History of the school

 Explore the first 150 years of our history and find out for yourself the trials, tribulations and astonishing achievements that make the Melbourne School of Engineering what it is today. 

We are the oldest engineering faculty in Australia, and have come a long way from out modest beginnings in 1861 with 15 students enrolled. Today, we are a vibrant engineering community, drawn from over 100 countries, with a network of alumni nearly 25,000 strong.

There have been many changes over the past 150 years. From professors entering classrooms through windows, lectures being set up outside due to lack of space, the advent of the two World Wars (including an engineering workshop being overtaken by the Department of Munitions) and the School’s role in the dot.com boom, the School’s history is rich and revealing.

We invite you to explore these 150 years and find out for yourself the trials, tribulations and astonishing achievements that make the Melbourne School of Engineering what it is today: Number 1 in Australia for engineering education.

1860s

The later half of the 19th century proved an economically prosperous and exciting time for Melbourne and Victoria. With the Victorian Gold Rush beginning in 1851 and running into the late 1860s, Victoria dominated the world’s gold output, and in one decade the population rose from 75,000 to over 500,000, with some places seeing a 3000% increase.

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1870s

In the late 1860s and ‘70s Melbourne was expanding rapidly. In 1868 the first Great Telescope worthy of great astronomic significance finally reached Melbourne, and in 1870 and 1871 respectively, the Industrial and Technological Museum opened at the rear of the Public Library in Swanston Street, and the School of Mines opened. In 1872 Melbourne received its first cable message from London via a combination of undersea cable link and overland telegraph, a mighty feat for the times.

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1880s
1880s

Between 1880–1890, Melbourne was booming. Coined “Marvellous Melbourne”, in 1880 the population reached 280,000 and in 1890 the population reached 490,000. For a time, Melbourne was the second-largest city in the British Empire and in 1880 the Royal Exhibition Building was built, a grand and illustrious building that signified Melbourne’s position as a major world city.

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The Kernot Window

A blog post on a stained glass window from ‘Firenze’, originally made for the home of Professor William Charles Kernot and now housed in the Old Engineering Building.

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1890s

By 1890, a spectacular crash brought the Land Boom to an end. Banks and businesses failed in large numbers, thousands of people lost large sums of money, and tens of thousands of people lost work. It is estimated there was a 20% unemployment rate at the time, and immigration halted. It was quite lucky then, and also indicative of the support for engineering, that by 1899, the government joined Kernot in making £15,000 available for a new engineering building.

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1900s

In the 1900s, there seemed no limits to what the ‘Age of the Engineer’ could bring. The benefits of steam trains, railways, electric light, the telegraph and the telephone, motor cars as well as well-watered, drained and sewered cities free from water-borne epidemics, spoke volumes about the engineers’ useful place in society.

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1910s

Henry Payne was next person to lead the Engineering Faculty, and he arrived in 1910 fresh from building an engineering school in South Africa. Although Payne did not have a university degree, his education and experience was vast, and he was deemed a leader in both Mechanical and Civil Engineering. Payne was apparently quite appalled with what he found in Melbourne.

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1920s

From the post-war increase in student enrolments onwards, total enrolments in engineering would average around 200 students until the outbreak of World War II. However even so, the school operated within strict financial controls during the periods between the two World Wars.

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1930s
1930s

As the Depression began to take hold and employment opportunities dropped, there was an increase of students staying to conduct further research after their degrees. Wider society and the government began to see engineering schools as professional schools that trained professional engineers, and as a result, the requirement that students spend an adjunct year gaining practical engineering experience before their degree was conferred was dropped.

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Sir Archibald Glenn

The late Sir Archibald Glenn was a well-known Australian figure, and a proud alumnus of the Melbourne School of Engineering. He was interviewed in 2011 as part of our 150th celebrations, as he was one of the oldest living alumni of the Melbourne School of Engineering, a Knight of the Realm (of the Order of the British Empire), and an engineering power-broker at ICI/Orica for over 26 years.

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1940s

Australia emerged from the war in a decidedly optimistic mood. The death toll amongst graduates was lower than the previous war, and a generation of young engineers emerged to help rebuild the world, an idealistic view that motivated many people in peacetime to begin studying engineering. In just one year, student numbers rose from 289 to 504, many who were beneficiaries of the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme, members of the armed services who wished to study at University.

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1950s

In the early ‘50s all of the engineering courses were restructured and content was revised to reflect the changing nature of engineering science and practice, and the rapid expansion of knowledge (mostly a product of research carried out by universities). The rise in the quality and difficulty of mathematics continued and the empirical study of Hydraulics gave way almost entirely to Fluid Mechanics.

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1960s
1960s

The Electrical Engineering Department was in need of a boost in funding by the late ‘40s, and although it arrived almost 20 years later than expected, the investment proved very profitable. By 1949 the Department had scarcely changed since 1911, and until third year there was little to distinguish the degree from Mechanical Engineering (it even included surveying and hydraulics).

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Emeritus Professor Peter Joubert

Key advocate for mandatory seat belts, distinguished fluid mechanics researcher and leading figure within the Australian yachting community, the late Emeritus Professor Peter Joubert reflects on his career. He spoke with Professor Len Stevens, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering from 1980–87, 150th Anniversary Manager Khandis Marinko and Carolyn Rassmussen, author of Increasing Momentum.

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1970s

By 1971 a NOVA minicomputer was installed in the Engineering Faculty for use by the Adaptive Communications Group, and by 1973, for the first time, all Electrical Engineering staff were under the same roof. By 1974 technology was flourishing so rapidly that it was not uncommon for final year students to receive seven offers, and there were such huge vacancies for job positions that graduates could pick employment and negotiate their salaries straight from university.

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1980s

By the early 1980s, an increasing number of students enrolled in combined degrees. Student demand recovered, and cut-off scores for entry began to rise rapidly. In order to increase post-graduate student numbers, it was recommended that the Faculty re-identify itself primarily as a research school, with undergraduate responsibilities attached.

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1990s

Whilst the financial drivers in the ‘80s were research and undergraduate numbers, it was undergraduate numbers that were the major determinant of the Faculty’s share of government funding, and by 1990, there were almost 3000 undergraduate students, and almost zero full-fee paying students.

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2000s

By 2000, there were 4,000 undergraduate students enrolled in the Faculty, 25% of whom were full-fee international paying students who had come to Australia to study engineering. During the late 1990’s the School had developed its own international marketing arm that became the envy of the rest of the university. It was this group of people working with academics that helped the School attract so many excellent international students.

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2011: 150 years
150 years of engineering education

In 2011 the Melbourne School of Engineering celebrated 150 years of engineering education.

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Further reading

References and links for other sources of information about the history of the School.

The Melbourne School of Engineering graciously thanks Carolyn Rasmussen for her publication Increasing Momentum: Engineering at the University of Melbourne 1861–2004. Most of the information from this historical overview was sourced from this text. For further resources, please see: Rasmussen, C. (2004). Increasing Momentum: Engineering at the University of Melbourne 1861–2004. Carlton, Melbourne University Press.