Faculty of Engineering Short History

A hundred and thirty years of engineering education

At the beginning of March 1883 the first classes in engineering were held in the Main Building. Engineering then formed part of the newly created Faculty of Science (1882). The classes were attended at the opening by three matriculated students who were candidates for the engineering certificate, and by seven non-matriculated students.

The lecturer in engineering was Mr W.H. Warren, who had been appointed in December 1882 following a decision by the University Senate to carry out significant revisions to the teaching of the University. These revisions, which provided for the establishment of Schools of Medicine, Science and Engineering, were unable to be implemented in 1881 for lack of staff, accommodation, and facilities.

In 1883, when the new engineering curriculum was introduced, the Senate reported that 'great inconvenience [had] been felt during the year, both by the lecturers and the students, through the deficiency in accommodation for lecturing purpose ... the room occupied by the Lecturer in Engineering [was] much too small to contain the apparatus required for the illustration of his lectures...' A temporary structure was erected at the rear of the main building, and in 1885 classes moved to a fairly commodious low white building with a verandah facing Parramatta Road, on a site now partly occupied by the Holme Building.

In 1909 the new building for the P.N. Russell School of Engineering was sufficiently completed early in the year for the work of the school to be conducted within its walls. This building, an outcome of the P.N. Russell benefactions described below, was formally opened by the Governor on 20 September 1909.

During the course of the next few decades extensions were made to the PNR Building until, with the expansion in student numbers in the 1950s and early 1960s, new facilities were constructed in the Darlington extension area across City Road. Since the mid seventies all departments have been accommodated in this area.

Curriculum development

It was the Senate's intention in establishing engineering education at the University in 1882 to award Certificates in Engineering, in Civil Engineering and Architecture, Mechanical, and Mining Engineering. In 1883, however, the Senate adopted revised by-laws to establish two degrees in engineering, those of Bachelor of Engineering and Master of Engineering. In so doing the Senate specified three branches of engineering: Civil Engineering and Architecture; Mechanical Engineering and Machine Construction; and Mining Engineering, Metallurgy, Assaying and Mining Law.

In 1891 Civil and Mechanical were combined. By 1893 Mining had become Mining and Metallurgy and a separate curriculum in Electrical and Information Engineering had been introduced. In 1900 Mechanical and Electrical were combined, and in the same year the degree course in Civil Engineering was extended to four years.

In 1920, in an act of major academic restructuring, the University created six new faculties including Engineering, so separating it off from the Faculty of Science after nearly 40 years of association. To this day the two faculties remain closely allied in teaching and outlook. The other faculties created at that time were Agriculture, Architecture, Dentistry, Economics and Veterinary Science.

Administrative arrangements in Engineering remained unchanged until 1926 when Engineering Technology was added as a fourth branch. With the decision of the Senate to introduce teaching in Aeronautical Engineering in 1939, Aeronautical Engineering became the fifth branch. In 1948, on the appointment of Professor T.G. Hunter as the first Professor of Chemical Engineering in Australia, the Department of Engineering Technology was replaced by the Department of Chemical Engineering. In 1957 separate curricula in Mechanical Engineering and Electrical and Information Engineering were developed and implemented.

In 1982 the departments of Civil Engineering and of Materials and Mining Engineering were amalgamated to form the School of Civil and Mining Engineering. This amalgamation recognised the close association that has developed in Australia between civil engineering and the mineral extractive industries; moreover, by providing for wider contacts with the various branches of the industry, it was intended to strengthen the teaching and research activities in the two areas.

The Faculty continued to award separate bachelor's degrees in the five areas of engineering: Aeronautical, Civil, Mechanical, Chemical and Electrical.

Professor William Henry Warren

At its meeting on 6 December 1882 the Senate appointed Mr W.H. Warren, CE, as Lecturer in Engineering from 1 March 1883.

Warren was born in Bristol in 1852 and obtained his technical and scientific training in the London and Northwestern Railway Works and as a student at the Royal College of Science in Dublin and Owen's College, Manchester.

He sailed for Sydney in 1881 and, following nearly two years as an employee of the Public Works Department, took up his university post. He was to hold this, first as lecturer and then, from 1884, as Professor of Engineering, until his retirement at the end of 1925, a record term of 42 years.

During his occupancy of his Chair he was also Chairman of the Professorial Board, Dean of the Faculty of Science, and first Dean of the Faculty of Engineering.

Professor Warren retired on 31 December 1925 and was made emeritus professor from 1 January 1926.

To his peers Warren was the acknowledged leader of his profession in Australia. His services to the community on royal commissions, on scientific and technical councils, and his work in the Department of Engineering, were widely recognised and respected by his peers and students alike.

