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. This was a remarkable feat for the School, which had been negotiating the validity of its degrees/certificates since its inception in 1861.

During the early thirties engineering students contributed robustly to student bodies and clubs, including running an Engineering Ballet, and the annual ‘Battle In The Lake’, which, self-evident by its title, was an in-jest ‘battle’ in a lake between engineering students. With the gradual decline of the Depression in the late thirties it seemed the nation went back to work, embracing the promise of accelerated technological development and straining towards industrial self-sufficiency.

By 1937 there was a resounding opinion that ‘civilisation follows the engineer’, with the Argus stating that ‘the wellbeing of the community depends not only on the maintenance, but on the advance of engineering knowledge’. The principal role of engineers up until this time was in building infrastructure, extracting mineral wealth and serving the needs of primary production. A new breed of engineers was needed to take Australia into an industrial age, and intake into engineering rose. Local factories began producing more than 67,000 car bodies with an output value in excess of $7m, eliminating the need for imports.

Aubrey Frederic Burstall arrived in this time. The son of a Chance Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Birmingham, Burstall was an ardent mechanical engineer, and he brought youth and vigour to a grey-haired faculty that was not to everyone’s taste. Burstall was shocked with what he found in Melbourne, derivative industries dependent on copying the research and development work done overseas with little use for university-educated engineers. He believed the Faculty was overly concerned with vocational learning, that gave insufficient attention to the newer branches of engineering and yet produced students who were inclined to specialize too early. Burstall believed it was necessary to have a strong research program, and that an understanding and appreciation of research work was essential to complete the training of a professional engineer in the modern era. He believed that improved and detailed research could allow a much more efficient use of engineering solutions to major problems.

However not everyone agreed, and embers of the battle between the legitimacy of the university-trained engineer, and the vocationally-trained engineer were reignited once more, with many different stakeholders invested in the supremacy of their opinion. The Faculty and its graduates held themslves responsible for creating a demand for university-educated professional engineers. However in order to sustain itself, the Faculty drew on the support of those graduates, both financially and otherwise, in the face of general indifference throughout the community and a lack of general funding. This left those graduates with an inflated sense of entitlement to advising on the direction of the Faculty. To implement any reform, Bustall had to persuade 38 men, only 12 of whom where staff of the Faculty, the majority of whom were Civil Engineers. Burstall’s vision of promoting the prestige of engineers and engineering teaching by raising the standards of science and mathematics was resisted by most, and few felt that research was highly valuable.

However Burstall pushed on, and undoubtedly made a major difference to the wider Melbourne community in the ‘30s and ‘40s, particularly through his contribution to Biomedical Engineering. During the winter of 1937, there was an outbreak of polio. In just five weeks, Burstall designed and built 23 respirators to treat the condition, used by 47 patients on a time-share basis. Most of the 1275 patients who were treated using these respirators were under 14, and Burstall and the faculty were recognized for their outstanding contribution. Later, Burstall extended his work on the iron lung to include a split-jacket and a completely new enclosed type of bellows aspirator for use with the respirator for lifesaving on beaches. Bustall and the faculty team also designed tiny heat-regulated respirators for newborn infants in association with Dr Kate Campbell at the Royal Women's Hospital, and in association with Dr R.C. Johnstone, they designed and produced an apparatus for taking red and white blood cell counts and estimating the amount of haemoglobin in the blood sample.

Burstall also laid the foundations for a degree in Chemical Engineering, and during this time, developed a course combining Engineering I and II with a major in chemistry. Electrical Engineering however, received little funding from Burstall, who believed it should be consigned to the Science Faculty. In 1938 active support of aeronautical teaching and research resumed, however students wishing to qualify for Aeronautical Engineering had to transfer to Sydney University at the end of their second year. Burstall had big plans for the Faculty, including plans for new buildings, projected at a cost of £205,000. By the time he arrived, many of the buildings needed repainting and modernization, and basic equipment was outdated. Burstall purchased a sound projector, a Bell and Howell, and he ordered that the Prime Movers Laboratory be cleaned out, and students began to watch demonstrations on a smaller amount of high quality equipment, rather than experiment on outdated equipment themselves.

A new two-storey workshop was built on the eve of World War II, intended to manufacture equipment for undergraduate teaching and research. The new workshop was the start of Burstall’s vision realized, and the government promised to provide a further  £30,000 for developments to the Faculty if Burstall located a similar amount from other resources, which he did.

When World War II began in 1939, progress came to a halt. The new workshop became an annex of the Department of Munitions, engineers and industrial organisers equipped themselves with machine tools, and trained skilled technicians began to produce military equipment. Up to 14 men, seven boys, an army of volunteer workers, many off-duty engineers and groups of women (mainly wives from the university staff), manned the workshop floor. Everyone came together for the war effort, and the engineering faculty played its part.

Perhaps unlike the First World War, in this war, brainpower was seen to exceed manpower, which resulted in passing exams becoming a patriotic duty. People believed that there was no use having industries, unless sufficient bright boys chose engineering rather than medicine or law, thus equipping themselves for directing those industries. As a consequence, the number of students rose from 194 in 1939 to 289 in 1945, and many were drafted immediately into industry rather than the armed services. The benefits of engineering-related advances through research also became apparent, and the war had the effect of educating those in industries that weren’t research-minded, that research was useful, and even fashionable.

Students and staff in Cafeteria, Courtesy of the University of Melbourne Archives
Engineering students’ rag, Courtesy of the University of Melbourne Archives
Engineering students’ rag, Courtesy of the University of Melbourne Archives
Engineering students’ rag, Courtesy of the University of Melbourne Archives
Students in the Lake, Courtesy of the University of Melbourne Archives