150th Anniversary

University archives receive Michell papers

By Katie Wood (University Archives)

AGM Michell

In the 150th year of Engineering at the University of Melbourne, the University of Melbourne Archives has received a significant donation of papers relating to one of the School’s most distinguished graduates, AGM Michell.

Anthony George Michell (1870-1959) studied civil and mining engineering at the University, graduating with first-class honours (BCE 1895, MCE 1899). He is most renowned for his brilliant invention of the tilting pad thrust bearing, which allowed for the development of larger, faster and more powerful ships and is still the standard used in shipping today, over one hundred years later.

The Victoria Branch of the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST) made the recent donation in recognition of the importance of Michell’s contribution to their profession. The material was in the possession of their member Alan H Taylor OAM, a pre-eminent Australian marine engineer and the first non-British President of the international body since it was established in 1889.

The University of Melbourne Archives was selected as the place of deposit because of the existing Michell collections and because of Michell’s lasting association with the University and Melbourne. This association extends to the creation of the Michell Hydraulic Laboratory and permanent exhibition in the School of Engineering and the awarding of the Michell Prize in Engineering.

The donation consists of a box of correspondence, technical data and original blueprints of thrust and journal bearings. The blueprints are of obvious significance, but the correspondence is the first cache of correspondence from Michell that has been donated to a public archive anywhere in the world, as his papers are widely thought to have been destroyed.

The material appears to have originated from the company established by Michell and his English partner, Henry Newbigin, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It seems that it was created as a correspondence file maintained by the general manager, H.B Scott. Most of the correspondence is between Scott and Michell, concerning the running of the company, the development of bearings and market opportunities. There is an interesting debate about the defects of ball bearings as opposed to pad bearings; Michell obviously preferring the latter. The correspondence also contains a couple of letters to John Bogert, Michell’s US representative, and Albert Kingsbury, who had developed a US patent on thrust bearing that was invented independently and prevented Michell’s entry to the US market.

It appears that the two engineers had developed similar concepts at roughly the same time, which has inevitably caused consternation regarding the ownership of the invention. A letter to Kingsbury on November 11, 1931, notes, “As you know, I desire to make due acknowledgment, whenever there is occasion, of your early work on lubrication and the independence of our respective shares in the pioneer development of thrust bearings.”

The recent donation complements a number of existing ones that together represent the largest extant collection of Michell papers. There is a small file in the papers of Ronald East concerning the development of the AGM Michell laboratory and permanent display in the School of Engineering. There is also a collection of over 2,000 drawings of Michell’s crankless engine, created by the Crankless Engines Co. Finally, there is a collection of material donated to the Engineering School by the son of AJ Seggel, Michell’s partner in the Crankless Engines Co., which contains Michell’s 1939 Kernot Medal from the University of Melbourne and his 1942 Watts Medal from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, as well as a couple of Michell’s viscometers.

In 1905 Michell took out his patent, “improvements in thrust and like bearings” (London, Jan-July 1905, no. 875 and Australia Sept 1905, no. 4114). The first working Michell bearing was incorporated in pumps made by Weymouths for Murray River irrigation in Cohuna. From there it spread and is now regarded as having revolutionised shipping on an international scale.

In 1985, GH Vasey wrote “Today we praise George Michell for his brilliant cerebral invention – no lucky hunch, pure science and logic – in a field that needed the break-through, but whose leaders disbelieved the answer when they saw it.” The 150th year of Engineering at Melbourne, and the donation from the Institute of Marine Engineers, is another fitting reason to celebrate the achievements of one of Australia’s greatest engineers.


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