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Hyman Herman (1875–1962)

by Andrew Spaull

This article was published:

Hyman Herman (1875-1962), by unknown photographer

Hyman Herman (1875-1962), by unknown photographer

Museum Victoria, MM 9622

Hyman Herman (1875-1962), geologist and engineer, was born on 16 August 1875 at Sandhurst (Bendigo), fifth of twelve children of Solomon Herman from Konin, Russia (Poland), and his wife Elizabeth, née Oxlake, from London. Solomon had come to Australia in 1864 when his father was appointed minister at Ballarat synagogue. A businessman and land agent, Solomon was a leader of the Jewish congregation in Bendigo and after 1894 in Perth.

Hyman Herman grew up amid the Bendigo mining revival; he later claimed that his first interest in geology arose from his boyhood adventures in the abandoned tunnel that ran under his school. He had a brilliant educational career, helped by scholarships at Gravel Hill (Camp Hill) State School, Sandhurst Corporate High School, and a final year at Scotch College, Melbourne, in 1890. He was to return to his home environment when as part of his D.Sc. (Melbourne, 1924) he submitted 'The Structure of the Bendigo goldfields', a thesis which Professor Sir Edgeworth David reported to be a masterpiece of detailed analysis.

In 1891 Herman began a four-year engineering course at the University of Melbourne, specializing in mining and metallurgy (B.C.E., 1896). He quickly attracted attention, not only for his continuing scholastic excellence, but as the leader of a successful student protest against the quality of instruction. Herman wanted to become a mining engineer, but on completing his course he felt the need for practical experience in geology and so in 1895 joined the Geological Survey of the Victorian Department of Mines and Water Supply. His rise was spectacular. He was nominated as Victoria's mining representative in Britain, but Premier (Sir) George Turner considered he was too young: Herman was 23. He became acting director of the Geological Survey in 1900 and through its efforts and his own work on the Walhalla goldfields helped to reduce the mining industry's scepticism about the survey's value. His reputation was acknowledged, yet he confounded his admirers when, at 29, he refused the directorship of the Geological Survey. Instead he became assistant manager with the Mt Bischoff Tin Mining Co. at Waratah, Tasmania. The once rich mine was in decline. Herman rejuvenated it in his four years stay.

In 1907 he started his own practice in Queen Street, Melbourne, and for the next five years he worked across the Australian mining panorama of tin, gold, coal and copper. He was sought after as a company director, consultant manager and regular writer for the Australian Mining Standard. He established a reputation for versatility in practice, prudence in counsel and a nose for snide sampling. He became convinced that gold-mining could never be re-established as the staple of Victoria's economic growth, and perhaps with this in mind he accepted the position of director of the Geological Survey in 1912. For the next thirty years he became Victoria's leading crusader for the exploitation of her vast brown coal lands. He first persuaded the government to investigate the industrial potential of brown coal, arguing that there should be no further alienation of coal lands, and thereby thwarting German-British and Collins House commercial interests represented by William Baillieu. He also secured additional funds for a major boring policy carried out by William Baragwanath and an experimental brown coal furnace and chemical retort.

Herman's belief in brown coal was not original, but a legacy from earlier Mines Department geologists. His distinctive contribution was in his professional advocacy and his use of the economic situation during the war years. Imported New South Wales black coal was now tenuous in supply and exorbitant in price; the growing demand for electrical power meant that Victoria's future rate of industrialization rested precariously on the need for a cheap, reliable source of energy. Against daunting opponents, Herman brought public opinion behind his cause by manoeuvring an industrial development lobby, the Victorian Institute of New Industries, to press for an inquiry into brown coal use as an energy source. In 1917 he became chairman of a State advisory committee on coal and electricity, which included Herbert Harper and William Stone. Their report became the blue-print for the future power and brown coal industry in Victoria. It envisaged three major operations: open-cut mining in the La Trobe valley; the establishment of a large power-station and briquetting factories (at what was to become Yallourn) and State-wide distribution of electricity. Herman expected to become the chairman of the newly created State Electricity Commission. But he was overlooked in 1919, and again in 1931. Instead he had to be content with the honour of becoming its first engineer in charge of brown coal research and briquetting (1920).

