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Madsen, Sir John Percival Vaissing (Vissing) (1879–1969)

by D. M. Myers

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Sir John Percival Vaissing (Vissing) Madsen (1879-1969), physicist and engineer, was born on 24 March 1879 at Lochinvar, New South Wales, eldest of six children of Hans Frandsen Madsen, Danish surveyor, and his native-born wife Annie, née Bush. Educated at Sydney Boys' High School and the University of Sydney, he graduated B.Sc. in 1900 with the University medal in mathematics, and B.E. in 1901 with first-class honours and the University medal.

In 1901 Madsen was appointed lecturer in mathematics and physics at the University of Adelaide, where he came under the influence of Professor (Sir) William Henry Bragg with whom he co-operated and became a lifelong friend. His early studies with Bragg related to radioactivity and X-rays. He was awarded a D.Sc. in 1907, but in 1909 his interest in the practical application of science led him to accept a lectureship in engineering at the University of Sydney, where he became assistant professor in 1912. He had married Maud Foster Molesworth (d.1932) at Newtown, Sydney, on 24 August 1904.

Commissioned in the Australian Military Forces in April 1915, from 1916, as captain, Madsen was chief instructor and, promoted major in August 1917, officer commanding the Engineer Officers' Training School at Moore Park, and later Roseville, Sydney, until 1918. He was remembered as 'a tiger for regular physical exercises' and commended for the energy and distinction with which he carried out his duties.

Returning to the university, he was foundation professor of electrical engineering in 1920-49. At various times he was dean of the faculty of engineering, chairman of the professorial board and a fellow of the senate. He directed the development of the electrical engineering course in accord with his firm belief that its success in practice depended on a solid base of physical science. He encouraged students to take double degrees in science and engineering, which became mandatory in most cases for those attempting the honours course. Many of those students achieved prominence in research, the development of major industries and government organizations.

Madsen's lectures were unconventional but effective. He wasted little time in retailing information readily available from books and periodicals, but concentrated on relating practical applications to the fundamental principles on which they were based. His students remember his frequent reference to 'costs and losses' even in the middle of an erudite theoretical dissertation. His appreciation of the mutual interaction between teaching and research led him to develop in his department a strong group of engineers and physicists engaged in basic research, mainly in what came to be known as communication engineering. This activity did not always endear him to more conventionally trained engineers in the power-supply industry, who accused him of 'playing with toys', but he persisted and later developments more than justified his determination. Madsen foresaw the rapid growth of the communications industry and fostered it by providing in Australia a solid background of relevant research.

From its foundation in 1926, Madsen began a long and fruitful association with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. At its meeting in November he proposed the establishment of the Radio Research Board under the general aegis of C.S.I.R. and supported by the Australian Post Office; he was the board's chairman in 1927-58. Its purpose was to encourage and support research in the universities and provide a link between 'freewheeling' academic research and the more industrially oriented research of C.S.I.R. Although this policy inevitably came under attack by those advocating the central control of research, Madsen persisted in his view that independent research in the universities was an essential component of the national effort. His energy and diplomatic acumen won his point and the independence of the R.R.B.

At the same time Madsen had unsuccessfully proposed the establishment and maintenance of national standards of weights and measures, a function allocated to C.S.I.R. under its Act. In 1936-37 he was a member of the Commonwealth Committee on Secondary Industries Testing and Research, chaired by Sir George Julius. When, as a result of the committee's recommendations, the National Standards Laboratory was established in the grounds of the university Madsen served as its chairman in 1938-44. Building began in 1939 and the laboratory, after the diversion of its efforts to many wartime activities, proceeded on its prescribed course in 1945.

When World War II broke out, Madsen led Australia's contribution to the allied development of radar and was first chairman of the Radiophysics Advisory Board in 1939-41. The C.S.I.R. radiophysics laboratory was established and its staffing was helped greatly by the existence of suitably trained personnel. Madsen recognized the importance of rapid interchange of information with allied countries, not only in radar but in many diverse fields, and he initiated the establishment of offices in London and Washington, making several overseas visits for this purpose.

After the war Madsen maintained his active interest in radio research and standards. He had become a member of the C.S.I.R. council in 1944 and when it was reconstituted in 1949 he was a member of the State committee and of the advisory council of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. He was first chairman of the National Association of Testing Authorities and of the Electrical Research Board (1945-66), established with the co-operation of the Electricity Supply Association of Australia. He was also chairman of the Australian National Research Council, president of the Australian branch of the Institute of Physics, a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales from 1909 and a fellow of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, and of the Australian Academy of Science.

Madsen, who always sought recognition of the work of his colleagues but never of himself, was knighted in 1941, and awarded the (Sir) Peter Nicol Russell memorial medal of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, in 1944, and an honorary D.Sc. by the University of Sydney in 1954. Survived by two sons and a daughter, he died on 4 October 1969 at Chatswood and was cremated with Anglican rites. Almost to the day of his death he remained a father figure and wise counsellor to many scientific colleagues. His energy, imagination, persistence and power of persuasion had a profound and lasting effect on many aspects of Australian life.

Select Bibliography

  • D. P. Mellor, The Role of Science and Industry (Canb, 1958)
  • Records of the Australian Academy of Science, 2, no 1, Nov 1970
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 May 1954
  • Madsen papers (Australian Academy of Science Library).

Citation details

D. M. Myers, 'Madsen, Sir John Percival Vaissing (Vissing) (1879–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 20 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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