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Sir Thomas Ranken Lyle (1860–1944)

by R. W. Home

This article was published:

Sir Thomas Ranken Lyle (1860-1944), mathematical physicist, was born on 26 August 1860 at Coleraine, Londonderry, Ireland, second son of Hugh Lyle, landowner, and his wife Jane, née Ranken. At the Coleraine Academical Institution Thomas excelled in work and sport. He won a sizarship in mathematics in 1879 to Trinity College, Dublin, and graduated B.A. in 1883 with the highest honours the college could bestow—the University studentship in mathematics and large gold medals in both mathematics and experimental science. His teachers included G. F. FitzGerald, one of the great figures of nineteenth-century mathematical physics.

For several years after graduation Lyle undertook private coaching for the university honours examinations. As well, he gained valuable experience in 1884 as representative of the Commissioners of Irish Lights in a famous series of experiments on the relative merits of oil, gas and electricity as lighthouse illuminants; he came down cautiously in favour of the Irish gas-burner system. In 1885-86, though not himself a Catholic, he was assistant lecturer in mathematics and mathematical physics at the Catholic University College, Dublin. After taking out his M.A. in 1887, however, he devoted himself entirely to advanced study in physics and mathematics with a view to obtaining a Trinity College fellowship. Runner-up in 1888, he was virtually assured of election next year but instead accepted appointment to the chair of natural philosophy at the University of Melbourne, unexpectedly made vacant by the premature death of H. M. Andrew.

In 1884 Lyle had taken up Rugby, progressing in a single season from the college second XV to the Irish international team. He played for Ireland five times in 1885-87 before suffering knee injuries that caused lameness in later life. He was also a keen cricketer and in Melbourne he became an Australian Rules enthusiast, serving for many years on the Victorian Football League tribunal.

Lyle took up his Melbourne appointment in mid-1889. A separate degree in science had been instituted only three years before and Lyle and two other outstanding arrivals, (Sir) David Masson and (Sir) Baldwin Spencer, were chiefly responsible for establishing this on a sound footing. A major feature of the new degree was its provision for systematic laboratory instruction, which in physics it fell to Lyle to implement; regular practical classes for second-and third-year students were begun in 1891 and practical work was included in the first-year course from 1901. With the introduction of the M.Sc. degree in 1891 research was established in the department and in due course Lyle himself embarked upon a modest research programme.

Much of the apparatus needed had to be made on the spot. Fortunately, Lyle was good with his hands. An expert glassblower, he made much of the glassware for both teaching and research. He was also an enthusiastic photographer. In February 1896, when news of Röntgen's discovery of a mysterious new form of radiation reached Melbourne, he put this combination of skills to good use, quickly assembling the apparatus needed to take what were probably Australia's first X-ray photographs. His assistance was thereafter in demand by members of the Melbourne medical community.

Lyle's own research interests lay, however, in the field of electrical power technology. Alternating currents and their associated magnetic effects became his specialty. In his earliest paper on the subject (1898) he introduced, apparently independently of Steinmetz, the complex-number representation of alternating currents that came to be widely used. Soon afterwards he showed how the method could be extended to take account of the hysteresis of an iron core. In later papers he described an ingenious 'wave-tracer and analyser' that he had developed and its use in investigations of the behaviour of iron under periodic magnetizing forces. The paper generally regarded as his masterpiece is a theoretical analysis of the alternating current generator (1909). Lyle was an active member of the Royal Society of Victoria to which he presented many of his papers. Most were also published in London. They led to the award of the Sc.D. degree of his Irish alma mater in 1905 and a fellowship of the Royal Society in 1912. 'Lyle of course', Spencer later wrote to Sir John Monash, 'is the greatest man, scientifically speaking, that we have ever had in the University'.

Once Lyle had organized his department's affairs he began assuming responsibilities outside the university. In 1899 he investigated technical education facilities in Britain and the United States of America for the Victorian government and in 1901 was a major witness before the Fink royal commission on technical education. He had already joined the board of visitors of the Melbourne Observatory in 1899; from 1903 until his death he served as chairman. In 1904-14 he represented the university on the Victorian Rhodes scholarship selection committee. In 1906, with C. Napier Hake, he inquired on behalf of the Commonwealth Department of Defence into a rash of accidents caused by the bursting of army rifles; next year he was a member of a conference that advised on the establishment of the Commonwealth Bureau of Meteorology; and in 1910-34 he was a university representative on Victoria's Council of Public Education.

