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Barton, Edward Gustavus Campbell (1857–1942)

by S. A. Prentice

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Edward Gustavus Campbell Barton (1857-1942), electrical engineer, was born on 11 December 1857, at Toorak, Melbourne, son of George Elliott Barton, a barrister from Ireland, and his Scottish wife Jane Crichton, née Campbell. Edward attended school at Dunedin, New Zealand, received engineering training in Scotland and studied in Germany at Karlsruhe Polytechnische Schule in 1875-79. Gaining further experience in Scotland, in 1882 he superintended the first commercial electric-lighting system in Britain at Godalming, Surrey. He returned to New Zealand and became a consultant there, and in Australia, for the next three years. During this period he erected electrical plant for the Phoenix Gold Mines at Gympie, Queensland, and worked for the Australasian Electric Light, Power & Storage Co. Engaged in 1886 to complete lighting installations in the parliamentary buildings and the government printing office in Brisbane, he was appointed government electrician. He was retained as an adviser after he resigned in 1888 to form a partnership with C. F. White.

By mid-1888 Barton, White & Co., manufacturers of electrical equipment, were ready to supply electric light to the public from a small, direct-current generator driven by a steam-engine. Their first customer was the General Post Office in Brisbane, but progress was slow in the face of conservatism and competition from gas. Barton married Mary Allen Sutton on 13 September 1893 at the general registry offices, Brisbane. In 1896 the company went into liquidation, and was then re-formed as the Brisbane Electric Supply Co. Ltd, of which Barton was manager. Its first power station, in Edison Lane, off Creek Street, was superseded within eleven years by a new building in Ann Street, where in 1901 Barton installed the first steam turbine in Queensland. The firm became the City Electric Light Co. Ltd in 1904: Barton was general manager and a director before resigning to become a consultant. In 1908 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly as a member for Brisbane North, but did not seek re-election the following year.

Closely interested in technical education, Barton had lectured (part time) on electricity in 1889 and in electrical engineering and physics until 1904 at the Brisbane Technical College; he was president (1905) of its council. In 1901 he had proclaimed his enthusiasm for the establishment of a local university in his inaugural address to the Queensland Institute of Engineers; in 1910 he was appointed to the first senate of the University of Queensland and chaired the buildings and grounds committee.

Though Barton's venture in Barton, White & Co. had been opposed by his parents who doubted his business ability and mistrusted his partner, Barton showed vision and versatility in successfully pioneering the State's electricity-supply industry. He was noted for cultivating a comprehensive knowledge which he was always willing to share with his staff. Unpretentious, active and keenly interested in sport, he was also aware of social problems and served as president (1910-15) of the Brisbane Institute of Social Service.

The variety of technical papers which Barton contributed to learned societies reflected a range of interests that included wireless telegraphy. His views on electric railways were advanced: in a lecture to the Queensland Electrical Association in 1901 he had argued the advantages of alternating current over direct current and outlined its possible application to south-east Queensland. A councillor (1892) of the Queensland Institute of Mechanical Engineers, he was president of the Queensland Electrical Association (1899-1900) and of the Queensland Institute of Engineers (1901-02). In Queensland from 1907 to 1915 he represented the Institution of Electrical Engineers, London, of which he was a member. A founding associate member of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, he became a member in 1921. He was a fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society (1909) and the Royal Geographical Society, London (1914).

In 1915 Barton went to England to work for the British Ministry of Munitions. Possibly because of his fluency in French, German and Italian, he later joined an information department of the Admiralty. About 1918 he developed an interest in the British Decimal Association whose members regarded him as a lecturer of 'unexcelled interest and charm'; he was the association's chairman in 1938-42. Barton made Europe his home after World War I, but visited Australia several times in the 1920s. Survived by his son, he died on 14 June 1942 at Watford, Hertfordshire, England, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • R. L. Whitmore (ed), Eminent Queensland Engineers (Brisb, 1984), and for bibliography
  • S. A. Prentice, 'Edward Barton, Pioneer Electrical Engineer', Memoirs of the Queensland Museum, 27, pt 1, Sept 1988
  • W. I. George and S. A. Prentice, Some References to Early Professional Engineering Societies in Queensland (1890-1919), (typescript, 1989, University of Queensland Library)
  • S. A. Prentice, Contributions by E. G. C. Barton to Technical Education in Queensland (typescript, 1990, University of Queensland Library).

Citation details

S. A. Prentice, 'Barton, Edward Gustavus Campbell (1857–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/barton-edward-gustavus-campbell-9445/text16607, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 24 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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