Engineers and Engineering


Zeehan's main street, showing telegraph poles and street lights as instances of engineering (Tasmaniana Library, SLT)

The development of Tasmania's ports, municipal services, roads and bridges, railways, mining, hydro- electric power and major industries has been in great part the work of engineers. Initially the construction of public works was under the control of military officers. Personnel from the Corps of Royal Engineers designed and constructed army barracks, fortifications and accommodation for convicts; for example Captain Kelsall, Royal Engineers, designed the fortifications for Hobart and extended the New Norfolk Asylum (1836). The British military were withdrawn from Tasmania in the 1870s.

In the 1820s, civilian engineers appeared. In 1822 Peter Degraves set up a water mill on the Hobart Rivulet, providing the colony's first mechanically sawn timber. John Lee Archer, Colonial Engineer and Architect 18271838, designed many buildings as well as civil engineering structures including the Ross Bridge. Civil engineers such as Alexander Cheyne were active designing and constructing public works such as the Evandale to Launceston water supply in 1836 (but not completed) and plans for the Bridgewater Bridge in 1841. Eventually engineers in the Public Works Department designed and supervised the construction of roads, bridges, electrical and mechanical services for public buildings and other government projects. Department heads were Ross Reynolds (191929), George Balsille (192949) and Bob Sharp (194971). Balsille had to cope immediately with restoring 154 bridges destroyed in the 1929 floods. During Sharp's term several major bridges were constructed and many gravel roads were strengthened and sealed with bitumen. Hobart's floating bridge, designed by Allan Knight, carried traffic across the River Derwent from 1943 to 1964.

With ships arriving in Hobart in increasing numbers, the New Wharf was built in 1830 and marine boards were established in 1858 in Hobart and Launceston. Their engineers were responsible for expanding port facilities. From 1860, municipal councils' engineers were responsible for town water supply and sewage disposal.

Hobart and Launceston were linked by telegraph (transmitting messages in Morse Code) in 1857, and in 1859 by submarine cable to the mainland. Five more telegraph cables were laid across Bass Strait by 1905. The telephone arrived in 1880, but only in 1936 was a telephone link to the mainland provided by submarine cable via King Island. Communication engineers built up a vast network of landlines and exchanges. After the Second World War, the familiar lines of telephone poles beside the roads began to disappear, as the advanced technology of microwave radio links and later optical fibres carried the rapidly increasing telephone, television and data traffic. Communication engineers were also responsible for the technology and planning behind radio and television broadcasting, mobile radios and the mobile phone networks.

Gasworks were built in Hobart (1857) and Launceston (1860) mainly to provide street lighting. Each had a substantial retort house, a high chimney and several gasometers. Gas was also reticulated to houses for heating and cooking. In Launceston electricity replaced gas for street lighting in 1895 when Duck Reach power station was completed.

Tasmania's early railways were built by private companies, beginning with the Launceston & Western Railway (to Deloraine) in 1871. The Tasmanian Main Line Railway from Hobart to Launceston was completed in 1876. Chief Engineer Charles Grant, in charge of construction, was general manager until 1890 when the government absorbed the private lines into the Tasmanian Government Railways. Grant then floated the Hobart Tramway and supervised construction. In Launceston the Inveresk Railway Workshops grew to become the major engineering facility for the Government Railways. The workshops were modernised in 1922 under the direction of Edward Stone (Stones Building of reinforced concrete is an engineering landmark).

Large-scale mining began in 1873 at Mount Bischoff under engineer Henry Kayser. The Burnie to Waratah Railway (1884) conveyed the ore for the tin smelters in Launceston. From 1877, mines opened at Beaconsfield (gold), Cornwall (coal), Renison (tin), Mount Lyell (copper), Zeehan (silver, lead) and Rosebery (zinc). These enterprises required vertical shafts, winding machinery, pumps, stamping mills, smelters and substantial buildings. The Zeehan School of Mines was established in 1894 to provide technical training. Mount Lyell's success was largely due to its general manager Robert Sticht who pioneered pyritic smelting. Mount Lyell's Abt railway to Strahan was completed in 1897. Hydro-electric power stations were constructed at Mount Bischoff, Lake Margaret (Mount Lyell, still running), Magnet and Pioneer (still operating). Most of the mines employed consulting engineers to design major works, but the efficient operation, maintenance and expansion of the mines also involved continuous engineering expertise. In 1965 Renison Mine went underground, and later new mines were established at Savage River (iron ore), Hellyer (zinc) and Henty (gold).

Led by John Butters, hydro-electric power generation at Waddamana began in 1916 to supply Hobart, the carbide works at Electrona and the electrolytic zinc works in Hobart. The Hydro-Electric Department (later the Commission) had a substantial body of engineers continuously engaged on developing the state's water power resources until 1994. This involved the investigation, design and construction of many dams, tunnels, pipelines, canals, power stations, switchyards and transmission lines, to meet the ever-growing demand. A severe drought in the 1960s forced the Commission to build an oil-burning power station at Bell Bay in 1969. Allan Knight led the Commission from 1946 to 1976.

Cadbury's established a large chocolate factory at Claremont in 1921. Victor Burley was a great innovator and the company used his expertise worldwide. Cement manufacture began at Railton in 1923. When the technology for making paper from hardwood fibre arrived, paper mills were built at Burnie (1938) and at Boyer (1941). These plants required large industrial buildings, high-speed paper making machines and a host of other engineering services. Aluminium production at Bell Bay began in 1955 and Comalco became the Hydro-Electric Commission's largest customer.

Further reading: L Newitt, Convicts & carriageways, Hobart, 1988; A Tulip, Seas no longer divide, Melbourne, 1988; W Townsley in T Cooley, Railroading in Tasmania, Hobart, [c1963]; L Rae, A history of railways and tramways on Tasmania's west coast, Hobart, 1983; G Blainey, The peaks of Lyell, Melbourne, 1954; R Garvie, A million horses, Hobart, 1962; R Lupton, Lifeblood: Tasmania's hydro power, Sydney, 2000; F Kinstler, 'Dams in Early Australia', Proceedings of the 9th national conference on engineering heritage, Ballarat, 1998.

Bruce Cole