Peter Nicol Russell

With the transfer of the Faculty of Engineering to the new engineering precinct in Darlington between 1961 and 1974, the Peter Nicol Russell School of Engineering moved from the building in Science Road where it had been housed for over 50 years. That building had been erected primarily through the generosity of a man whose engineering works thrived in Sydney a century ago.

Peter Nicol Russell was born in Scotland in 1816. He came to Australia in 1832 where, with his brothers Robert and John, he helped his father establish a general engineering and foundry business in Hobart Town. In 1838 they moved to Sydney and, just before their father died, commenced a new business, Russell Bros, in Queens Place on the banks of the Tank Stream, later moving to larger premises in Macquarie Place.

Peter Russell left the firm in 1842 when he rented the foundry and ironmongery premises which were part of the estate of James Blanch, located next to the Royal Hotel in George Street, and commenced operations under the name 'The Sydney Foundry and Engineering Works'. This business quickly flourished and in its second year received contracts for all the iron work required for the Military Barracks at Paddington, and for the Darlinghurst, Maitland and Newcastle Gaols.

Peter was later joined by his brothers, when the firm of Russell Bros was wound up, and in 1855 the partnership of P.N. Russell and Company was formed, comprising the brothers Peter, John and George (the youngest whose business 'George Russell and Company, Engineers' was absorbed in the new partnership) and the works foreman J.W. Dunlop. During the next twenty years the firm grew to such size that the works extended over a large area at Darling Harbour with a big warehouse in George Street.

It soon became the most complete organisation of its kind in Australia and undertook extensive contracts for road and railway bridges, railway rolling stock, steam dredges, gun boats for the Maori War, and crushing and flour milling machinery. Many of the beautiful cast-iron columns and ornamental architectural iron work executed by P.N. Russell & Co.'s foundry could be seen at the entrances and around the balconies of many old Sydney buildings. Bridges over the Macquarie River at Bathurst and over the Yass River at Yass, the latter with a wrought iron superstructure spanning 55m, were constructed by P.N. Russell & Co. in 1870-71.

Peter Nicol Russell returned to London in 1864 and retired as an active member of the firm, but for many years continued to act as overseas representative. He showed sound judgement and foresight by his anticipation of possible future labour troubles in the colony. He repeatedly suggested to P.N. Russell & Co. that they should devote more attention to the importing side of the business rather than continue manufacturing engineering equipment in keen competition with overseas trade, for in those days there was little protection to aid the local manufacturer.

On 30 October 1873 the workmen at the Sydney foundry made a demand for ten hours' pay for eight hours' work, and went on strike. No satisfactory arrangements for the settlement of the strike were reached and the engineering works and warehouses were closed in June 1875, never to be opened again. Thus P.N. Russell & Co. with a capital of £250,000 and employing over 1000 men went out of existence. When Peter Russell revisited Sydney after the closing of the firm which had been his life's work, it is said that he was so distressed that he immediately returned to London; there he lived in retirement until his death in 1905 at the age of 89, having been knighted in 1904. He was buried at East Finchley Cemetery in London, where his grave dominates, marked by a massive monument.

It was in 1895, while on leave in London, that Professor W.H. Warren, the first Professor of Engineering at the University of Sydney, had a fortunate meeting with Peter Russell, which led ultimately to the magnificent endowments totalling £100,000 for Engineering at this University. In 1896 Russell endowed the Department of Engineering by a gift of £50,000, including in the deed of gift a provision that the department should thereafter be styled 'The Peter Nicol Russell School of Engineering'. In 1904 this gift was followed by a second benefaction of £50,000 as an extension of the first amount, when Sir Peter Russell stipulated that the Government of New South Wales should undertake to hand to the University, within three years, a sum of £25,000 to provide an extension of the buildings of the School of Engineering or to erect new buildings. This the Government agreed to do and a building was erected from designs prepared by the Government Architect.

Thus was founded the Peter Nicol Russell School of Engineering, the new building for which was opened in 1909. It is fitting that the present faculty building in the Darlington engineering precinct should retain the name of this great benefactor, thus preserving for future generations the P.N.R. tradition.

At the ground floor entrance of the Peter Nicol Russell Building may be seen one of the hardwood lintels from the Darling Harbour foundry. An elaborate Royal Coat of Arms, which was cast in the foundry for an exhibition in London in 1851, is on display in the foyer. In the courtyard stands one of the many cast iron building columns made in the P.N. Russell & Co.'s foundry, and nearby is the monument in granite and bronze, a duplicate of Russell's East Finchley Cemetery** memorial, presented to the University by Lady Russell in honour of her husband. A portrait in oils of Charlotte Russell hangs above the main stairway leading from the foyer to the first floor drawing office.

*This short biography is based on an article that appeared in the Journal R.A.H.S. Vol. 50 Pt 2.

** East Finchley Cemetery was formerly known as St Marylebone Cemetery.