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Robert William McGregor Boswell (1911–1976)

by T. F. C. Lawrence

This article was published:

Robert William McGregor Boswell (1911-1976), scientist and public servant, was born on 30 September 1911 at North Carlton, Melbourne, only son of Robert Boswell, driver, and his wife Belinda, née Hoey, both Victorian born. Educated at University High School, young Boswell joined the Victorian Department of Public Instruction as a teacher and studied part time at the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1933; M.Sc., 1935); he gained a Blue for lacrosse and became a research scholar. Under the guidance of Professor T. H. Laby, Boswell and three colleagues used radio direction-finding to trace the movements of thunderstorms associated with cold fronts crossing southern Australia. For his work he was awarded a Fred Knight scholarship. From February 1935 he continued his investigations on behalf of the radio research board of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

Entering the Postmaster-General's Department in May 1936, Boswell was granted leave in October to take up his scholarship in Britain. There he was employed by Siemens Brothers & Co. Ltd. In July 1937 he represented England at lacrosse. During his journey home, on 10 April 1938 in Colombo he married Mavis Collins; she had sailed from Australia to meet him. Back in Melbourne, he designed and tested telecommunications equipment. Commissioned engineer lieutenant in the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve on 14 April 1943, he served at Navy Office and briefly at sea; his duties involved the installation of radar in R.A.N. ships. His appointment terminated in January 1946. That year he transferred to the south-east regional office of the Department of Civil Aviation as a senior airways engineer.

In April 1948 he moved to Salisbury, South Australia, where he became a principal scientific officer at the Long Range Weapons Establishment. One of his initial responsibilities was to design an electronic timing system for the Woomera Range. Set up jointly by the British and Australian governments to test guided weapons, the range lacked any means of co-ordinating records made by separate instruments during a firing. Boswell developed a central timing unit which proved so successful that more were made and exported to Britain. After one year he was placed in charge of the range and pioneered a rigorous method of project planning. He was promoted superintending scientist in 1951 and deputy-controller, trials and instrumentation, in 1955; next year he was appointed O.B.E. As controller (director), Weapons Research Establishment, from 1 December 1958, he became known as 'Mr Rocket Range'. Boswell ran the facility during its busiest and most fruitful period, dominating the organization and inspiring his staff to find solutions to new technical problems.

Raised to the post of secretary, Department of National Development, in January 1965, he moved to Canberra. Among other duties, he chaired the Snowy Mountains Council. In 1969 he went to London as deputy high commissioner. He returned to be chairman of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (based at Lucas Heights, Sydney) and took up the post in April 1972. Under his stewardship, the commission acquired responsibility for the exploitation of uranium, in addition to its functions as a research and regulatory body, and as a producer of isotopes. Boswell was a member of the science and industry forum of the Australian Academy of Science and of the council of Canberra College of Advanced Education (from 1972). He sat on the Federal government's committee of inquiry on museums and national collections, and urged the college to provide courses for conservators of cultural and ethnic materials. President (1974) of the general conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency, he became a government-appointed director of Mary Kathleen Uranium Ltd in 1975.

Bill was tall and husky, with dark hair, bushy eyebrows and a rugged face. Comfortable in positions of authority and confident in his knowledge, he commanded respect. His style was epitomized in his rendering of Horatio Nelson's aphorism: 'no captain can do wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy'. Boswell was also a good mixer who enjoyed social activities and appreciated classical music. He died of myocardial infarction on 17 February 1976 at Lucas Heights and was cremated; his wife, son and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • S. S. Richardson, Parity of Esteem (Canb, 1979)
  • P. Morton, Fire Across the Desert (Canb, 1989)
  • Search (Sydney), 6, no 9, Sept 1975
  • Atomic Energy in Australia, 19, no 2, Apr 1976
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 July 1963, 9 Nov 1964, 20 Mar 1972, 21 Jan 1975
  • Canberra Times, 13 Nov 1964, 19 Feb 1976
  • private information.

Citation details

T. F. C. Lawrence, 'Boswell, Robert William McGregor (1911–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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