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Innovation in Concrete Technology:
the Contribution of Sir John Monash.

Paper delivered to the 2001 Conference of the Concrete Institute of Australia, Perth, WA, September, 2001. Authors: Geoff Taplin, Department of Civil Engineering, Monash University (now with AECOM Australia) and Alan Holgate, Independent Scholars Association of Australia.


Sir John Monash is celebrated as a great Australian for his achievements during World War 1, and as the founding father of the State Electricity Commission in Victoria. This paper describes the third pillar of Monash's outstanding career, which was his pioneering work in reinforced concrete. This paper looks at early developments in concrete technology that were associated with the reinforced concrete design and construction work undertaken by John Monash in the period 1898-1914, and the paper traces the progress in his use of concrete, from "barrow loads of earth" to the material we take for granted today.


In a poll conducted by 'The Age' and 'Sydney Morning Herald' as part of the Millennium celebrations, readers ranked John Monash as the tenth most influential Australian of the 20th century. In an accompanying poll, a select group of leading Australians ranked John Monash at number six. Sir John Monash earned this respect as a commander of ANZAC and allied forces during World War 1, and later as the father of Victoria's State Electricity Commission (SEC). He is remembered in many ways, including in the name of an Australian University, and as the face on Australia's $100 note. However, in addition to his military service and work with the SEC, there is a third contribution that John Monash made to the development of Australia. Although it is not as widely known, or as publicly discussed, John Monash was a consulting civil engineer and a construction contractor until he left for active service in World War 1, at the age of 49.

As a civil engineer and as a construction contractor, reinforced concrete was Monash's material of choice. At that time reinforced concrete was a new material on the world stage, and John Monash became the leading exponent of reinforced concrete in Australia. Monash introduced many innovations in reinforced concrete design and construction, and as we continue to see new innovations in concrete technology it is useful to reflect on how far we have come in one century, and at the same time, how much has remained the same.

The Early Career

John Monash was born in West Melbourne in 1865 (Serle 1982 is the source of all material for this section on Monash's early career). Apart from a brief period from 1875 to 1876 when the family moved to Jerilderie in the Riverina District of NSW, John grew up and attended school in Melbourne. In 1881 he graduated from Scotch College as equal dux of the school. In his final year he studied Logic, French, German and Mathematics, having dropped Latin and Greek for that year. He also took out the school essay prize with a literary essay on Macbeth. He entered Melbourne University the following year with full expectations that he would make excellent progress in his chosen field of study. Monash enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts, with the intention of majoring in Engineering, which was not, at that time, a degree in its own right. The first year of university study enabled Monash to pursue many interests - among them, attending meetings of the Wesley Church Mutual Improvement Society (Monash was Jewish), the Scots Church Literary Society, the Victoria Parade Young Men's Association, the gymnasium, the theatre (two nights a week), the Parliament, reading the Koran, and reading literature and history at the Public Library. These are not the typical activities of the first year engineering student in 2001. Monash kept a very detailed and well organized diary, and from this we know that he also 'discovered' girls and drinking. Some things, it seems, do not change. Unfortunately the one thing that Monash did not attend was his university lectures, which it seems, could not retain his interest. He passed five of his eight subjects, and although he redeemed himself somewhat in the supplementary examinations, he missed out on Latin, meaning that he failed the year. In his diary he recorded that, "in these days of high pressure one [must] not only be able to do two, but three … nay a hundred things at a time or he will be left far behind in the race of life." Monash struggled to complete his studies, finally taking out his engineering degree in 1891 (nine years after he commenced), but he quickly followed that with a law degree in 1893. During this period he had converted to part-time study. In 1885 he began working for the contractor David Munro on the construction of Princes Bridge over the Yarra, and from 1888-1891 he supervised construction of the Outer Circle Railway for the contractors Graham & Wadick.

1891 saw Monash commence as an engineer with the Melbourne Harbour Trust. These were difficult times in Victoria. Following the boom of the 1880's the economy was in recession and employment was difficult to find. Monash "hated the dead level inaction of departmental service", but was grateful to be employed at all. Downsizing and redundancy was taking its toll of the work force, and Monash watched as the staff was reduced to the chief engineer, two inspectors and himself. In April 1894 Monash was retrenched.

