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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kernot, William Charles (1845–1909)

by S. Murray-Smith

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

William Charles Kernot (1845-1909), by unknown photographer

William Charles Kernot (1845-1909), by unknown photographer

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1240

William Charles Kernot (1845-1909), engineer and educationist, was born on 16 June 1845 at Rochford, Essex, England, eldest son of Charles Kernot. Kernot subscribed to the tradition that the family was of Huguenot extraction, the name being a variant of the French 'Carnot' (although Kernot was not normally pronounced as a French word). He arrived with his family at Geelong in 1851 and attended Christ Church School and at the Flinders National School came under the influence of George Morrison, to whom Kernot wrote 'I owe an untold debt of gratitude'. Admitted at 15 he had a 'happy and satisfactory' career in the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1864; M.A., 1866); by gaining the certificate of civil engineering in 1866 he became the first qualified engineer to be produced by the university, though he thought little of the course. He also gained a master of civil engineering in 1898.

Kernot's experience from 1865 to 1875 was to colour his approach to professional education. In 1865 through political influence he secured a post in the Department of Mines at a time of intense pressure of routine work checking land leases. His qualifications were 'as useless as a punkah would be at the South Pole', and after eighteen months he was dismissed. In 1867 he was appointed to water supply, in amiable surroundings but among men who 'as far as I could discern were perfectly unconscious even of the existence of physical laws'. When this office was disbanded he moved to the Department of Railways for some six months in 1870, finding there that the engineer-in-chief, Thomas Higinbotham, 'never missed an opportunity of impressing upon me the uselessness and undesirability of University training for engineers', and then returned to a reconstituted water-supply office, finally resigning from government service in 1875.

Kernot had been appointed part-time lecturer in surveying at the university in 1868, and next-year received a similar appointment in civil engineering. Increasing classes at the university and growing returns from students' fees largely motivated his resignation from the public service. He claimed that 'at once' he discovered that, with consulting work, he could make several times his government pay. In 1882 the utilitarian 'schoolmaster' element on the university council succeeded in establishing four new chairs on the basis of 'favouring local men and appointing them without overseas competition'; in 1883 he became professor of engineering, the first in the university. Next year the first graduates in engineering, as distinct from holders of the 'certificate', appeared.

One of the earliest examples of Kernot's 'outside' work was his association for some years from 1876 with Louis Brennan in developing early models of the steerable torpedo. In 1887 he sent Kernot £500 'as a slight expression of the inestimable service rendered by you' in the 'early and most trying stages of the invention'. In 1878 Kernot had visited Europe, inspected many engineering schools and industrial establishments and become acquainted with leading scientists and engineers. On his return to Melbourne he worked with assiduity as chairman of two juries, and member of another, at the International Exhibition of 1880; although handsomely thanked, Kernot refused to undertake similar duties at the 1888 exhibition, being convinced of 'the impossibility of arriving at thoroughly reliable and satisfactory awards'. In 1884 he accepted an invitation to join a New South Wales royal commission on railway bridges, thus involving himself in two years of part-time work. In 1888 he reported on railway bridges in the Derwent valley for the Tasmanian government and took part in a Victorian inquiry into the undergrounding of telephone and telegraph wires in the metropolitan area. In 1891 he again visited Europe and went on to North America, where he inspected many engineering schools and colleges, with a view to building an adequate engineering school for the University of Melbourne at his own expense; Kernot ruefully recalled that this project was negated by the 'great slump'. In 1892 he was chairman of an inquiry into the locomotive and rolling-stock branch of the Victorian railways, and later claimed, probably justly, that his advice on the balancing of locomotives was saving the government more than its annual subvention to the University of Melbourne. He published numerous scientific papers, his most important work being On Some Common Errors in Iron Bridge Design (1898). In 1901 he again travelled to England, France, Germany and South Africa. To the 1903 royal commission on the University of Melbourne he testified that he spent twenty-three hours a week in lecturing to, or close association with, his students.

To these public and academic duties Kernot added his broader concerns with engineering and education. He was president of the Royal Society of Victoria in 1885-1900 and virtually a permanent member of its council; he was active in the Victorian Institute of Engineers (president 1886, 1890, 1897-98 and 1906-07) and the Victorian Institute of Surveyors (president 1883-84). On Francis Ormond's death in 1889 he became for ten very difficult years chairman of the council of the Working Men's College, an institution he once unfortunately referred to as 'University and water', but he fought fiercely for its independence. Kernot's Address to the college's annual demonstration in 1894 is, like many of his surviving speeches and lectures, noteworthy for its freedom from cant, its espousal of educational principles modern even eighty years later and its pungency. 'Payment by results' he termed 'a system admirably adapted to the cure of smoky chimneys, but most fatal in its effects on cloudy intellects'. On another occasion (but also with reference to the college) he remarked that the democratic atmosphere of a university 'altogether unfits men for submitting to the despotism either of a Russian Czar or a Victorian Education Department'. From his own funds he contributed generously to his institutions: in 1887 he provided £2000 for scholarships in physics and chemistry at the university; in 1893 he gave £300 for a foundry at the Working Men's College and in 1901 another £300 to that institution; in 1902 he donated £1000 towards a metallurgical laboratory at the university and in 1908 a further £200 for a scholarship in geology.

