Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Knight John Langford (Jack) (1912–1988)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published:

(Jack) Knight John Langford (1912-1988), chemist and public servant, was born on 25 August 1912 at Cressy, Victoria, son of Gabriel Knight, schoolteacher, and his wife Laura Mabel, née Langford, both Victorian born. Jack was educated at University High School, Melbourne, and the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1932; M.Sc., 1933), where he shared the Dixson and Wyselaskie scholarships in chemistry and was a member of intervarsity swimming and water-polo teams. In August 1933, after working in the university’s chemistry department, he became a chemist with Nobel (Australasia) Pty Ltd at Deer Park, analysing raw materials and carrying out developmental work on acids and explosives, including the manufacture of tetrazene for the Ammunition Factory, Footscray. On 12 September 1936 at the Methodist Church, Canterbury, he married Lillian Fo’Velle Moulton, a saleswoman. Next month he joined the Department of Defence as a chemist at the Explosives Factory, Maribyrnong, and was placed in charge of propellants.

In October 1941 Knight was transferred to the directorate of explosives supply, Department of Munitions. Part of an explosives mission to North America from November to May 1942, he studied the manufacture of smokeless powder and became involved in the planning of a new explosives factory for Australia at Mulwala, New South Wales. In 1942-45 he was its assistant-manager, with responsibility for the design, layout and construction of the buildings and plant to make synthetic ammonia and methanol and produce nitric acid and nitrocellulose.

After World War II Knight returned to central administration as assistant to the consultant on explosives, Arthur Leighton, and oversaw more than twenty armament chemical annexes. From 1947 he also served as secretary and executive officer of the Explosives Committee. In 1949-51 he was explosives and chemical engineering representative for the Department of Supply and Development in Britain, responsible for liaison with research establishments and factories.

Back in Melbourne in the Department of Defence Production, Knight was an assistant-manager of the Maribyrnong factory in 1952-54; manager of the Explosives Factory, Albion, which he reopened as a government concern, in 1954-56; and chief chemical engineer in the explosives branch in 1957-58. Joining the Department of Supply in 1958 he was controller, explosives supply (later explosives and ammunition supply) until 1967, and deputy-controller of munitions supply, in Canberra, in 1967-76. He was chairman of the Operational Safety Committee in 1958-76. Knight travelled abroad regularly on government business, and between 1969 and 1973 attended the second, third and fourth Quadripartite Ammunition Conferences, in the United States of America, Britain and Canada respectively. While visiting Paris in 1965, he noticed the poor condition of the Australian exhibit at the Musée de l’Armée; he lobbied the Australian government to upgrade it.

Tall and spare with an oval face, Knight was a dedicated and respected public servant. He was a fellow of the (Royal) Australian Chemical Institute (1946) and the Australian Institute of Management (1961), and a member of the Royal Society of Victoria (1961). Reading, gardening and bowls were his recreations; he was a member of the Canberra Bowling Club, and also of the Melbourne Cricket Club and the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria. He retired due to ill health in 1976 and next year was appointed ISO. His unpublished `Explosives in Australia’, written in retirement, argued that David Mellor’s The Role of Science and Industry contains `substantial errors’ in its treatment of chemicals and explosives. In 1983 he returned to live in Melbourne. Survived by his wife, and their two sons and daughter, he died on 22 January 1988 at Blackburn and was cremated with Presbyterian forms.

Select Bibliography

  • Knight papers (Noel Butlin Archives Centre, ANU, Canberra).

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Knight John Langford (Jack) (1912–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


25 August, 1912
Cressy, Victoria, Australia


22 January, 1988 (aged 75)
Blackburn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.