Faced with little prospect of finding employment in the depressed economy, Monash approached Joshua T. Noble Anderson, a lecturer in mechanical engineering at the University of Melbourne, with a proposal to set up in their own right as consulting civil engineers. In June 1894 the partnership of Monash & Anderson opened for business in Melbourne. They set their fees at the lowest level allowed by the Institution of Civil Engineers (London), and sought work with Shire Councils and mining companies. The partnership struggled, and the first regular work did not cone until 1897, when Monash found himself in demand as an expert witness in legal-engineering work. In the next two years he spent three quarters of his time out of Victoria, engaged in legal cases.

The Concrete Connection

Monash left for Perth in July 1898 to act for a contractor in a case against the Western Australian government. He expected to be gone for five weeks. He returned to Melbourne when the case concluded twelve months later in July 1899. In Monash's absence, Anderson had made a contact that was to shape the rest of John Monash's civil engineering career.

The new material and method of construction known as Monier Concrete had been brought to the colony of New South Wales in 1892, when W. J. Baltzer, J. Carter and D. G. Snodgrass obtained a patent for the use of Monier Concrete, under licence to the German company Wayss. At that time Baltzer (a German immigrant) was working for the New South Wales Public Works Department, but he soon joined Carter in his Sydney construction firm Carter & Gummow (Lewis, 1988). In 1897 Carter & Gummow won the contract for the design and construction of the Anderson Street Bridge across the Yarra River in Melbourne (Alves et. al. 1998), with a three span Monier Arch bridge of maximum span 29.3 metres (Figure 1: Load Test). J.T.N. Anderson arranged for Monash & Anderson to be the Victorian agents for the Monier System, and while this only allowed for a small involvement in the Anderson Street Bridge, it was the beginning of an important change of fortune for the Monash & Anderson partnership.

By the time that Monash returned from Perth the Anderson Bridge was substantially complete (it was opened on August 4, 1899), but other Monier bridge work was in the offing. Fyansford Bridge (completed November 1890, three spans of maximum 30.5 metres) and Wheelers Bridge (completed March 1900, two spans of 22.9 metres) quickly followed, with Monash & Anderson taking increasing responsibility for firstly the construction, and more gradually for the design. These three bridges, together with the Annandale aqueduct in New South Wales, were pioneering structures in the use of reinforced concrete in Australia. Unfortunately for the partnership, Fyansford Bridge was constructed at a significant loss. The partners found themselves in severe financial hardship.

Monash appears to have assumed the role of chief promoter of the new concept of reinforced concrete design and construction, and he met with considerable success in October 1900 when the firm was awarded the contract for eight bridges for the City of Bendigo. Monash & Anderson completed the Bendigo contract in 1902, but the partnership was still deeply in debt. Anderson left to take a salaried position in New Zealand, although he remained a partner until 1905. Monash persevered with construction in reinforced concrete, and quickly design and construction in reinforced concrete became the primary activity of the business. In 1905, when the partnership was formally ended, he established the Reinforced Concrete & Monier Pipe Construction Company (RCMPC) with David Mitchell (of the Victorian Cement Works), and John Gibson. This enterprise proved extremely successful, and when John Monash left to serve in World War 1, he had a net worth in excess of £30,000 (Serle 1982). To put this in perspective, the contract value for the Anderson St. bridge had been £5,700.

The Development of Concrete Technology

What exactly was Monier concrete? It was not the material that we would recognize as reinforced concrete today. Patented in France by Joseph Monier in 1867, the rights for Germany and Austria were acquired by Gustav Adolf Wayss in 1884. Wayss with M. Koenen and E. Mörsch made a great contribution to the early development of the theory and practice of reinforced concrete (Alves et. al. 1998). Monier concrete was a mortar mix of sand and cement, mixed quite dry and rammed into place around a grid of reinforcing wires. The concrete was referred to by Monash and Anderson as 'compo'. The specification for the Wheelers Bridge described 'compo' as, "3 parts clean sharp sand to 1 part best Portland cement. To be turned three times when dry, and then thrown through a sieve of 1/2 inch mesh, then turned again as the water is added, only sufficient water to be added to give the mortar the appearance of moist earth so that when rammed into position it may shew a damp surface. To be covered by bags or sand and kept moist for two days. Centring is not to be struck for 14 days."

