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Technology in Australia 1788-1988Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
Table of Contents

Chapter 13

I Colonial Origins

II First World War

III Between The World Wars

IV The Second World War

V Post-second World War

VI After The Joint Project

VII Science And Decisions At The Top

VIII Armed Services Technology

IX New Tasks And Projects

X Transfer Of Research And Development

XI Acknowledgement



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First World War

At this stage in Australia's industrial development, little further could be done to further the aim to establish a comprehensive munitions industry; the main support was lacking -the absence of an iron smelting and steel industry. The main users of steel, the railways of the various States, imported supplies; a source of good quality pig-iron was obtained from Hoskin's furnaces at Lithgow. The outbreak of World War I in Europe in 1914 immediately involved Australia and, although supplies of raw materials from Great Britain seemed assured, the desire for a greater self-sufficiency was strongly expressed by Australians.

The expert services as a consultant of Dr Walter Rosenhain,[6] a Fellow of the Royal Society and Superintendent of the Metallurgy Department at the United Kingdom's National Physical Laboratory were fortunately available, as he was attending the September 1914 Conference in Melbourne of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He was asked to advise on the production of steels for small arms and 18 pounder shell and to suggest substitute materials for the cupro-nickel envelope of .303 inch bullets. His report, presented in ten days, proposed short term solutions to steel production by the judicious selection of high quality ores and charcoal and by the use of an electric induction heating furnace to produce ferro-silicon used in the recarbonising of basic steel. Here the difficulty was in the supply of carbon electrodes for the usual electric arc furnace. A small experimental pilot plant was set up at Melbourne University to establish the process.

Longer term solutions depended on the success of the proposed establishment of a steel making industry at Newcastle by the Broken Hill Proprietary Company. As to substitutes for cupro-nickel, he discovered that the Colonial Ammunition Factory was experimenting with a copper aluminium alloy. Asked to comment on Rosenhain's Report, Marcus Bell agreed with the concept of Australia establishing its own manufacture of high grade steels for armaments, but pointed out that no skills then existed for the production of fuses or explosive trains, nor were some of the necessary gun powders locally available.

In discussion with the Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher, Rosenhain drew attention to the necessity for having a defence laboratory in Australia, performing a role not dissimilar from that of his own establishment in England. He was invited to enlarge on this idea by letter on returning home. This he did; he proposed a National Commonwealth Laboratory having the main functions of establishing and maintaining national standards of length and mass; standards of measuring instruments and gauges; the testing of materials and offering advice to, and conducting investigations for industry. He summarised his advice in these words,

. . . it is not too much to say that, unless Australia is provided with an adequate laboratory and staff of its own for guiding these defence industries it is still short of being self-contained, since, from time to time, and particularly in time of sudden crisis, she would still be dependent on advice from overseas.

Bell naturally endorsed these views but disagreed with the concept of a centralised laboratory. He preferred staff to be intimately involved with technical problems by being located in individual organizations. No positive action was taken by the Government towards implementing Rosehain's recommendations.

Organisations in Australian Science at Work - Colonial Ammunition Factory; National Commonwealth Laboratory

People in Bright Sparcs - Bell, Marcus; Rosenhain, Dr Walter

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© 1988 Print Edition pages 922 - 923, Online Edition 2000
Published by Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre, using the Web Academic Resource Publisher