Website Banner. John Monash: Engineering enterprise prior to World War 1.

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Monash's Engineering Career prior to WW1.

University Studies and Early Experience.

Monash's career prior to World War I may be divided into three phases:

Monash's studies did not proceed smoothly and were concluded effectively on a part-time basis. However he completed Honours in Engineering in 1891 which entitled him to a Master's Degree (ME). He soon added professional examinations in surveying and water supply. By 1893 he had completed degrees in Arts and Law. From 1885 onwards, he worked on the Princes Street Bridge in Melbourne, supervised construction of the Outer Circle Railway Line, and spent some years with the Harbor Trust, designing a swing bridge and other civil works.

Monash and Anderson.

Retrenched from the Harbor Trust during down-sizing in the recession of the 1890s, Monash went into partnership with Joshua Thomas Noble Anderson. They offered design and construction services in civil, mining and mechanical engineering. In a depressed economy, the partnership engaged in a wide variety of work including design and construction of aerial conveyor systems and underground pump chambers for the mining industry, trouble-shooting with heavy steam plant, and construction of large timber truss bridges. Monash used his knowledge of law to assist with applications for patents, and was sought as a legal advisor and expert witness in disputes over riparian rights, drainage problems and contractual disputes in the civil engineering industry. [Photo: partners and families.]

In September 1897 Anderson established relations with the Sydney firm of Carter Gummow & Co. (later Gummow & Forrest) who, with their engineer W J Baltzer, held Australian rights to the Monier reinforced concrete system. The partners established themselves as sole Victorian licensees of the patent. Involvement in the CG&Co's Morell (Anderson Street) Bridge in Melbourne was negligible, but Anderson enthusiastically took on the exploitation of the patent, to be joined by Monash on his return from a West Australian legal case in 1899. Fifteen Monier arch bridges were built over the years 1899-1903. A major set-back occurred in 1901 when a large, heavily skewed arch at Bendigo collapsed under an unusually severe test load, killing one man. The partnership was exonerated by the coroner when Professor Kernot of the University of Melbourne showed that accepted theory (as set forth in W J M Rankine's texts) greatly underestimated the stresses in skewed arches.

In 1902 Anderson left to take up a post in Dunedin. The partnership was effectively at an end, although it was not formally dissolved until 1905. Monash continued the practice with the aid of assistant engineers, progressively reducing his involvement in patent work and mechanical engineering and even in legal practice. He preferred to concentrate on design and construction in reinforced concrete. Starting in 1904 he began to promote pier-and-girder bridges in preference to arches. Designs were also prepared for reinforced concrete lighthouses, water towers and buildings. The new technique met with much resistance from established interests. In 1904 Monash won his first contract for a reinforced concrete building - Bank Place in the city of Melbourne.

RCMPC and SARC Companies.

With the formation of the Reinforced Concrete & Monier Pipe Construction Co. in 1905, business began to boom. Financial backing came from David Mitchell, while John Gibson served as Business Manager and Monash was Engineering Director. However, the struggle to become familiar with the new technology was not easy. Shear reinforcement was not well understood and many bridges developed diagonal cracks. (Monash corresponded on the matter with his mentor, Gummow, and conducted tests at the University with the assistance of Kernot.) Water tanks, lacking prestress, leaked copiously after construction, although the flow diminished after internal plastering had been applied and autogenous healing had come to the rescue. It was necessary for Monash and his engineers to learn about the new material while at the same time training foremen and workers, and 'educating' clients to allay their fears and bring their expectations to a reasonable level. Throughout, he was greatly indebted to his Works Manager, Alex Lynch who reconnoitred distant sites, set up operations, and oversaw the activities of the site foremen. Monash eventually assembled a thoroughly dependable team of assistant engineers: A. G. Timmins and J. S. Gregory worked for the partnership. The RCMPC Co. and the SARC Co. were served by W. Harvey, H. G. Jenkinson, J. A. Laing, S. J. Lindsay and P. T. Fairway.

The South Australian Reinforced Concrete Co was set up in 1906 with Monash as part-owner and consulting engineer. A pipe factory was also established in SA. These ventures were initially very successful and became partly independent under a competent business manager (E. H. Bakewell) and resident engineer (initially Harvey, then Jenkinson). Under Monash's guidance and tutelage, the office designed and constructed railway bridges, wharves and city buildings in reinforced concrete. Efforts to establish an operation in Tasmania met with some success, but were not pursued.

For some years the RCMPC Co. enjoyed a virtual monopoly in reinforced concrete construction. However a major setback occurred in 1908 when they lost the contract for the dome of the Melbourne Library. Monash had reached an agreement with the Library Committee and prepared a design reinforced with the patent Monier grid. The master-builders of Melbourne claimed unfair practice and forced the calling of tenders. The contract was awarded to a company using Kahn reinforcing bars. Also in 1908 Swinburne, as Minister of Water Supply, used government prerogative to evade the question of royalties when his Department began to construct large 'inverted syphons' on irrigation canals. By 1910 the master builders were bringing extreme pressure to bear and the Monier patent was due to expire in 1912. In that year Monash was furious to lose the contract for the Geelong Sewage Aqueduct to the rival firm of Stone & Siddeley although his own price was well below theirs.

As knowledge of reinforced concrete design and construction spread throughout the profession and industry, competition became more intense. The RCMPC Co. was obliged to operate more as a master builder than a specialist in reinforced concrete. At this point the records become less interesting, overburdened with the minutiae of contract administration. Monash's own interest appears to wane, and he is content to leave all but strategic matters to his competent assistants Laing and Fairway. (The latter eventually succeeded him as Engineering Director.) Monash was obviously ready for new challenges. His parallel career in the militia, in which he had attained the rank of colonel, provided the key.

References.

Serle, G. "John Monash: a biography." Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1982 (3rd edn 2002).

(Serle's book has been described as 'heavy going', but this is an inevitable consequence of the need to cover such a rich life in a mere 600 pages. The more familiar we become with the copious archives left by Monash concerning just one aspect of his life, the more we respect Serle's grasp of the entire record and admire his ability to select the essential points of Monash's engineering career.)

Perry, R. "Monash: the outsider who won a war." Random House Australia,Sydney, 2004.

Later pages added to this website.

For our perspective on JM's entire engineering career, see our paper (Oct. 2001) on JM's Contribution to 20C Engineering in Australia.

For a specific focus, see Geoff Taplin's paper (Sept. 2001) on JM and Innovation in Concrete Technology.

See also:

The "Sir John Monash Exhibition" on the Monash University Archives web site.

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