Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Stewart, William Ian (1914–1994)

by Winton Higgins

This article was published online in 2018

William Ian Stewart (1914–1994), standards administrator and standardisation advocate, was born William John on 21 October 1914 at Marrickville, Sydney, son of Scottish-born James Sands Stewart, slater and tiler, and his New South Wales-born wife Edith Mary, née Hill. Ian was educated at Fort Street Boys’ High School, and won a public exhibition to the University of Sydney (BSc, 1935), where he studied chemistry, physics, mathematics, and geology. After he graduated, he immediately began to work for the Standards Association of Australia (SAA). On 15 January 1938 at the Methodist Church, Burwood, he married Georgina Louisa Woodger, a clerk. He gained a bachelor of science (economics) from the University of London (1947).

Stewart would spend his entire working life with the SAA. He became its chief technical officer in 1948, was appointed deputy director in 1953, and was director (later chief executive) from 1974 until his retirement in 1979. When he joined SAA, the not-for-profit association was only thirteen years old, and struggling to assert the importance of national standardisation in industry through State acceptance of uniform national standards. Vested interests defended idiosyncratic standards to protect local industries from external competition—a mindset that in turn infected any impetus towards national standardisation. Stewart pursued a long and ultimately successful campaign against this practice, and for harmonisation with international standards. By the time he retired, SAA was deeply engaged in the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and was a major promoter of international standardisation.

Early in their careers, Stewart and his predecessor as director, Allan Stewart (no relation), had worked with the formidable SAA pioneer Bill Hebblewhite, under whose leadership the organisation had played crucial roles in the development of war production and civil defence during World War II. In this way Stewart came to appreciate the enormous potential for targeted standardisation to promote industrialisation in the interests of the country’s long-term development.

As deputy director, Stewart championed metrication. He and his organisation took a leading role in implementing the Metric Conversion Act when it became law in 1970. The Federal government appointed him to the Metric Conversion Board, and SAA became an essential part of the country’s swift and comprehensive adoption of the reform. He saw it as an opportunity to simplify and rationalise thousands of standards. He thus successfully pushed for ‘hard’ conversion, as opposed to ‘soft’ conversion whereby imperial measures would simply be rewritten in metrics. He also stymied plans for the dual labelling of products in both imperial and metric terms, thus hastening the cultural change that metrication demanded.

Swift, thoroughgoing metrication gave Australia greater opportunities to harmonise its standards with international ones. Stewart’s directorship of SAA coincided with the Tokyo round of trade meetings (1973–79) under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. During these meetings there was a major thrust to eliminate technical barriers to trade, such as potential trading partners’ inconsistent standards governing manufactured goods. He vigorously promoted this cause, as did ISO, in whose affairs he and his organisation took a greater role. He also started SAA’s training program for standardisers from developing countries, notably from East Africa.

By going back to first principles about the purpose of standards, Stewart exercised a rare facility in being able to urge innovation on associates, often-resistant stakeholders, and governments. He inaugurated SAA’s Monthly Information Sheet, and provided much of its material. From 1962 to 1971 he also lectured part time in mathematical statistics at the University of Sydney.

Highly articulate and an innovative leader in standardisation, Stewart helped transform that field. He saw himself as ‘an “unashamed technocrat with a faith that technology has rarely created a problem that it can’t eventually solve”’ (Moncrieff 1994, 14). He was appointed AM in 1978. A member of the Sydney rugby union and Manly Civic clubs, he enjoyed swimming and golf. In retirement he studied philosophy at the University of Sydney (MA, 1989). He died on 8 August 1994 in North Sydney, survived by his wife, two sons, and one daughter; he was cremated.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Higgins, Winton. Engine of Change: Standards Australia since 1922. Blackheath, NSW: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2005
  • Mathews, F. M. ‘A Tribute to Ian Stewart.’ SAA Monthly Information Sheet, September 1979, 3–4
  • Moncrieff, Jack. ‘Standard-Bearer of Metric Conversion.’ Australian, 30 August 1994, 14
  • Stewart, W. I. National Standards and Their Impact on Australia 1922–1980: An Assessment of the Activities of the Standards Association of Australia and Its Contributions to the Industrial Economy. North Sydney: Standards Association of Australia, 1980

Additional Resources

Citation details

Winton Higgins, 'Stewart, William Ian (1914–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stewart-william-ian-20171/text31244, published online 2018, accessed online 23 March 2019.

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