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Michell, Anthony George Maldon (1870–1959)

by Sydney Walker

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

Anthony George Maldon Michell (1870-1959), engineer and inventor, was born on 21 June 1870 at Islington, London, second son and youngest of five children of John Michell (pronounced Mitchell), miner, and his wife Grace, née Rowse. His parents, both from Devonshire, joined the gold rush to Victoria in 1854 and settled at Maldon. George, born during the family's visit to England in 1870-73, spent his childhood at Maldon and in Melbourne where, after tutoring by his sister and his brother John Henry, he attended South Yarra State School. In 1884 the family once again returned to England: Michell gained distinctions in classics and mathematics at Perse Grammar School, Cambridge, and attended lectures in physics, chemistry, mechanics and classic Greek art at the University of Cambridge before returning to Victoria in 1890 to study civil and mining engineering at the University of Melbourne. He graduated with first-class honours (B.C.E., 1895; M.C.E., 1899).

Michell's principal teacher at the Melbourne engineering school, apart from Professor W. C. Kernot, was the civil and hydraulic engineer Bernhard A. Smith. Michell became his pupil-assistant and later his partner; they jointly developed and patented a design for a regenerative pump. In 1902-03 he was also an examiner of patents in the Victorian Patents Office. He established his own consultancy business in 1903, dealing with projects for irrigation, water-supply and sewerage. Next year he published in the Philosophical Magazine (London) 'The limits of economy of material in frame-structure'; the Michell theorem, derived from this, has been employed as a basis for computer programmes.

Michell's reputation was established internationally when he took out a patent in England and Australia on 16 January 1905 for the Michell thrust-bearing. Developed from his research on the mechanical properties of fluids and mathematical studies of fluid motion, viscosity and lubrication (published as 'Lubrication of plane surfaces' in Zeitschrift für Mathematic und Physic, 1905), his invention revolutionized thrust technology, especially in the field of marine propulsion, making possible, for example, the building of ships up to the size of the Queen Mary. The Michell thrust-bearing, having an allowable pressure more than ten times greater, replaced the massive plane-faced collars which made contact with fixed plane shoes. The unique feature of the bearing is the tilting slipper pad. The bearing has a ring of sector-shaped pads making contact with a fixed collar through a pivot or ball-joint. The collar attached to the shaft bears against the pads and as the shaft rotates oil is introduced between collar and pads. The load is taken by the oil film.

To market the invention, Michell and his friend in England, Henry Newbigin, issued licences to interested manufacturers at £1 per inch of shaft diameter. But it was not until 1913, after a report that Krupps was installing the thrust-bearing in German battleships, that British engineers adopted the design. In 1920 four companies (Vickers, Cammell Laird, John Brown & Co., and Fairfield) combined to take over and develop the plant; the total capital was £100,000 in £1 shares of which Michell was given 29,000; he later sold them back to the company for £38,000. The original 1920 company was taken over in 1969 by Vickers alone and continued as Vickers Michell Bearings. In the United States of America, however, as a result of a rival patent granted in 1911 (a blow which Michell found hard to accept), the bearing is known as the Kingsbury thrust-bearing.

Michell was a member of the Institute of Patent Attorneys of Australia and from 1931, when he became a registered patent attorney, he prosecuted all his own patent applications. In addition to his thrust-bearing his inventions included journal bearings, pumps and turbines of special types, the Michell viscometer, a telegraph cypher system, a cypher decoding machine and, finally, the Michell crankless engine.

The crankless engine invention application was made on 19 June 1917. The engine is in the form of an oblique slice of a solid cylinder mounted on a horizontal shaft. As the shaft rotates the oblique slice reciprocates back and forth. A group of pistons operate in cylinders arranged at equal intervals around the shaft. Contact between pistons and 'slant' is via Michell slippers. Thus, with an oil film intervening, no metal to metal occurs. Motion is purely harmonic and the weight of the 'slant' and the pistons is determined by a single formula which results in a complete balance at all speeds.

