On the current Faculty of Engineering website, the discipline and practice of engineering is defined. To 'engineer', it explains, literally means 'to make things happen'. It goes on to elaborate that engineers are inventors, converting science knowledge into successful innovation, and producing some of the greatest advances in humankind's wellbeing. Critical to this pursuit and to ‘making things happen’ for both staff and students alike has been the support and expertise of the Faculty’s technicians and laboratory staff.
The earliest plans for the Faculty of Engineering’s buildings on the new campus recognised the importance of the technical and practical side of engineering. As well as lecture theatres, offices and common space for early staff and students, provision was made for laboratories and specialist technical equipment. Stages two and three of the Engineering building plans saw specialty areas, laboratories, testing facilities, lecture theatres and drawing rooms constructed to support teaching and research.
Early building activity focussed on lecture theatres, tutorial rooms and offices. However, by 1963 building in the Engineering ‘precinct’ had progressed considerably. Foundation Dean Ken Hunt reported to Monash University Council that year:
The completion of the first stage of Building IV provided the faculty with greatly improved laboratory facilities, even though much equipment is still temporarily installed in laboratories ultimately intended for Electrical Engineering and other purposes … The department of Electrical Engineering made a good start in commissioning laboratories for electrical machines, electrical standards and electronics in their final locations … The contract for the first stage of the heavy laboratories was let and the building was nearing completion at the end of the year. Planning continues, particularly of the thermodynamics, workshops, and structures areas.
But it was not enough to just build laboratories and install state of the art equipment. Without highly dedicated and competent technical staff to run and maintain them, the equipment and facilities would be of relatively limited benefit. Well aware of this reality, Hunt turned his attention towards finding appropriate technical staff to support the teaching and research activities of the Faculty well before construction of the Engineering buildings and facilities even commenced.
On Saturday 7 May 1960 an advertisement for a Laboratory Manager in the ‘Engineering Department’ of the new Monash University appeared The Age newspaper. William Churchill, then Chief Engineer at the Royal Melbourne Hospital Central Linen Service and Group Laundry, applied for the position. Less than a month later, in June 1960, Hunt wrote to him offering him the post. Churchill became the first Laboratory Manager of the Faculty of Engineering. He stayed in the role until he retired in 1976.
In their supporting letters for his application for the position, Churchill’s referees praised him for his skills and expertise. He was described as a first class engineer. He was applauded for his knowledge across the various fields of engineering, his sound practical engineering skills, and his ability to organise and manage resources. One referee pointed out,
He has an excellent knowledge of pneumatics and hydraulics and is familiar with electronic and electromatic circuits … He has had a great deal of experience in ‘lay-out’ of machines and equipment and in maintenance of same.
All of these attributes and skills were crucial as they meant that Churchill could fulfil the role of Laboratory Manager as it was outlined in the position description. According to this document, Churchill, or anyone who filled the role of Laboratory Manager, was directly responsible to the Dean. They were to be responsible for the establishment and maintenance of efficient and economical procedures relating to the use of the Faculty’s laboratories, materials and equipment. The Laboratory Manager was also required to oversee any additional technical staff – which grew in number as the Faculty expanded – and liaise with the central university administration on matters of finance and resources. Establishing relationships with suppliers, plant manufacturers and distributors was also a role to be carried out by the Laboratory Manager.
Initially, Churchill was the only technical staff member in the Faculty. However, gradually, as the Faculty’s facilities developed, the number of technical staff increased. By 1970, Churchill’s role had expanded considerably. He had become responsible for overseeing the support services provided by the Faculty, which by then included mechanical workshops, stores and an analogue computer. Former technical staff member Julie Fraser recalls that it was the Laboratory Manager who oversaw all the technical staff. ‘We also had a large workshop’, she recalls, ‘and there were six or seven guys in the workshop turning out custom equipment.’
Departmental laboratory and workshop facilities had also begun to emerge, reflecting the growing research and teaching activity within the Faculty and the increased demand for facilities, specialist equipment and laboratories. For example, when David Boger joined the Department of Chemical Engineering in 1965, the first thing he noticed was that the laboratories were well established. Similarly, when Brendon Parker joined the Department of Materials Engineering in 1970, he recalls being extremely impressed with the technical staff at Monash. He reflected that ‘in England it was difficult to get anybody to do anything … the friendliness and willingness of people here to do things for you was absolutely terrific’.
In these early days technical staff numbers were high. Owen Potter reflected that ‘at Monash in the early years we had excellent technical staff … we had roughly one technician for one staff member, and that enabled us to reach a level which the undergraduate laboratories in the US couldn't attain’. Former Head of Chemical Engineering, Frank Lawson also recalls the early days at Monash when there was high ratio of technical staff to academic staff.
I was lucky, because the person who looked after the lab was a very, very good fitter and turner, and all I had to do was tell him, ‘this is what I want it to do, can you make it for me?’ and away it went.