stretching the departmental accommodation. We went to work on the course reinstating tutorials, the Survey Camp, adding a good deal of new material and introducing a separate honours course.

Developments in the 1960s

Now let me refer to what I regard as a great turning point in the fortunes of the School of Civil Engineering.

About that time Professor Ashworth, Dean of the Faculty of Architecture, made the suggestion that some of his students should combine with the civil engineers to carry out some joint projects. One of these was something of a pipe dream in those days, namely a new building for civil engineering. Eventually Professor Ashworth held an exhibition of this work and invited the Vice-Chancellor and other senior members of the University.

But it was the sequel to this which was so important to the department. A few years later there occurred an event which is now regarded as a milestone in University history, Prime Minister Menzies invited the Chairman of the University Grants Committee in the United Kingdom, Sir Keith Murray, to chair a committee to report on the state of the Australian universities. Prior to his visit to Sydney in 1957 the chairman had sent word that he would like to see the University's plans for new buildings. Well frankly there weren't any. But someone remembered the Ashworth exhibition. A 'phone call and we were dusting off the model for delivery to the Vice-Chancellor's office.

To cut a long story short, the Murray Committee eventually recommended the extension of the University into the Darlington area and the Civil Engineering Building was the first to go up on that site. It was built in two stages; the Materials and Structures Laboratory and adjoining offices were occupied in 1961 and the remainder at the end of 1963.

Civil Engineering (1964)


During this period there had been a growing feeling among graduates that their association with the School should become a more organised activity. They felt that the great increase in numbers of engineering graduates had considerably reduced the cohesion of the old Engineering Club and that the time had come for some subdivision. Encouraged by the 1924 graduates and in particular by Cec Hawkins, the staff of the department held the first open day for our graduates in 1957. The Civil Engineering Graduates Association was formally set up on that occasion, an Executive Committee elected and Cec Hawkins became President of the Association. As you know, they have done a wonderful job and it is most gratifying to record that these open days have now been held every year since their inauguration.

That Executive Committee was not content to regard its task as a limited one; indeed it set out to be generally concerned about the whole activity of the School. It is now a matter of history that prior to our moving into these buildings the Graduates Association was successful in making an appeal among graduates themselves for seventy-five thousand dollars for the purchase of new equipment. The more recent teaching computer appeal for one hundred thousand dollars is another great achievement. And here I would like to say on behalf of all my colleagues that these generous donations are most gratefully acknowledged as much for their intrinsic value as for the great encouragement they give to us all in developing the activities of the School.

With this kind of assistance and the facilities of these buildings, it has been possible over the past fifteen years to continually revise and improve the undergraduate courses. Briefly the more significant changes can be summarised as:

(1) Improved laboratory work with modern equipment; (2) More streaming of Pass and Honours courses to reduce class sizes; (3) A deliberate attempt to bring the teaching of design more into line with professional needs; (4) The introduction of computing as a tool for civil engineers; and (5) Most recently, the provision of more options in the Pass course.

But despite progress in this direction the graduates and in particular my good friend Cec Hawkins and the 1924 group, were not content to confine their activities to undergraduate needs. It was with their encouragement and help that the Postgraduate Civil Engineering Foundation was inaugurated by a public meeting held in the Town Hall on 7th February, 1968. Later that year the first meeting of the Council was held with Mr. Bryan Kelman– himself a 1950 graduate– as the first chairman. The broad aims of the Foundation were to advise and provide support for the graduate programmes. In more detail:

(1) To encourage and support research; (2) To assist in the dissemination of information on research and new developments in civil engineering; and (3) To augment our efforts in graduate teaching including continuing education for practising engineers.

We owe a considerable debt of gratitude both for the good will and financial support we have received from the profession and industry through the Foundation; their help has enabled us to do many things which otherwise would not have been possible. Time does not permit me to deal with them in full, but we have been able to considerably extend our research programme and those of you who have attended the short courses, can vouch for their success.

As you know, the former President of this Association, Peter Pettit was at the time of his death, also the Chairman of the Foundation. His passing was a great loss to these endeavours and so many of us will remember him as a good friend who gave so generously of his efforts to help others. He worked hard for the Foundation to overcome the problems of these difficult times and he had great plans for the future which are now being carried forward by the new Chairman, Mr. John Messner, also a member of this Association, and a graduate of 1944.

