Australian Dictionary of Biography

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George Smith Duncan (1852–1930)

by John D. Keating

This article was published:

George Smith Duncan (1852?-1930), engineer, was born at Dunedin, New Zealand, the third son of George Duncan and his wife Elspeth; his parents had migrated from Scotland in 1849. In the mid-1860s George returned to Scotland with his father and elder brothers; he went to school in Scotland and at Clifton College, England. He studied engineering at the University of Edinburgh and on his return to Dunedin, completed his studies at the University of Otago while in the employ of Thompson & Simpson, engineers. He was appointed provincial engineer of the District of Otago and from 1876 engaged in private practice. In 1878 he married Euphemia Kilgour, of Dunedin. In 1879-81 as a partner in the Dunedin firm of Reid & Duncan he built the Roslyn cable tramway, the first cable tramway built outside America. A second line from Dunedin to Mornington was opened in March 1883.

Duncan went to San Francisco about January 1882 and may have met Francis Clapp who in 1883 engaged Duncan as chief engineer to the Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Co. When the Melbourne Tramways Trust was set up as the constructing authority for Melbourne's cable tram system, the largest in the world, Duncan was appointed engineer in May 1884. He remained consulting engineer to the company which operated the trams, and with Clapp revisited the United States in late 1883 to investigate the latest developments in the cable system. Duncan made many advances on American practice and was able to construct his lines around curves with greater success than achieved elsewhere. He made many innovations and among his inventions was the emergency slot-brake. Both he and Clapp insisted on a high standard of maintenance.

In March 1892, five months after the completion of the last line, Duncan resigned as the trust's engineer though he continued as consultant to both the trust and the company. Soon afterwards he left for Europe and America, and in London was elected a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in recognition of his work. He returned to Melbourne about 1894 and resumed his private practice, specializing in mining engineering. He introduced to Victoria the cyanide process of extracting gold and with his younger brother Alfred, his son and others, established the firm of Duncan, Noyes & Co.

Duncan never lost his eagerness to experiment. He was also a chemical analyst and from about 1912 began to search for a practicable method of extracting gold from sea water. In a laboratory at his home in Black Rock he produced gold but at prohibitive cost. Quiet and modest, and reserved except among his close family circle, Duncan was also an enthusiastic golfer. He died at his home on 4 September 1930, survived by two sons and a daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • J. D. Keating, Mind the Curve! A History of the Cable Trams (Melb, 1970), and for bibliography
  • Argus (Melbourne), 8 Sept 1930.

Citation details

John D. Keating, 'Duncan, George Smith (1852–1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Dunedin, Otago, New Zealand


4 September, 1930 (aged ~ 78)
Black Rock, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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