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Sticht, Robert Carl (1856–1922)

by Ian McShane

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Robert Carl Sticht (1856-1922), metallurgist and mining engineer, was born on 8 October 1856 at Hoboken, New Jersey, United States of America, son of German-American parents from Brooklyn. He graduated B.Sc. from the Brooklyn Polytechnic in 1875, then specialized in metallurgy at the Royal School of Mines, Clausthal, Germany, completing his studies in 1880. Appointed chief chemist and assistant metallurgist at a Colorado smelting company, he became interested in smelting techniques and in his fifteen years on the fields of Colorado and Montana became the foremost authority on pyritic smelting in the U.S.A.

In 1893 he was approached by William Knox and William Orr, directors of the newly formed Mount Lyell Mining & Railway Co. Ltd, who offered him the position of metallurgist at the new Queenstown mine, Tasmania. Sticht arrived at Queenstown in 1895 with his wife of six months, Marion Oak, née Staige, from Illinois; he was to become a dominant figure in Tasmanian industry and in the west-coast community.

His first task was to persuade the company principals to abandon their plans of roasting the Mount Lyell ore and smelting it in a blast furnace in favour of the more efficient but fickle process of pyritic smelting. Sticht directed the construction of a reduction works, partly of his own design, and the first two furnaces were fired in 1896. Appointed general manager in 1897, he was not a desk-bound administrator, but spent much time on the works' floor and set about making the remote west-coast mine as self-sufficient as possible.

Although the Economist nominated Mount Lyell as the best-managed mine in Australasia, the ore body proved disappointing, but the efficiency of the Lyell smelters partly offset the poor yield of the ore and in 1902 Sticht announced the first successful purely pyritic smelting in the world. The difficulty of sustaining this process, however, led him to reintroduce up to one per cent coke into the furnace.

As smelting required the correct fusion of air, metal, flux and fire, so Sticht conceived of the Mount Lyell works as a unit within which natural resources, capital and labour should work in concert to achieve maximum productive efficiency. A paternalistic manager, Sticht would not concede that the interests of the company were not fully shared by the workforce. He opposed union organization, holding that the Amalgamated Miners' Association challenged his authority. To counter what he considered to be the displaced loyalty of the miners, he established and became president of a medical union which offered first-rate services.

The years before World War I were the most trying of Sticht's tenure. Labour shortages, industrial disputes and a mining disaster in which forty-two men were killed led the company to improve living conditions for the workforce. Sticht's confrontationist approach to worker organization was not long favoured by the directors who appointed R. M. Murray, a local metallurgist, as deputy manager to take charge of housing and co-operative schemes, and to mediate between Sticht and his workforce.

Sticht had pioneered a metallurgical technique that paid handsome dividends—in one year the company had earned more revenue than the Tasmanian government—but by the 1920s it had been superseded by the flotation method of separating copper. His last years were marked by inefficiency. In 1920, following the collapse of world prices, the company was selling copper at a loss. Sticht's solution was to cut wages and to shorten working hours, but his plan was opposed by the Combined Unions Council and the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. In 1921 he fell ill and was replaced as general manager next year by Murray who soon abandoned pyritic smelting and returned the mine to profitability.

Sticht was short and stocky, with a bald pate and fair moustache. Abstemious and careful, he urged restraint among his employees, particularly in regard to alcohol. When old or unlucky prospectors approached him for a job, he was usually sympathetic. His house, Penghana, overlooked the reduction works, but within its walls he was cocooned from that environment. He read widely and assembled a fine private library which included items of incunabula, Caxton Bibles, Reformation tracts, early editions of Shakespeare and Australiana. His art collection included Dürer woodcuts and Rembrandt etchings. Some of it is housed in the National Gallery of Victoria, acquired through the Felton bequest.

Survived by his wife and three sons, Sticht died of renal carcinoma in St Margaret's Hospital, Launceston, on 30 April 1922. His body was taken to Melbourne for cremation at Springvale, but at his request there was no funeral service: he had once described himself as a 'scientific agnostic'. The mineral stichtite commemorates his name.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Blainey, The Peaks of Lyell (Melb, 1978)
  • Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Co. Ltd papers (Archives Office of Tasmania and University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Sticht papers (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

Ian McShane, 'Sticht, Robert Carl (1856–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sticht-robert-carl-8670/text15163, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 3 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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