The later half of the 19th century proved an economically prosperous and  exciting time for Melbourne and Victoria. With the Victorian Gold Rush  beginning in 1851 and running into the late 1860s, Victoria dominated the  world’s gold output, and in one decade the population rose from 75,000 to over  500,000, with some places seeing a 3000% increase. Victoria suffered from an  acute labour shortage despite its steady influx of migrants, and this pushed up  wages until they were the highest in the world. During these years, Victoria  was known as the ‘working man’s paradise’, and people from all around the world  migrated to Melbourne hoping to find their riches in the Gold Rush.

This was a time of industrial change, as alluvial gold ran out, deep or  underground mining began, which benefited from the development of new machinery  that improved processes. Given that the Australian colonies lay so far away  from Europe, the ‘do-it-yourself’ mentality was highly valued, and there  was often little separation between the role of an Engineer, Mechanic, Builder,  Architect or Mason. It is not merely coincidental then, that 1861 was the first  year that The University of Melbourne taught engineering.

By 1861 the University offered a three-year Certificate of Engineer (CE),  which required matriculation, or a two-year Certificate of Surveyor. First and  second year students studied geometry, trigonometry, algebra, drawing and mapping,  surface and mining surveying and levelling, followed by theoretical and  practical geodesy, natural philosophy, chemistry and mineralogy and geology. In  third year, civil students faced exams in natural philosophy, technical drawing  and descriptive geometry, co-ordinate geometry and differential calculus and  either Practical Mechanics (which included machinery and mechanical  engineering, theory and sources of motive power and hydraulic engineering), or  Architectural Mechanics (which comprised of strength of materials, equilibrium  of structures and architecture). There was a total of 15 students enrolled in this first year, and by 1864  this number had dwindled to nine students.

Early  struggles were indicative of two major problems that persisted throughout the  University’s early years. Melbourne’s wider engineering societies had an inherent  faith in apprenticeships and vocational training, and generally believed that  engineers needed on-the-job training, not academic training. Further, these societies  were unwilling to set exam requirements for entry into the profession, and the  University’s Certificates went  unrecognised by these societies as formal engineering qualifications, meaning  they had little value to engineers outside of the university. These problems  went unresolved for many years, nevertheless in 1866 the first Certificate of  Engineer was awarded to William Noyce Kernot, and by 1871, eight students  had passed all of their subjects.

1893 Coat of Arms, Courtesy of the University of Melbourne Archives
1850 Matriculation Roll, Courtesy of the University of Melbourne Archives
1860s Professor Kernot, Courtesy of the University of Melbourne Archives