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Alexander Williamson Dobbie (1843–1912)

by Elizabeth Warburton

This article was published:

Alexander Williamson Dobbie (1843–1912), brassfounder, merchant and inventor, was born on 12 November 1843 at Glasgow, Scotland, one of at least three sons of William Dobbie, an engraver, and his wife, 'a descendant of the Campbells'. With his parents and brothers, Alexander arrived in South Australia from Melbourne in the Slains Castle on 22 February 1851. Educated at James Bath's school in Adelaide, he was apprenticed to G. E. Schwann, a brassfounder, started his own business at the age of 19 and developed a successful foundry and retail shop. On 6 June 1865 in Adelaide he married with Wesleyan Methodist forms Esther Catherine Elizabeth Wallis. They were to have ten children.

A visit to the Philadelphia International Exhibition, United States of America, while on a world tour in 1876, was a revelation to Dobbie. He gained useful importing agencies for sewing machines, bicycles, milking separators and washing machines and ever afterwards he was inventing and reproducing machinery for farm and home. With drawings in the Scientific American as guides, he made an early workable telephone, a phonograph and microphone. It was a joke in Adelaide that he could go to bed with a new idea in his mind and wake up with a claim for a patent.

A photographer, pianist, optician, astronomer and gardener, Dobbie was also a writer of direct, individual style. His Rough Notes of a Traveller was published in 1877. He gave lectures on electro-metallurgy, the microphone, phonograph and mesmerism; visitors to the city were taken to meet him, as to a living marvel. The Dobbie home at College Park was crowded with his inventions and items brought back from his travels and his garden was a spectacle for passers-by as well as callers. He demonstrated his first scientific wonder—an electric pen which marked paper 'so that an immense number of impressions can be printed off'—in April 1878. In August friends and neighbours were invited to his own scientific exhibition. Some guests were sent to the greenhouse, where they listened on telephones to the rest of the party talking and singing. Subsequently Dobbie played a role in the development of Adelaide's telephone system. Believed to be able to ease pain by hypnosis, he was often visited by those about to go to the dentist. At home he arranged séances and other clairvoyant experiments.

Dobbie was involved in the Chamber of Manufactures and the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of South Australia, and was a foundation member of the Philosophical Society (later the Royal Society of South Australia). He was an active Methodist layman and for many years was a Sunday School teacher (sometime superintendent). In 1889 he went overseas again and published another book entitled Rough Notes of a Traveller (1890) about that journey. He had mining interests in Western Australia in the 1890s and at Broken Hill.

Describing him in 1889, a Methodist journal noted 'the strong-built sinewy frame; the restless, energetic, driving movements; the swart and gipsy-like complexion; the black hair and beard'. Another writer called him 'the champion absent-minded man of this city . . . known to tie his buggy and pair up in front of the G.P.O. and go home without them'. Dobbie died of chronic nephritis on 18 July 1912 at College Park, and was buried in West Terrace cemetery. His wife, three sons and three daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • W. F. Morrison, The Aldine History of South Australia (Syd, 1890)
  • E. Warburton, St. Peters, a Suburban Town (Adel, 1983)
  • D. A. Cumming and G. C. Moxham, They Built South Australia (Adel, 1986)
  • South Australian Chronicle, 30 May 1868
  • Christian Weekly and Methodist Journal, 25 Feb 1876, 7 June 1889, p 1
  • Quiz (Adelaide), 16 Dec 1904, p 56
  • Register (Adelaide), 23 Feb 1878, p 14
  • Observer (Adelaide), 24 June 1889, p 17
  • Parliamentary Debates (South Australia) 16 Aug 1881, p 586.

Citation details

Elizabeth Warburton, 'Dobbie, Alexander Williamson (1843–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


12 November, 1843
Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland


18 July, 1912 (aged 68)
College Park, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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