Changes Afoot

And now a word about the changing manner and spirit of the University. When I came here there was a general feeling of challenge and a desire for regeneration and rehabilitation. Both staff and students were bending their efforts in this direction and an air of quiet confidence prevailed. It was too a prosperous Australia and there was everywhere a reassuring feeling of stability.


Mr P R Petit

But in the years that followed changes were to occur– conditioned by national and international events such as the financial setbacks of the early sixties – changing trading patterns – the Vietnam War and, finally our present economic difficulties. Again, in the universities after 1960 a great expansion was taking place to meet the phenomenal growth in the number of young people of university age. In planning that expansion no one paid much regard to the principle that "small is beautiful" or to the gentle warnings of the Martin Committee about "the disadvantages of large size for universities of more than ten thousand students". So it was that in a comparatively short time what had been universities on the British pattern became large American size universities without the financial resources and administrative structure considered necessary in that country.
In these circumstances came new problems associated with changing ideas and attitudes bringing to the surface inside and outside the universities clamorous minorities who, when unable to achieve their radical ambitions through normal democratic processes, had resorted to various degrees of violence. We cannot escape the fact that these actions have proved highly divisive in certain sections of the universities and have been most damaging to our public image.

It should however be said that in the councils of this university responsible attitudes have eventually prevailed – and even allowing for customary apathy, the student body has not been entirely deceived by these damaging minorities - but regrettably there remains an undercurrent of divisiveness and a sense of instability. So much for the past and what of the future?

We naturally look first at the broad scene and in a rapidly changing world we can do no better than try to identify the more important options. It is not unreasonable to ask:– will it be a world of peace or conflict – is Manning Clark's civil war a possibility – will our standard of living be forced down by the global transfer of great wealth to the Arab countries by an oil hungry world – and so on. But it is only human to put aside the more pessimistic of these options and to look for the more encouraging ones to see what can be done to make them happen.

For Australia, a country with so many resources, there are better options. But if we are to get the best out of them we will have to work much harder at reducing the divisiveness in our society and develop a bi-partisan, national approach to more of our problems.

It seems to me that so much of the conflict arises from our inability to be more liberal in our interpretations of those words egalitarianism and elitism. Dare we accept that egalitarianism means equal opportunities for all people and their living together with mutual respect – rather than the creation of a system to reduce to a minimum the margins for skill and talent. And dare we say that elitism is the pursuit of excellence and not the setting up of cliques with special privileges. If we can, I think we begin to see some common ground for people of widely different political persuasions to work together.

Let me quote from that distinguished Conservative Lord Hailsham who has written 'In every field of endeavour success depends on excellence and excellence is most successfully pursued in the company of others following the same objective'; and he goes on 'Elites of all kinds are among the conditions of success for a modern nation particularly a democracy..."

We are all aware of the emphasis Japan has placed on excellence both in education and in industrial production and of the advantages she has gained from it. This may well have some bearing on the fact that China in announcing its new educational policy under the slogan 'red and expert' is returning to a form of elitism it spent ten convulsive years trying to destroy.

But coming closer to home I find support in a speech made by the leader of the opposition, Mr. Hayden in Adelaide at the beginning of this year. One commentator has referred to this speech under the title 'We can dare to be Great'. Mr. Hayden after remarking upon Australia's outstanding achievements in the field of sport and in the arts and literature, went on to say 'We should seek to establish the reputation of Australian products, intellectual, creative or material, as being synonomous with standards of excellence such as comparable small democracies like Sweden, Switzerland and Holland have done'.

All this may sound unduly idealistic – but if we do not succeed in getting greater acceptance of this philosophy then we have little chance of emulating the small, successful democracies of Europe.

The Future of Civil Engineering

And what of the future of civil engineering itself? Again we have to look at the options and the factors upon which they depend. For instance, it is well known that the natural rate of growth of the population is falling though some compensation can be made through immigration programmes. Also the economists tell us that the economic growth rates of the late nineteen sixties are not likely to be repeated in the foreseeable future. This would suggest that traditional civil engineering works associated with the creation of new living areas will not again attain the levels of those prosperous years.

