Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sir Robert William Chapman (1866–1942)

by R. J. Bridgland

This article was published:

Robert William Chapman (1866-1942), by unknown photographer, 1931

Robert William Chapman (1866-1942), by unknown photographer, 1931

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6083

Sir Robert William Chapman (1866-1942), engineer, was born on 27 December 1866 at Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire, England, son of Charles Chapman, a currier from Melbourne, and his wife Matilda, née Harrison. In 1876 the family returned to Melbourne where Chapman attended Wesley College and the university (B.A., 1886; M.A., B.E., 1888). He then worked for a few months for a contractor on railway construction work.

In 1889 Chapman became an assistant lecturer in mathematics and physics at the University of Adelaide, and next year also began teaching mathematics at the South Australian School of Mines and Industries. In 1901 he became lecturer in engineering and in 1907 first professor of engineering at the university. In 1910-19 he replaced (Sir) William Bragg as professor of mathematics and mechanics but in 1920 was reappointed to the chair of engineering, which he occupied until his retirement in 1937. In Melbourne, on 14 February 1889, he had married Eva Maud Hall.

Chapman's 'faculty, amounting almost to genius, of being able to recognize the fundamental essentials in almost any problem', made him an excellent teacher. He was beloved by his students especially for his kindliness and for his 'great gift of lucidity'. He was also more than competent as an experimental investigator and as a practical engineer. His first association with the university had occurred at a time when the training of professionally qualified engineers was still based on the system of pupilage. Physical teaching conditions were depressing. He urged the establishment of joint courses by the university and the school of mines; from 1903 they were instituted, leading to diplomas being awarded by the school. Courses leading to degrees awarded by the university in various branches of engineering were later established on a similar basis, and continued until after his retirement when additional chairs were created within the faculty. He had foreseen the changes that would follow the adoption of these joint courses, embracing theoretical and practical study, and perceived that engineer graduates would need to develop a corporate outlook in order to serve the community effectively.

Chapman made it his personal concern to promote professional status and was a foundation member and president of the South Australian Institute of Engineers, established in 1913, and a foundation councillor and later president of the Institution of Engineers, Australia. His pupils were employed at 'almost every power plant throughout Australia' and in senior positions all over the world. They included G. C. Klug, Essington Lewis, W. E. Wainwright, Hugh Angwin, chief engineer of the South Australian Harbors Board, and Chapman's son Robert Hall, chief engineer for railways in South Australia from 1924; other students headed the forestry departments of Great Britain and New South Wales. In 1927 Chapman was appointed C.M.G.

Despite his heavy burden of teaching, Chapman was active in many fields of applied science. His involvement extended well beyond his professorial ambit. Long interested in tidal phenomena and astronomy, he was a member of the Adelaide Observatory Committee. He carried out original research, having extramural applications, into properties of timber, the micro-structure of metals and phenomena related to concrete. Active in setting up a standards laboratory in the State, he was a member of the Australian Commonwealth Engineering Standards Association. His services were often sought as consultant to governments in the field of public works: his chairmanship of an inquiry, which reported to the Victorian government in 1929, into a major subsidence of an embankment at Eildon Weir, was of a pioneering character.

Chapman was a council-member of the University of Adelaide from 1919 and occasionally acted as vice-chancellor. Upon retirement in 1937 he was made emeritus professor and knighted. From 1939 until his death he was president of the council of the School of Mines and Industries. Chapman was a member of many learned societies, and had been president of the South Australian Institute of Surveyors in 1917-29. A fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society from 1909, he consistently nourished the struggling Astronomical Society of South Australia. He was awarded the Peter Nicol Russell memorial medal, the premier distinction conferred by the Institution of Engineers, in 1928 and the (W. C.) Kernot memorial medal of the University of Melbourne in 1931. In addition to his learned and scientific papers Chapman published The Elements of Astronomy for Surveyors (London, 1919) and Reinforced Concrete (Adelaide). Survived by his wife, five sons and two daughters, he died in Adelaide on 27 February 1942 and was buried in North Road cemetery. His name is perpetuated by the Institution of Engineers' R. W. Chapman medal and by a prize at the University of Adelaide. A portrait by Ivor Hele hangs in the Chapman theatre in the engineering school of the university.

Select Bibliography

  • South Australian Institute of Technology, An Age of Technology, 1889-1964 (Adel, 1964)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Victoria), 1929, 1st session, 1 (11)
  • Australian Journal of Science, 5 (1942-43)
  • Institute of Engineers, Australia, Journal, 14 (1942), and for publications
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Aug 1937
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 28 Feb 1942
  • R. B. Potts, Mathematics at the University of Adelaide 1874-1944 (held by Professor Potts)
  • Astronomical Society of South Australia records (Adelaide)
  • Institution of Surveyors (South Australia) records (Adelaide)
  • correspondence 101/1929, 97/49, and Council minutes, 31 May 1949 (University of Adelaide).

Citation details

R. J. Bridgland, 'Chapman, Sir Robert William (1866–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 22 May 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Robert William Chapman (1866-1942), by unknown photographer, 1931

Robert William Chapman (1866-1942), by unknown photographer, 1931

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6083

Life Summary [details]


27 December, 1866
Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire, England


27 February, 1942 (aged 75)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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