Monash provided this description of 'compo' in an article in the 'Bendigo Independent', November 24, 1900. "…here is our material of construction … a pile of sand brought from the bed of the creek, the coarser the better, for it grips then. It is run through two sieves … then the gravel is mixed with Colonial cement, it is a strong solution about three parts of gravel to one of cement, a little water added, and there is our cement composition which you mistook for ordinary earth." The reporter, in the same article, described the construction of the first Monier arch bridge in Bendigo in these terms, "If one had run out to Oak Street, Golden Square, yesterday and seen the first of the eight bridges to be erected under Messrs Monash & Anderson's contract over the Bendigo and Back Creeks in process of building, he would have come to the conclusion that bridge building is the simplest thing in the world. Here is an arch of wood with its scaffolding of supports placed over the creek. On to this men are busy emptying barrow loads of earth, presumably other men are 'punding' it home tight, and when it is seven inches in depth the woodwork is to be removed, and there hangs suspended a bridge capable of carrying a 30-ton load and over which the most cautious Scotsman in the locality would not mind venturing with his dog when out walking on a Sunday morning."

Almost one year later, whilst the Bendigo bridges were still under construction, the new reinforced concrete material was still receiving criticism, with a letter to the 'Bendigo Evening Mail' on October 2, 1901, describing them as "mud bridges".

The novelty of reinforced concrete is also illustrated in the records of discussions between the Shires of Corio and Bannockburn, who were the joint clients for the Fyansford Bridge. The 'Geelong Advertiser' (16 January 1899) in reporting a special meeting of the Corio Shire Council held to consider the bridge proposal stated, "Cr. Tayler failed to see why the shires of Corio and Bannockburn should undertake the erection of a Monier bridge, which was not only a large work, but an experiment in river structures".

The new material loomed as a challenge to existing work practices and employment. At Bendigo, the local bricklayers actively lobbied the Council to decide against Monier arch bridges, viewing them as a threat to their trade. On September 9, 1900 the 'Bendigo Advertiser' published a letter from a Bendigo contractor claiming that "it would be a serious matter for the workers of Bendigo if the council accepts a tender for foreign material instead of local production". The unsuccessful campaign against concrete included a special conference at the Bendigo Trades Hall, where ironworkers, bricklayers, iron founders, builders and contractors protested against the actions of the City council in awarding the contract to Monier bridges (Holgate et. al. 1999).

The Bendigo bridges saw an attempt to introduce aggregate into the Monier concrete for the first time. On November 18, 1901, Monash & Anderson wrote to the Council to request permission to include aggregate, "Gummow has just returned from Europe. The latest technique there is to put a layer of compo below and above the bottom grid, but in the body of the arch to use compo mixed with broken stone". And again on November 26, "We beg again to refer to our letter of the 18th inst. in which we describe the modern practice of introducing a stronger compo coupled with the use of stone aggregates in arches. We are strongly in favour of this modification in the specification, from the point of view of producing better work, although as we have already pointed out, the process is more expensive to us."

Concrete technology has come a long way since these pioneering days. A frequently discussed issue in modern practice is the use of supplementary cementitious materials, specifically blast furnace slag, silica fume and fly ash - modern developments in concrete technology. In the Victorian Institute of Engineers Journal, November 1899, J. T. N. Anderson published the paper 'Notes on the Adulteration of Portland Cement'. He lists the most common "adulterants" as blast furnace slag, furnace ashes, ragstone and sand. The paper reports tests carried out on mortars manufactured using these supplementary cementitious materials. Appendix I of the paper is a report on "another adulterant" - finely ground silicates.

The Development of Reinforced Concrete Design

Monier arches were designed using the principles derived from the masonry arch. They were designed to ensure that there was no tension in the concrete. Therefore, from a strength design point of view, there was no need for steel reinforcing in the concrete. In practice tensile stresses may arise from many sources including the divergence of the actual profile from the designed profile due to unpredictable settlement following removal of falsework, uneven placement of filling on the arch, foundation movements, thermal stress and differential shrinkage, abnormal loading, or even errors in the analysis. In practice therefore, the grid of reinforcing bars that was included in all Monier concrete did no doubt contribute to the success of this method of construction.

During the course of the contract for the eight Bendigo bridges, John Monash made a concerted effort to master the technology of Monier arch design. In a letter dated October 1, 1901 to W. J. Baltzer (the chief engineer with Carter Gummow & Co.), he states that "I am endeavoring to master the subject in all its bearings". Shortly after, on October 22, 1901 Monash writes again to Baltzer, "Your method of treatment quite confirms my view, and I think that I now understand the process that you employ in designing arches in all their details. Again thanking you."

