In the 1900s, there seemed no limits to what the ‘Age of the Engineer’ could bring. The benefits of steam trains, railways, electric light, the telegraph and the telephone, motor cars as well as well-watered, drained and sewered cities free from water-borne epidemics, spoke volumes about the engineers’ useful place in society.

By the early 1900s, there was quite a contentious debate brewing in the Faculty about the level of mathematics and physics taught in the Bachelor of Civil Engineering, one that re-ignited the early struggle between vocationally-trained and university-educated engineers. It seemed the Faculty was divided by those who believed the level of mathematics and physics was in excess of the needs of civil engineering students (and should be lowered), with those who believed that the mathematics and physics level should be raised and a stronger emphasis be placed on systematic problem-solving in later years. By 1904, the Royal Commission agreed that the pass standard in the Matriculation exam was too low for those who wished to study engineering. As a result, the standards of mathematics and physics were raised, and the entrance requirements were raised, despite Kernot’s disapproval. There was a push to attract the ‘best and brightest’ students, ones that may have desired to study law or medicine, and entice them into engineering.

There was widespread fear that the entry standards were pushed too high, then the burden of an ultra-theoretical course would drive ‘good average students’ from the university, those that otherwise could have been helped or encouraged. However it was also accurate that the University’s Engineering Graduates were not being exposed to the minimum level of mathematics required at other universities. In seeking to strengthen the connections with the University and the community and ensure a steady stream of students, the Royal Commission insisted that the University establish a range of utilitarian courses to complement the professional streams. They were the Diploma of Building, a Degree of Mining Engineering, a Degree in Agriculture and a School of Mining and Metallurgy, with a new building for mining, metallurgy and geology.

By 1907, the Widow of George Lansell, whose ‘faith in engineering’ had made him Australia’s first millionaire, provided a £1200 scholarship in mining. One year later, after 25 years of service, Kernot asked that his younger brother Wilfred be allowed to take over his teaching. William Kernot passed away one year later, and six years later, the Victorian Institute of Engineers established the prestigious Kernot Medal for Engineering Achievement. By 1910, Melbourne graduates were to be found in the most important areas of Australia, and economic growth in Melbourne resumed.

Interior of an Engineering School laboratory, Courtesy of the University of Melbourne Archives
Grattan Street Entrance, Courtesy of the University of Melbourne Archives