Until his retirement in 1940 Herman searched for new and efficient ways to use brown coal. He helped in the power-station boiler modifications that were necessary because of one of his few serious errors, when he and others had assumed that all the La Trobe valley brown coalfields had a moisture content of about 45 per cent whereas the new seams at Yallourn were found to have over 60 per cent. He was also able to make the briquetting industry profitable by introducing a high pressure steam system for drying the wet coal. Herman made several visits to Germany and the Soviet Union, the main sources of brown coal chemical engineering, and demonstrated that Victorian brown coal was technically suitable for carbonization, pulverized traction fuel and the production of town gas. He also encouraged work in hydrogenation (oil from coal) and initiated investigation of brown coal for this purpose.

Herman advised the South Australian government on brown coal-mining (1926), prepared the survey of coal resources for the Australian Power Survey (1928), and was Australia's representative to the World Power Conference in Washington (1936). He was also the royal commissioner into the Western Australian coal industry (1931 and 1933), again displaying his flair in exposing mining scandals.

After retirement Herman remained consultant engineer to the S.E.C. for another fifteen years. His most important task was to convene an inquiry (1943) into the means of securing Victoria's total independence from black coal imports, which recommended the expansion of power generation and briquetting facilities at Yallourn, hydro power in northern Victoria and the manufacture of town gas from brown coal. All were implemented by post-war governments, so that he lived to see the fulfilment of his dream. He documented much of its application in Victoria and overseas in his comprehensive book Brown Coal (Melbourne, 1952), which contains a bibliography of his papers on Victoria's coal resources.

On 2 April 1902 at St Kilda Town Hall with Presbyterian forms, Herman had married Florence Leslie Ramsay Salmon. Predeceased by his wife and one of his three daughters, he died on 7 June 1962 and was cremated.

Herman described his recreations in Who's Who as 'many mild ones, not a slave to any'. He had been an accomplished amateur Shakespearian actor, a poet ('H2') and horseman; he remained an avid reader, geologist, engineer, company director and mining raconteur. Although regarded as modest, he felt few men to be superior to him (one was Sir John Monash). He was a leader in all avenues of professional life, whether as sectional president of the Public Service Association, or the Chamber of Mines, or the S.E.C.'s Social League. He enjoyed banter that he had imprinted 'HH' on household briquettes for personal edification or that he was indeed the 'father of Yallourn'. As an employer he insisted on thoroughness in investigation, attention to detail and clarity in reporting. He followed all the S.E.C.'s activities with schoolboy enthusiasm. He was the only person in the S.E.C., according to the royal commissioner into its affairs (1926), who had sufficient breadth of mind and technical ability to understand the entire operation.

Herman received no civic honours. However, the S.E.C. has renamed its research station at Richmond the Herman Research Laboratories, in which there is a bronze commemorative plaque. He was also honoured by the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, of which he was a councillor for a record sixty-four years, with the institute medal. Yet his greatest honour was to witness the mining and engineering triumphs in the La Trobe valley. 'Brown coal in Victoria', he once stated, 'has been waiting like a huge fortune in Chancery for the rightful heir to its riches and benefits'. Herman had foreseen its potential, and more than any other person harnessed that fortune.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Edwards, Brown Power (Melb, 1969)
  • SEC Magazine, Sept 1952, p 12
  • Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, Proceedings, 113 (1939), 203 (1962)
  • A. D. Spaull, ‘The rise of the Victorian briquette industry 1895-1935’, Australian Economic History Review, Mar 1969
  • Punch (Melbourne), 23 Aug 1917
  • A. D. Spaull, The Origins and Rise of the Victorian Brown Coal Industry, 1835-1935 (M.Com thesis, University of Melbourne, 1967)
  • Hyman Herman papers, 1896-1960 (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Andrew Spaull, 'Herman, Hyman (1875–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Hyman Herman (1875-1962), by unknown photographer

Hyman Herman (1875-1962), by unknown photographer

Museum Victoria, MM 9622

Life Summary [details]


16 August, 1875
Bendigo, Victoria, Australia


7 June, 1962 (aged 86)

Cultural Heritage

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