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Arthur Edgar Leighton (1873–1961)

by L. W. Weickhardt

This article was published:

Arthur Edgar Leighton (1873-1961), chemical engineer and administrator, was born on 17 June 1873 at Christchurch, Surrey, England, son of James Leighton, linen draper and later a farmer, and his wife Martha, née Hamer. He was educated at Westminster Wesleyan Training College and the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution (later, Birkbeck College, University of London). In the consulting firm of William Macnab he grappled with chemical problems, including work for Fletcher Moulton of the celebrated cordite patent case (1892-95). After experience at the royal gunpowder factory at Waltham Abbey in cordite production, in 1903 he was appointed to the government of India's department of military supply at the newly constructed explosives factory at Aravunkadu (southern India); he became assistant manager. While on leave in England in 1907 he met C. Napier Hake, chief inspector of explosives for Victoria, who recommended him as designer and manager of the cordite factory to be established by the Commonwealth government at Maribyrnong, Melbourne. He was appointed in January 1909 and full production was achieved by June 1912. On 2 April 1914, at St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, Sydney, he married Norma Stogdale of Melbourne.

On an information-collecting mission to England via India, Leighton was requisitioned by the British government and appointed technical adviser on the manufacture of explosives to the Ministry of Munitions (1915-18). He initiated a scheme for attracting Australian chemists to work in the munitions programme; over 100 responded and from this flowed similar schemes for technicians and tradesmen. In July 1916 Leighton was appointed general manager of an arsenal planned for Australia. From his office in Australia House, London, he enlisted scientists and engineers with expert knowledge of fighting equipment. In 1919 (Sir) Winston Churchill praised Leighton's work on the erection of explosives factories, his contribution to the running of the huge Gretna Works and the recruitment of Australian chemists. That year having returned to Australia, Leighton was appointed chairman of the board of management of the Commonwealth government factories and instituted the Defence Research Laboratories. In 1921-38 he was controller-general of munitions supply. He took a leading part in the preliminaries which led to the establishment of aeronautical research in the mid-1920s. During the 1930s he retained his staff by adapting his factories to the production of such domestic items as lipstick containers.

Leighton retired in November 1937 but returned as controller-general in May 1938–June 1939 and in 1940-46 as consultant on explosives. He was responsible for radical changes in the manufacture of cordite and the use of 'gun paper' made from pinus radiata as a replacement for cotton. An alternative source of glycerine was established using sugar as raw material. Absolute standards of measurement were introduced at Maribyrnong before the National Standards Laboratory was established. In association with private industry Leighton directed the construction of twenty-three annexes to produce chemicals not manufactured in Australia. An ambition to produce an Australian gun, conceived in 1919, was achieved in 1937 with the anti-aircraft three-pounder. In 1941 Essington Lewis attributed the successful local production of the first pitch-measuring machine to Leighton's establishment of the metrology section of the Munitions Supply Laboratories.

He finally retired in April 1950 aged 76. Applauding his ability, single-mindedness and courage, R. G. (Lord) Casey wrote: 'the history of explosives and allied chemical production in this country is the history of your personal efforts … you are the father of munitions production'.

Leighton had become a fellow of the Institute of Chemistry of Great Britain and Ireland in 1907 and served on its council. In 1921 he was president of the Victorian branch of the fledgling Australian Chemical Institute, playing a key role in the tortuous negotiations leading to the granting of a royal charter. In 1953 he was general president and he wrote a history of the institute.

Of medium stature, pleasant, modest and cheerful, Leighton was possessed of an equanimity hardly ever ruffled save when niceties of book-keeping threatened the progress of urgent projects. An abrasive exchange between him and (Sir) David Rivett and others in February 1930 over the proper ambit of forest products research by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research led to a permanent coolness between the two men. Widely read, Leighton was never at a loss for a quotation or anecdote to illustrate his point. In his youth he was an enthusiastic cricketer and his later recreation was golf. He was a member of the Melbourne and Naval and Military clubs. He twice declined Imperial honours at the end of World War I, but was appointed C.M.G. in 1937.

Survived by his wife, son and daughter, Leighton died on 6 November 1961 in Melbourne and was cremated. Though he was brought up a Methodist, the rigour of religious observances had diminished his zeal. The Leighton medal, endowed by his daughter, is the premier award of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute.

Select Bibliography

  • D. P. Mellor, The Role of Science and Industry (Canb, 1958)
  • Ministry of Munitions, Newsletter, 26 Mar 1943
  • Department of Supply (Commonwealth), Newsletter, 12 Apr 1950
  • Australian Chemical Institute, Proceedings, 1954
  • family papers including autobiographical notes (privately held).

Citation details

L. W. Weickhardt, 'Leighton, Arthur Edgar (1873–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


17 June, 1873
Christchurch, Surrey, England


6 November, 1961 (aged 88)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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