Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mackay, Ronald Reay (1905–1963)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Ronald Reay Mackay (1905-1963), radio engineer and educationist, was born on 22 December 1905 in East Melbourne, son of Victorian-born parents Hugh Mackay, civil servant, and his wife Eleanor, née Nonmus. Ronald was educated at Princes Hill State School, at Scotch College briefly, and at the Working Men's College (Melbourne Technical College from 1934) where, after taking some courses in electrical engineering, he was appointed a laboratory demonstrator in 1923 and a lecturer in 1925.

Teaching himself, largely from technical magazines, Mackay specialized in wireless. By 1930 he was in charge of all electrical trade classes; in 1940 he was formally—and belatedly—appointed head of radio and electrical trades. From 1928 he had advised schools on the reception of broadcasts; from 1931 he had developed courses in motion-picture sound-projection. Mackay paved the way for the Victorian Education Department's visual-education branch and for the State Film Centre. He planned the first radio network for the Forests Commission in 1938. Plans for diploma courses in radio and communications engineering were in train (by 1936) and a new building (1938-42) was soon known as the Radio School. At Scots Church, Melbourne, on 3 January 1940 he married Dorothy Perry (d.1947); they were to have one son.

Mackay had been commissioned in the Australian Military Forces. In 1939 he joined the Royal Australian Air Force as temporary flight lieutenant and took charge of defence training at the college, especially intensive short courses in radio communication, primarily for the R.A.A.F. An estimated 23,000 trainees passed through his hands. In 1943 he was appointed honorary squadron leader. Immediately postwar he undertook part-time supervision of diploma courses under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. In 1948 when the teaching of engineering was reorganized, the Radio School, which had grown considerably in staff and equipment, became one of four divisions. Mackay demonstrated educational uses of television in 1950-51.

Innovative, resourceful and a talented lobbyist, he succeeded Frank Ellis as principal of the college in 1952. Mackay's lack of formal academic qualifications roused jealousy and resentment among some of his colleagues, but he was soon generally accepted as leader of the college. Burly and balding, highly perceptive and obsessively devoted to his work, he had many outside contacts. His enthusiasm and sense of humour helped him. He treated all staff as equals, and his door was always open.

In 1954 Mackay brought about the addition of 'Royal' to the name of the college; in 1960 it became the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. During his term the college developed fast, both in the quality of its engineering core and in areas such as architecture, surveying, photography, marine and air navigation, librarianship, and business studies. The number of students reached 20,000, of whom almost half were part time. A strong technical university development committee earned some government support, but Sir Keith Murray's Commonwealth committee on the future of Australian universities recommended the foundation of a second general university in Victoria, squashing the college's ambition. Thus Mackay's period of office was basically frustrating and also marked by fluctuation in relations with the Education Department. R.M.I.T.'s development was further delayed by the long gestation (1961-65) of the report of Sir Leslie Martin's committee on the future of tertiary education, of which Mackay was a member.

Secretary (from 1933), fellow (1940) and councillor (1958) of the Victorian branch of the Institution of Radio Engineers, Australia, Mackay served as federal president in 1961-62. He was also a fellow of the Australian Institute of Management, a member of the Council for Adult Education and of the councils of the Zoological Board of Victoria and the Australian Industries Development Association, and honorary secretary of the Australian Productivity Council. In addition, he was a Rotarian and a justice of the peace.

On 4 December 1963 Mackay returned to his North Carlton home and was shot dead by his 23-year-old son. Following a funeral service at the Presbyterian Church, Toorak, he was cremated. Bayne Reay Mackay was tried for murder, acquitted as insane and committed to custody. His father had named him as heir and executor of an estate which was sworn for probate at £28,871.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Murray-Smith and A. J. Dare, The Tech (Melb, 1987)
  • Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University Archives.

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Mackay, Ronald Reay (1905–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mackay-ronald-reay-10980/text19519, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 12 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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