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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Furber, Thomas Frederick (1855–1924)

by Harley Wood

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Thomas Frederick Furber (1855-1924), surveyor and lecturer, was born on 13 May 1855 at St Pancras, London, son of Augustus Frederick Furber, bookbinder, and his wife Mary Ann Forwood, née Bartlett. His father migrated to Sydney and in November 1860 became foreman of the bookbinding branch of the Government Printing Office. Thomas attended Fort Street Public School; in September 1869 his appointment as supernumerary draftsman in the survey branch of the Department of Lands over candidates much his senior was regarded as a school triumph. In 1875 he qualified as a licensed surveyor, and in 1877 was appointed to the triangulation staff as draftsman and computer. He became draftsman in charge of the General Survey of the Colony in 1880 and in 1890 chief computer. In 1904 he was appointed director of trigonometric surveys and metropolitan district surveyor; on his retirement in 1914 he was elected an honorary member of the New South Wales Institution of Surveyors, having been a founding member (1891), councillor, secretary, journal editor and several times president.

Furber was largely responsible for raising the standard of education in surveying; he joined the Board of Examiners of Licensed Surveyors in 1881 and was secretary from 1890. In 1892 with (Sir) George Knibbs he represented the Institution of Surveyors at the Intercolonial Conference of Surveyors in Melbourne. This led to reciprocity in the issue of certificates in all Australian States and New Zealand and stimulated the adoption of the zone system of time.

Furber's ability in mathematics was frequently noted and he contributed several papers, mainly didactic, to the Surveyor. With Joseph Brooks in the field and Furber based in Sydney a high standard of accuracy was attained in the General Survey; Furber's reports compared well with the best of those of the great surveys in other parts of the world. He was concerned to add to knowledge of the figure of the earth; his valuable discussions of trigonometrical survey in Australia, published in reports of the Australasian (1898) and British (1914) Associations for the Advancement of Science and in proceedings of the Pan Pacific Science Congress, Australia (1923), include discussion of deflection of the vertical in eastern areas. In December 1882 he went to Lord Howe Island to observe the transit of Venus.

Furber's appointment as actuary to the Public Service Board in 1903-14 and as secretary to the royal commission on sites for the seat of government of the Commonwealth in 1903, indicate the recognition of his abilities. In 1906 appointment as lecturer in geodesy and astronomy in the University of Sydney, continued until 1924, enabled him to extend his influence and education.

Furber's influence may well have reflected his personality rather than his status. He was energetic and devoted in his work, a 'no-nonsense' character described, apparently with some understatement, as incisive rather than conciliatory. His interest in reservation of areas on the Sydney foreshores and in the Blue Mountains is commemorated in Furber Steps at Katoomba. A fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales, he was keen on sailing and, in later years, on golf. On 17 May 1876 at St Benedict's Catholic Church, Sydney, he married Catherine Lee; after her death he married Blanche Osborne Wilkinson on 20 February 1883 at Albury with Anglican, rites. He died with amyloid disease on 7 October 1924 at Sydney and was buried in the Anglican section of South Head cemetery. His second wife, a son and daughter from his first marriage and two sons from his second, survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Surveyor (Syd), Dec 1904, p 221, Nov 1924, p 80
  • University of Sydney Union, Union Recorder, 30 Oct 1924
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, Journal, 59 (1925), p 5
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Oct 1924.

Citation details

Harley Wood, 'Furber, Thomas Frederick (1855–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 24 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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