Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Arthur Frederick Alan Harper (1913–1991)

by R. W. Home

This article was published:

Arthur Frederick Alan Harper (1913-1991), physicist, was born on 5 July 1913 at Summer Hill, Sydney, younger son of English-born Thomas James Harper, Congregational clergyman, and his Sydney-born wife Winifred Pearl, née Steward. Known as Alan, he spent his early years in a sprawling New South Wales central coast parish based in Copeland, where his father was minister. Following his mother’s death when he was three, the family moved to Sydney and then to Bathurst where he commenced school. From 1921 he attended a one-teacher school at Eccleston but at ten was sent to England to live with his paternal grandparents at Reading, Berkshire. There he attended Wilson Central School, becoming dux and completing the Oxford senior examination with honours in physics in 1928.

Too young to enter university, Harper returned to Australia and spent 1929 at Wolaroi College, Orange, where he won a teachers’ college studentship and a university exhibition in the Leaving certificate examinations. He entered the University of Sydney (BSc, 1934; MSc, 1935), graduating with first-class honours and the university medal in physics. While employed as a demonstrator in physics, he completed his masters thesis on a determination of the absolute velocity of beta-particles emitted by radium. The research complemented precision measurements of the products of radioactive decay made by his supervisor and mentor, George Briggs, and was published in leading international journals.

In 1935 Harper moved to a newly created position with the university’s Cancer Research Committee, as State physicist to hospitals. His duties included calibrating x-ray equipment and advising on matters relating to radiation dosimetry, with regard to both radiation protection and the use of radon implants in treating cancers. On 2 January 1937 at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Macquarie Street, Sydney, he married Valerie Winifred Hedger, a stenographer, whom he had met while she was a secretary with the committee.

When the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) established a National Standards Laboratory (NSL) in 1938, Harper was awarded a studentship in its physics section. He and two other junior officers joined the heads of their respective sections at Britain’s National Physical Laboratory, Teddington, Middlesex, to undertake training in aspects of operating a standards laboratory with its associated testing and certifying services, and to order equipment that would be needed to carry out similar work in Australia. Three additional junior officers later joined them. Returning home in late 1940, they launched a program of work to support the nation’s effort in World War II. As they unpacked all the new equipment, Harper recalled, ‘for a few weeks it was like a perpetual Christmas morning’ (Harper n.d., 62).

Harper had been assigned responsibility for establishing and maintaining Australia’s thermometric standards, and he remained in charge of NSL’s work on heat measurement throughout his career there. His most important contributions to the war effort were organising a pyrometry measurement service to assist the nation’s metallurgical industries, and pyrometric research into the wing characteristics of aircraft. He also played a central role in the formation (1943) of the CSIR Officers’ Association, serving as foundation vice-president and then president. After the war Harper’s work expanded to address temperature standards over a very wide range, as well as humidity, viscosity, thermal conductivity, and low-temperature physics. Promoted to principal research officer in 1950, he became senior principal research officer in 1957 and on several occasions acted as chief of what had become the Division of Physics. He was a member, and in some cases chairman of appropriate committees, of the Standards Association of Australia and the National Association of Testing Authorities. From 1951 he also served on relevant technical committees of the International Standardization Organization (Geneva, Switzerland) and the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (Sèvres, France).

President (1959) of the Royal Society of New South Wales, he was awarded the society’s medal in 1967. He was influential as secretary of the Australian branch of the (British) Institute of Physics when in 1962 this became an independent organisation, the Australian Institute of Physics, of which he was later president (1969-71). As secretary from 1965 of the National Standards Commission, he promoted the advantages to Australia of converting to the metric system of measurement. Two years later he was appointed technical consultant to a Senate select committee inquiring into this issue. He drafted the committee’s unanimously adopted report recommending conversion as quickly as possible. Once decided upon, Australia’s smooth transition to the metric system owed much to Harper’s remarkable management skills as executive member of the Metric Conversion Board (1970–81). Determined, tenacious, and resilient, he was a skilful and effective negotiator, an expert in ‘letting people have it his way’ (Todd 2004, 181). Appointed AO in 1976, he became chairman (1978) of the National Standards Commission before retiring in 1981.

With red hair,  of medium height and solid build, and with a personality that commanded respect, Harper was a sociable person. As a young man he had enjoyed bushwalking and caving, had taken part in university student affairs, and become a keen chess player. In his local community of Balgowlah Heights he was president of the Parents and Citizens Association and active in the establishment of the Congregational Church, the Progress Association, and the tennis club. He was also an enthusiastic lawn bowler. Predeceased by his wife and survived by two sons and a daughter, he died on 10 September 1991 in Royal North Shore Hospital, Sydney, and was cremated.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Institute of Physics archives, Basser Library, Australian Academy of Science, Canberra
  • C.S.I.R.O.O.A. Bulletin. ‘Mr. A. F. A. Harper.’ No. 92 (June 1963): 8
  • Hamersley, H. ‘Cancer, Physics and Society: Interactions between the Wars. In Australian Science in the Making, edited by R. W. Home, 197-219.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988
  • Harper, Alan (Arthur Frederick Alan). Interview by Hazel de Berg, 17 June 1980. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Harper, A. F. A. Autobiographical notes. Unpublished transcript in author’s possession
  • Home, R. W. Physics in Australia to 1945: Bibliography and Biographical Register. Melbourne: Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Melbourne
  • Home, R. W. ‘Science on Service.’ In Australian Science in the Making, edited by R. W. Home, 220-251. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988
  • Mellor, D. P. The Role of Science and Industry. Vol. V of Series 4 (Civil) of Australia in the War of 1939-1945. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1958
  • National Archives of Australia. A8520/11, Box 104
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Guide of Our Metrics, Medical Pioneer.’ 13 September 1991, 8
  • Todd, Jan. For Good Measure: The Making of Australia’s Measurement System. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2004

Additional Resources

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Citation details

R. W. Home, 'Harper, Arthur Frederick Alan (1913–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2016, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


5 July, 1913
Summer Hill, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


10 September, 1991 (aged 78)
St Leonards, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

kidney disease

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