In areas of broader scientific and social concern, Kernot became in 1886 an inaugural member of the Australian Antarctic Committee, set up jointly by the Royal Society of Victoria and the Victorian branch of the Geographical Society of Australasia, the members of which, according to R. A. Swan, 'played a vital role as trail-blazers for the future exploration of the Antarctic continent'. In the same year Kernot was chairman of the board of arbitrators in the waterfront strike, his successful work being recognized by an address presented to him jointly by the Employers' Union and the Trades Hall Council, 'expressing the esteem and satisfaction of both bodies of his impartiality'. In 1903, while deploring 'the extreme Socialistic tendency' and even offering his and his students' services as strike-breakers during the railway engine-drivers strike, he firmly stated his sympathy 'with all the wants, ambitions and trials of the so-called workingman'. He was also an active member of the Baptist Union of Victoria (president 1902-03) and a staunch free trader.

Kernot was probably best known as what a later generation would call a 'stirrer'; indeed, his character and influence cannot be assessed without examining the stiff sense of professional dignity and ethics which led him into many disputes. His early humiliations in the public service made him a relentless scourge of bureaucratic incompetence and nourished a sense of self-righteousness in his many campaigns for safety, economy and the application of scientific principles in public works. He sternly lectured, in forthright categories, government and municipal engineers when he found faults in their designs, especially when these menaced public safety, and referred to the 'ordinary ignorant empiric who calls himself an engineer'. In the late 1880s he launched a long but successful campaign to have the railways admit the weaknesses in the important Moorabool viaduct near Geelong, and he had a lifelong interest in flood control on the Yarra and Barwon Rivers. Among many other battles he dedicated himself to a lengthy campaign against the anti-academic bias of the prestigious Institution of Civil Engineers in Britain, and to a similar fight against the scientific and anti-theoretical approaches of government departments in appointing and promoting engineers and surveyors.

Kernot often told his students that 'I freely admit many mistakes and much weakness on my part, and … regret that my position was not held by some one of sturdier and less sensitive nature, better fitted than I for a career of continual conflict', but there seems little need to take this very seriously. By his autumn years he could point to honoured scars and draw comfort from many victories since the day when he was, in his own words, 'the first man that the University sent out to attack single handed the fortress of professional ignorance and prejudice'. He participated with immense energy in both social and professional life and believed strongly that material progress would lead to 'the evolution of a wiser, kinder, and more sympathetic race'. His disposition was benign, and his popularity considerable with students, colleagues and the public. However, his school of engineering was in some ways a disappointment; it lacked the munificent private backing of the Sydney school. Kernot had to battle deep-seated prejudice against the academically-trained engineer, and the depression of the 1890s, coming when he was at his peak, sadly affected his plans for development. He was criticized by some witnesses at the royal commission on the University of Melbourne (1902-04), and claims were made that his courses were 'superficial', purely descriptive and lacking in analytical and mathematical rigor. Perhaps more seriously, he threatened a member of his own staff who gave evidence critical of the school and secured his removal from academic employment, matters which properly angered the commissioners. However, degree courses in mining engineering (1901) and mechanical engineering (1907) were introduced before Kernot died, while electrical engineering (1912) had long been one of his ambitions. He can fairly be credited with laying sound foundations for the expansion of engineering in the University of Melbourne that took place after his death. More importantly, his spirited extramural sorties and his long campaign for the status of the engineer both within the profession and outside it were a necessary preliminary to the development of adequate academic courses at the university and elsewhere. Here lies his significance, and a large measure of justification for the claim made for him as 'the first Australian engineer'.

In 1880 Kernot had built a large and comfortable house, Firenze, on Royal Parade, Parkville, and there he lived out his life unwed but in company with others of his family. He was of comfortable means, mainly due to his consulting and industrial interests: in 1882 he, James Service and F. Pirani introduced electric light to Melbourne through the New Australian Electricity Co., with Kernot as chairman of directors (1882-1900). He was of pleasing eccentricity: he built a fabled 'velocipede', forerunner of the bicycle, about 1869 and claimed the record for a penny-farthing journey to Geelong; he was an enthusiast for ballooning; and in his later years he was still youthful enough to drive in a student procession his well-known steam car disguised as a locomotive. He died unexpectedly at his home on 14 March 1909. A younger brother, Wilfred Noyce, was professor of engineering at the University of Melbourne in 1932-36.

Deakin held Kernot eminent in his profession and known for 'his sense of justice and kindness'. Scott has written of his 'unruffled generosity and kindness', and Blainey has apostrophized him as 'Kindly and plump, wearer of the broadcloth'. In My Life Story (1924) Arthur Lynch claims him as the only professor he knew at the University of Melbourne 'devoid of that detestable academic exclusiveness and starchiness', and tells how he stood for an hour under Kernot's old umbrella with him at a street corner while the rain poured, listening spellbound to a disquisition on the properties of iron.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Scott, A History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1936)
  • G. Blainey, A Centenary History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1957)
  • Kernot papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • family papers (privately held).

Additional Resources

Citation details

S. Murray-Smith, 'Kernot, William Charles (1845–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 9 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

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