But there are other indicators which suggest that new opportunities for civil engineering development are likely to occur in other areas, notably in the minerals industry and its near neighhour the energy industry. Obvious examples are in earth moving, railway and harbour construction and other transportation systems including pipelines for conveying a variety of materials. Even more attractive opportunities may lie in the civil engineering aspects of large chemical engineering plant as in the extensive oil-from-coal plant now being contemplated. There are too the offshore drilling installations and the ocean engineering associated with them. A recent inspection of the various minerals and energy installations in Western Australia left me in no doubt about the opportunities for civil engineers in this area. Some signs of these developments are to be seen in the research programmes we are being asked to undertake for industry, as for instance the study of fatigue problems in offshore structures.

Returning now to the affairs of the School – we are, at the moment, very concerned that our first year enrolments in engineering have fallen, as they have done right across the country. Present economic difficulties as reflected in our various industries are too readily regarded by the community as an indicator of future prospects for professional engineers. Such reactions obviously have an adverse effect on a young person choosing a career.

Student numbers

But this fall in enrolments is not necessarily an indicator of future graduation rates in civil engineering. For instance when in 1967 there were theoretically no students from the secondary schools, enrolments were in fact over forty percent of the normal intake; by 1971 the graduation rate in civil engineering from this group had risen to sixty-five percent of the normal figure. Again, it is said that America is now climbing out of what they describe as a world wide construction depression which has lasted for four years. Allowing for the fact that we are always a little behind the American scene, it may well happen in the early nineteen eighties that our enrolments in engineering will return to normal.

But for all that, I do think it behoves you as members of the profession to try to dispel the abnormal gloom which now surrounds civil engineering as a career for young people. For as past experience has shown, when improvement occurs we may well find that we have an acute shortage of engineers– and especially of good engineers – which could be a considerable obstacle to full recovery.

In the longer term, it will be well to bear in mind that the number of young people of university age in the population is not likely to change much in the next two decades. This fact and the present economic conditions have led governments to adopt a no growth policy towards universities. This could become a dangerous restraint if it has the effect of preventing the natural development of any discipline. These fears are best expressed in the words of Professor Karmel, Chairman of the Tertiary Education Commission.

'In universities and colleges of advanced education, we have entered a period of no growth for the rest of the century. Because of this I foresee a rigidification, lack of flexibility and unwillingness to innovate, and I can well imagine that this may be accompanied by an increasing radicalisation of the universities because of the frustration over not being able to do new things. The radicalisation could take the form, as it has in America, of increased unionisation of university staff'.

This is indeed a danger; though I think it is a slightly gloomy view of the future. We must remember that the recently announced grants to the universities for current expenditure do show a small increase. The more important concern is that universities themselves should maintain a proper balance in their twofold task, (a) of developing the disciplines and (b) of passing on that knowledge to others. In the past we have at times let the demands of teaching override the development of the discipline. The hiatus in enrolments which is now appearing should be used to improve the quality of what we do.

And finally if I had another twenty-five years– on what aspect of the School would I want to concentrate? Frankly the graduate programme because if this is sound, it will undoubtedly be reflected in the undergraduate teaching.

It has long been my concern that our engineering schools have suffered from an organisational weakness, namely the reluctance of the powers that be to delineate graduate programmes as a university activity in its own right. University funds for this purpose have always been in the nature of a small bonus closely related to the number of students admitted in previous years. Under these conditions planning can only advance year by year and new activities are difficult to mount. Where, as in the better universities overseas, graduate programmes are clearly defined and separately funded these difficulties do not arise. The hope I would have for the School would lie in the increasing strength of the Foundation, thus bringing greater stability to the research activity through more scholarships and the creation of appointments of reasonable tenure for more senior research workers.

And in the longer term, to bring the whole activity well within the sphere of professional needs, I would like to see the introduction of an institute concept along the lines of the Japanese research institutes and the Federal institutes in Switzerland. With these closely linked to the universities they are able to bring to bear on engineering all the technological excellence of those countries.

Had we such a complete spectrum of education, research and development we would then have a wonderful opportunity of contributing fully to Australian excellence in civil engineering.