The Crankless Engine Co. was established to develop designs, manufacture prototypes and endeavour to secure licences from overseas manufacturers for large-scale production. Crankless Engines Ltd was formed in 1920 and from a Fitzroy workshop produced pumps, compressors, automobile engines and aero and gas engines. Construction numbers were assigned to fifty-four machines and of these at least forty-five were built. The company ceased active operations in Australia in 1928 but design and building proceeded in England and U.S.A. The principal overseas manufacturer, George Waller & Sons of Stroud, Hampshire, England, had by 1971 built 116, mainly gas, compressors, ranging in capacity up to 500,000 cubic feet (14,160 m³) per hour.

Michell's outstanding designer was Louis Sherman, a Queensland engineering graduate who became Crankless's representative in England and then worked in America. Two of the machines he designed, an 800-horsepower petrol engine (1929) and a 2000-horsepower opposed piston diesel engine (1943) are held by the Smithsonian Institute, Washington; an automobile engine built in Melbourne in 1923 is in the Museum of Victoria.

In his private practice Michell had been consultant to the Mount Lyell Mining & Railway Co. Ltd; designer of the pumping machinery for the Murray Valley irrigation works; and investigator (1919) for the Victorian government of the hydro-electric possibilities on the Kiewa River. He gave up his practice in 1925 to concentrate on the manufacture of the crankless engine and spent several years overseas, returning to Melbourne about 1933.

Michell became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1934; he received the University of Melbourne's Kernot medal in 1938, and in 1943 was awarded the James Watt International medal by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, London. His own achievements indeed have been likened to those of James Watt.

Michell has been described as 'of medium height, of slight build, with sandy hair and moustache, keen intelligent eyes and … round wire-framed spectacles'. He was quiet and modest and well liked. T. H. Laby was a valued friend. Unmarried, Michell lived at Camberwell with his brother and spinster sisters and also owned a country property, Ruramihi, at Bunyip which he considered 'a sanctuary … essential to his mental health and comfort'. His leisure interests rested in his rural retreat, his technical writing, his remarkable 'exotic' garden at Camberwell, music and continued reading. At 80 he published his massive book Principles of lubrication, a work which demonstrates his facility in expressing his orderly process of thought. On the title page is the working motto of his life, a quotation from Leonardo da Vinci: 'Theory is the Captain, practice the Soldiers'.

Sadly, his lifetime of great achievement closed with his complete loss of mental capacity. He died at Camberwell on 17 February 1959 and was buried in Boroondara cemetery with Anglican rites, leaving an estate valued for probate at £174,009. The library of the Michell brothers was presented to the University of Melbourne, but was not retained as an entity; A. G. M. Michell's personal records were destroyed. The A. G. M. Michell award was created in 1978 by the Institution of Engineers, Australia, to perpetuate the memory of one described by Professor John Crisp as 'arguably Australia's most versatile engineer', and a bronze plate in the civil engineering building, University of Melbourne, also commemorates his name.

Select Bibliography

  • Dictionary of National Biography, 1951-60
  • F. W. Niedenfuhr and J. R. M. Radok, The Collected Mathematical Works of J. H. and A. G. M. Michell (Groningen, 1964)
  • Engineering (London), July-Dec 1915, 20 Feb 1920
  • Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 8 (1962)
  • International Journal of Mechanical Sciences, 11 (Feb 1969), no 2
  • Australian Official Journal of Patents, Trade Marks and Designs, 49 (1979), no 5, supplement, p 13
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Dec 1972
  • S. E. A. Walker, ‘Modest Man of Genius: A Complete History of the Michell Crankless Engine’ (manuscript, Institution of Engineers, Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Sydney Walker, 'Michell, Anthony George Maldon (1870–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/michell-anthony-george-maldon-7567/text13207, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 29 May 2016.

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

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