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Builder, Geoffrey (1906–1960)

by R. W. Home

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

Geoffrey Builder (1906-1960), physicist and radio engineer, was born on 21 June 1906 at Cue, Western Australia, eldest child of native-born parents Alfred Ernest Builder, a managing agent for a rural supply company, and his wife Grace, née Clark. The family later moved to Geraldton. Geoffrey was educated in Perth at the Church of England Grammar School, Guildford. On passing the Leaving certificate in 1922, he was apprenticed as a fitter at the railway workshops and studied at night at Perth Technical School. In 1925 he enrolled at the University of Western Australia (B.Sc., 1928); he majored in mathematics and rowed in the winning crew at the intervarsity regatta in 1927.

While tutoring at the university in 1928, Builder studied advanced physics and completed the course externally after moving to the Carnegie Institution of Washington's magnetic observatory at Watheroo. His chief responsibility was to maintain the observatory's radio link with Washington, but he also investigated atmospheric potential gradients on which he published his first papers. In 1930 he passed the M.Sc. preliminary course at the University of Western Australia as an external student and was then accepted by (Sir) Edward Appleton in his laboratory at King's College, University of London (Ph.D., 1933; D.Sc., 1956).

Taking up research on the physics of radio propagation and the ionosphere, Builder specialized in instrumentation. It seems that it was he who persuaded Appleton of the advantages for investigating the ionosphere of the pulse-echo method (developed at the Carnegie Institution) over Appleton's own frequency-change method. Builder also designed the apparatus for the British expedition in 1932-33 to Tromsø, Norway, to investigate ionospheric conditions at high latitudes for the International Polar Year.

He returned to Australia in 1933 to a position in Sydney with the Radio Research Board where his work again mainly dealt with instrumentation. Next year he became director of the research laboratories at Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd. Builder recruited excellent staff and built his institution into the country's premier industrial research establishment. During World War II the A.W.A. laboratories contributed significantly to Australia's radio and radar capabilities.

In contrast to the gentleness that later characterized his behaviour, Builder was at that time an abrasive administrator. In November 1940 A.W.A. replaced him as director of the laboratories and gave him a roving commission to strengthen Australia's international radio links. A temporary major in the Australian Military Forces in February-August 1942, he advised on radar before being appointed acting general manager of Airzone Ltd, a wartime supplier of electronic equipment to the Department of Defence. Subsequently, with two colleagues from Airzone, he set up private companies to manufacture electrical equipment, specializing in constant voltage transformers.

In 1947 Builder joined the University of Sydney as a temporary lecturer in physics; in 1950 he was appointed senior lecturer. An enterprising and sympathetic teacher, he developed ideas on the foundations of relativity theory that continue to provoke discussion. He was a fellow of the Institute of Physics, London, and of the American and Australian institutions of Radio Engineers. At St Peter's Anglican Church, Ballarat, Victoria, on 25 May 1936 he had married Margaret Bettie Mitchell, a laboratory technician from Perth. His recreations included gardening at their home at Burwood, Sydney, carpentry and tennis. Builder died of a coronary occlusion on 17 June 1960 at Croydon and was cremated; his wife, son and three daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. W. Home, Physics in Australia to 1945 (Melb, 1990)
  • Listener In, 8 Dec 1934
  • Australian Journal of Science, 23, Nov 1960, p 155
  • University of Sydney, Gazette, Nov 1960, p 297
  • AWA Pty Ltd papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Physics Department files (University of Sydney Archives).

Citation details

R. W. Home, 'Builder, Geoffrey (1906–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/builder-geoffrey-9617/text16957, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 November 2018.

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

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