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Alan Burn (1889–1959)

by M. S. Gregory

This article was published:

Alan Burn (1889-1959), academic engineer, was born on 19 October 1889 in Hobart, son of William Alexander Burn of the long-established firm of Burn & Son, auctioneers, and his wife Marion Louisa, née MacMillan. After education at Officer College, Friends' High School and King's Grammar School, he graduated B.Sc. from the University of Tasmania in 1909 and M.Sc in 1911. That year he also obtained his B.E. from the University of Sydney while working there as a demonstrator in electrical engineering. In 1912 he became an assistant mechanical engineer with the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission of Victoria. Two years later he received the first Walter and Eliza Hall travelling fellowship in engineering awarded by the University of Sydney, enabling him to work at the Escher Wyss & Co. establishment in Zurich, Switzerland, on the design and construction of water-turbines and pumps, a topic which was to prove of lasting interest to him. In England, in 1916, he joined the Aeronautical Inspection Department and, having attained the rank of honorary lieutenant in the Royal Air Force, he accepted, in 1918, a position as locum tenens for the chair of civil engineering in the University of Tasmania; he was appointed professor the following year and emeritus professor after his retirement in 1956.

One of the university's best-known personalities, Burn was a member of its council in 1922-27, 1929-41 and 1945-56, dean of the faculty of engineering for many years and chairman of the Engineering Board of Management of the University of Tasmania and the Hobart Technical College. In 1945-49 he was the last part-time vice-chancellor, and he attended the conferences of British Empire universities in 1931 and 1948, receiving the honorary degree of LL.D. from the University of London in the latter year.

Burn regarded engineering as an art, stressing in lectures and papers the role of the professional engineer as a leader in the community. In the 1920s he taught every engineering subject on the syllabus and is remembered by his students, with whom he established close relations, as a thorough, clear thinker, a man who dealt in elementary principles, and a first-class lecturer who kept his mathematics simple. He was idealistic, believed education should encourage moral as well as mental development, and wished university scholars to experience the stimulus of learning from men at the frontiers of knowledge.

Many of his students went on to eminent positions in engineering practice, and through them Burn maintained contacts with industry, contributing practically to the progress of the State. After widespread destruction of timber bridges in Tasmania during the 1929 floods he stimulated much pioneering development in bridge design, including what are claimed to be the first composite beam bridges (Proctor's Road, 1933, and Ulverstone bridges), very early work on the welding of major structures (Kimberley, 1932), and the floating Derwent bridge at Hobart (1943). He was an associate commissioner for the Hydro-Electric Commission in 1951-59. In 1950 he was president of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, having been a foundation member and in 1925 president of the Tasmanian division. He won the institution's (W. H.) Warren Memorial Prize in 1939 and, in recognition of his lifetime of service, the Peter Nicol Russell Memorial Medal in 1955.

Burn was not physically robust. He enjoyed tennis, motoring — in days when there were few motorists — and the amateur theatre, being president of the Hobart Repertory Theatre Society in 1935-36. On 31 March 1926 he had married a widow Olive Grant Harbottle (d.1970), née Pinnock, of Hobart. She became a well-known producer in repertory theatre and continued an association, with Burn & Son, through periodic displays of antiques at Burn's Mart Auction Sales, which were a feature of Tuesdays in Hobart for over a hundred years. Burn died without issue at Hobart on 18 December 1959. His estate was valued for probate at £41,795. The Alan Burn lectures, given annually to the Institution of Engineers, commemorate his name, work and the traditions which he respected. A prize, awarded in engineering at the University of Tasmania, also honours his distinguished career. A complete list of his publications appears in University of Tasmania Calendar, 1955.

Select Bibliography

  • Institute of Engineers, Australia, Journal, 1, 27 (1955)
  • University of Tasmania Gazette, Apr 1960
  • Mercury (Hobart), 19 Dec 1959, 24 Sept 1970.

Citation details

M. S. Gregory, 'Burn, Alan (1889–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 15 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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