Sir Archibald Glenn

As 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, Sir Archibald Glenn is a well-known Australian figure.

Professor Len Stevens, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering from 1980–87 and a well-known and revered engineer for over 60 years, and Khandis Marinko, the 150th Anniversary Manager, spent the afternoon with Sir Archie to get a first-hand account of the life of an engineering legend.

Sir Archibald Glenn, or Archie, was born on the 24th of May in 1911 in Sale, Gippsland. He grew up on a dairy farm, and in 1927 he began studying at Scotch College. Archie was at Sale High School prior to Scotch, however Archie’s mother insisted that he study mathematics, and when she found out that Sale High didn’t have a mathematics professor, she immediately made the long trip down to Melbourne to interview the headmasters and find a school that would give Archie a good and wide education. After interviewing Dr William Littlejohn, the principal of Scotch from 1904–33, she decided Scotch had the most to offer. She packed Archie up and sent him off to board in Melbourne. This began a long association between Archie and Scotch College, where Archie later sat as the Chair of the Scotch College Council for 29 years.

At Scotch, Archie was a prefect, Captain of Monash House, Captain of Boats, a member of the 1st XVIII and a member of the Collegian Editorial Committee. At the end of 1929 he was awarded a senior scholarship, which in those days was rare and a very high academic achievement. During this period Archie was also awarded a prize in mathematics, where another very famous Melbourne University engineering alumnus, Sir John Monash, handed him the prize and asked him what career he’d decided on. Archie replied that he didn’t know, to which Sir John said Well what are you waiting for? Mathematics is the language of an engineer. Archie must have agreed, and he promptly began studying engineering at The University of Melbourne in 1930.

The university was pretty tough on passing and failing people in those days. Archie remembered having to work out the stresses in a steel-frame building seven storeys high. He recalls having to work with 10-figure logarithms tables to solve equations with 17 unknowns. I remember working over all the university holidays on this sort of thing. Today they do it with a computer. In Archie’s day, they used the slide ruler a lot and their drawings were meticulously composed, with every rivet and bolt drawn in precisely. Surveying was the subject Archie said he never really took to, but he scrambled through. The 10-figure log tables, inclusion of astronomy and theodolites was too empirical for his liking.

During his time studying engineering at the university Archie was a resident of Ormond College, and he greatly enjoyed college life. The beginning two weeks in freshman year was an initiation period that was ‘tough but wonderful’. Freshmen, called ‘scum’, had to memorise the history of the college, and address returning collegians by their ‘titles’: Chief Justice, Doctor, Chief Engineer etcetera. During their initiation period, each boy had to produce an ‘Exhibit’. Archie had to call the head of Taylor’s Business College and get a written statement from him, explaining what he meant by the advertisement ‘a college that educates’. Weary Dunlop, a fellow resident with Archie, had to collect Queenie the Elephant’s footprint from the Melbourne Zoo. Ted Wilson had to collect a bucket of horse manure in Sydney Road at peak hour. By the end of the initiation period, after a final procession involving candle wax in the belly-button (called the Navel Engagement) the boys were officially initiated, and the title ‘scum’ dropped.

One of the interesting things about college life was the supper parties. They took life very seriously because it was during the Depression and after dinner we’d gather round the piano and have a few songs. Graham Thirkell (Graham McInnes [1]) played the piano, and could play anything they named. We’d go off and study until about half-past ten and then you’d go along to a supper party either in your study or one of the others. We used to go to Weary Dunlop’s quite often… Weary was always the butt of jokes because he could concentrate on any subject he wanted. Archie said that one night at a supper party after they had been painting, Archie and Sol played a prank on Weary Dunlop involving a cup of dirty paint water. Weary was vividly recounting a story, and as a joke, Sol and Archie heated up the dirty paint water, added milk to it, and poured Weary a cup of ‘tea’. Weary was ‘batting along with one of his stories’ and he drank the whole lot and didn’t notice. Everyone said afterwards it just shows how rotten Archie and Sol’s tea was, but Archie said that Weary also ‘had the most wonderful powers of concentration’.

Archie rowed during his time at the university, for four years at Ormond, for the university and then for the post-university crew which won then the Victorian Championship. He completed his degree in 1933 and then literally walked the streets looking for a job during the height of the Depression. It was always the same… they’d say ‘Come back later, we might have something’ … the only one that said that to me and did come back was BHP. By that time, Jeff Grimland had offered me a job at Carba Dry Ice and I said ‘there’s no way I’m going to let him down because he gave me a job when I needed it most’. Two years later, Archie was out rowing one day when a friend asked him if he’d ever thought of joining ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries Australia, later Orica). Archie had never heard of them, but ended up meeting with ICI Director Norman Taylor, who then recommended Archie meet a superintendent in Deer Park. Norman gave Archie a lift up to Deer Park and on the way Archie taught him how to take his waistcoat off without taking his coat off, a neat trick Archie believed resulted in him getting the job at ICI.

Archie stayed at ICI for 26 years, starting in the drawing office, rising from Maintenance Engineer (explosives), to Chief Engineer, to Technical Director, then to Managing Director. He grew from the technical side of engineering to master the management side, studying at Harvard and travelling to London to further his management skills. In 1965 he was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and in 1966 he was made a Knight of the Realm. Later, Archie was the director of Westpac Bank for 17 years, he was on the Council to set up Monash University, he was the founding Chancellor of LaTrobe University and in 1970 he won the Sir James Kirby Memorial medal, one of the highest honours awarded by the then named Institute of Production Engineers.

Asked if Sir Archie would encourage students who were looking for career direction to study engineering, Archie said he certainly would. But what would you expect them to be good at before you encouraged them? asked Len. I think they have to have a feeling for humanity. I think whatever you do unless you’ve got that your life’s not going to be pleasant for you … I suppose I had a feeling for mankind.

Listen to the podcast (Running time: 71 minutes, 162mb)

[1] Graham McInnes later went on to be employed by the Canadian National Film Board as a producer (from 1942), he joined Canada’s Department of External Affairs in 1948: he was successively first secretary in New Delhi and Wellington in 1952–54, chief of protocol in Ottawa, counsellor and minister in London in 1959–62, high commissioner to Jamaica, and (from 1965) minister, permanent delegate and finally ambassador to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris. He had published Canadian Art (Toronto, 1950) and at least four novels, the most famous The Road to Gundagai (London, 1965) that sold 20,000 copies.

Sir Archibald Glenn