Monash & Anderson and the RCMPC constructed eighteen Monier arch bridges up until 1914, but seventeen of those were constructed by 1905. Of the eighteen, ten are still in use, three have been bypassed, three have been demolished, one collapsed, and the fate of one is unknown to the authors. The collapsed bridge was Kings Bridge across the Bendigo Creek, which collapsed during proof testing in May 1901 (Holgate, A. 1999). This serious mishap was attributed to the limited knowledge on the behaviour of skew bridges which existed at that time. But for some serious lobbying by Monash, the collapse may well have set back the development of reinforced concrete in Australia.

Perhaps it was the experience with Kings Bridge, or perhaps it was that arch bridges were not well suited to the flat countryside of rural Victoria, whatever the reason, when Monash became aware of the new European concept of reinforced concrete girders he quickly began promoting this method of construction in preference to the Monier arch. In January 1903 he asked Baltzer to visit Melbourne and bring with him technical literature in French and German detailing the latest theories of reinforced concrete. At the same time, he subscribed to the German technical journal 'Beton und Eisen'. Unlike Monier arch theory, where he had relied upon Baltzer for experience and technical advice, Monash led the development of reinforced concrete girder construction in Australia, and the technology transfer from Germany occurred largely through his work.

The first reinforced concrete T-beam bridge was constructed by Monash at Stawell Street, Ballarat East. It had a span of 20 feet (6.1 metres), and it was completed in March 1904 (Figure 2 and history). Monash's calculations for the reinforced concrete design still exist, and he refers to "Wayss p. 93" for flexural design, and "Wayss p. 102" for shear. When the falsework was stripped shear cracks opened up, and Monash had to permanently support the concrete beams with a series of iron trusses. An ignominious start for reinforced concrete beams. Monash's response was to approach Professor Kernot at Melbourne University and instigate a program of research into the shear of reinforced concrete beams - a topic that is still actively researched. He reported on this original research in several papers read to the Victorian Institute of Engineers, the first in July 1905, 'Notes on Tests of Reinforced Concrete Beams'. Figure 3, reproduced from his paper of June 1906, clearly shows the shear failure that was observed.

Using the knowledge gained, Monash enjoyed greater success with his second T-beam bridge. Completed in 1905, the St. Kilda Street Bridge over Elwood Canal in Melbourne is still in service. It has three spans of 6.1 metres. The problem of shear cracking did not disappear, however, and several Monash bridges developed shear cracks and a number have been strengthened in shear. The RCMPC constructed 42 T-beam bridges between 1904 and 1914. Twenty six are still in use. When the Country Roads Board (CRB) was formed in Victoria in 1910, it based its design and specification for concrete bridges on the T-beams developed by John Monash. The T-beam design was developed by the CRB into a series of standard bridges which served Victoria (and influenced much of Australia's design and construction) until the advent of precast and prestressed concrete in the 1950's and 1960's.

John Monash extended the use of reinforced concrete into buildings, tanks, silos, wharf structures, pipes, and other forms of construction. He developed a simplified form of construction for reinforced concrete water towers. He lobbied successfully to change the building regulations to permit concrete frame construction when only load-bearing masonry was permitted for multistory buildings, and he drafted new clauses for reinforced concrete construction for the Melbourne Building Regulations. He encountered and dealt with (probably for the first time in Australia) the issues of cracking, shrinkage, deflection, sugar attack, autogenous healing, etc etc.


John Monash made an outstanding contribution to reinforced concrete design and construction, and we in the Australian concrete industry should be as proud of these achievements as the Australian public is of his achievements in war and with the SEC.


Alves, L., Holgate. A. & Taplin, G. (1998). Monash Bridges Typology Study - Reinforced concrete bridges in Victoria 1897-1917, Department of Civil Engineering, Monash University. [More.]
Holgate, A. (1998). Fyansford Monier Arch Bridge, Volume 1, Department of Civil Engineering, Monash University. [Story.]
Holgate, A. (1999). Failure and re-design of a skew Monier arch bridge: King's Bridge, Bendigo, Department of Civil Engineering, Monash University. [Story.]
Holgate, A., Taplin, G. & Alves, L. (1999). Monier Arch Bridges of Bendigo, Department of Civil Engineering, Monash University. [Story.]
Lewis, M. (1988). 200 Years of Concrete in Australia, Concrete Institute of Australia.
Serle, G. (1982). John Monash: A Biography, Melbourne University Press.