On 28 December 1892 at East Melbourne, with Presbyterian forms, Lyle had married Frances Isobel Clare, daughter of a prominent Western District grazier, Thomas Millear. His marriage, prudent investments and Ranken family inheritances in the U.S.A. provided a considerable private income which enabled him to contemplate early retirement when his damaged knees left him increasingly incapacitated. He resigned in mid-1914 with effect from 28 February 1915; T. H. Laby succeeded him.

The outbreak of war, however, led to new advisory and administrative responsibilities. Lyle became a member of the Federal Munitions Committee, president of the Industries Exemption Advisory Committee and scientific adviser to the Naval Board. He worked long hours with H. J. Grayson to perfect the latter's superb ruling engine for producing super-high quality diffraction gratings. Following Grayson's death in 1918 Lyle purchased the machine and, using university laboratory space, kept the work going until the mid-1930s, supplying excellent gratings not only to Laby and his research students but also to overseas research workers.

In December 1915 Lyle was a member of the four-man delegation that waited on Prime Minister Hughes to discuss the establishment of a national laboratory for scientific research. He was active in the affairs of the resulting Advisory Council of Science and Industry throughout that body's unsuccessful struggle to realize the scientists' early hopes and, following the establishment of the Commonwealth Institute of Science and Industry in 1919 and the appointment of a director in 1921, he provided (Sir) George Knibbs with much-needed support and advice. When the institute was supplanted in 1926 by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research he became a member of the Victorian committee.

Lyle was also a foundation member of the Australian National Research Council in 1919 and president in 1929-32. From at least 1916 he was active in the movement to establish a national system of engineering standards and was chairman of working committees of both the Australian Commonwealth Engineering Standards Association and its successor, the Standards Association of Australia. (He was never, however, chairman of the association itself.) He served on the Council of the University of Melbourne in 1916-33 and in 1929-31 on a committee which made recommendations for the establishment of a university in Canberra. In 1932 he sat on a committee of inquiry into the future of Australia's observatories. His outstanding contribution to the nation's scientific life was recognized by the A.N.R.C. when in 1931 it created the Thomas Ranken Lyle medal for distinguished Australian research in mathematics and physics.

In 1919-20 Lyle, as one of the three newly appointed part-time Victorian State electricity commissioners, chaired the meetings at which policies of far-reaching importance were broadly settled—the final commitment to La Trobe valley brown coal in preference to hydro-electricity or Altona coal and the method of its extraction; the establishment of Yallourn; plans for absorbing the existing municipal supply schemes and the Railway Department's generating plant; routes for power lines and standards for the licensing of technicians. After the institution of the State Electricity Commission with Monash as full-time chairman, Lyle continued as a commissioner. Knighted in 1922, he supported Monash in his determined defence of the commission against political attack. Lyle's contribution to the commission's success has been somewhat overshadowed by Monash's achievements but was well understood by his fellow commissioners who at his retirement in 1937 paid tribute to 'his profound knowledge, sound judgement and breadth of vision', affirming that 'neither time nor changing circumstances have made it necessary to alter the policy decisions in major matters registered during the period of his Chairmanship'.

Lyle lived for many years in a large home at Toorak and moved easily among men of influence in public affairs. He held several company directorships, most notably the Metropolitan Gas Co. He was president of the Melbourne Club in 1928. Inevitably, his political views were conservative. Extremely hard-working, he was also a man of gentle humour and considerable warmth and charm, popular with his students and later with S.E.C. workers: 'one of the nicest, kindliest gentlemen I have ever met', according to one of the latter. He was a little above medium height and physically very strong until his last years, despite his lameness. In 1940 a cerebral haemorrhage left him a semi-invalid.

Lyle died at South Yarra on 31 March 1944, survived by his wife, a son and three daughters; the eldest daughter (Dame) Mary, a Melbourne medical graduate, married (Sir) Edmund Herring and became a well-known figure in Melbourne society. Lyle's estate was valued for probate at £79,056. His portrait by W. B. McInnes, presented to the University of Melbourne in 1925, was later lost in a fire, but a replica hangs in the university's school of physics.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Blainey, A Centenary History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1957)
  • G. Currie and J. Graham, The Origins of CSIRO (Melb, 1966)
  • C. Edwards, Brown Power (Melb, 1969)
  • Alma Mater (University of Melbourne), July 1897
  • Australian Journal of Science, 6 (1944), p 174
  • Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, 5 (1945), p 33
  • Isis, 60 (1969), p 5
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 2, no 3 (1972), p 18, vol 5, no 3 (1982), p 41
  • Monash papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Lyle papers (privately held)
  • State Electricity Commission of Victoria records (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • University of Melbourne Archives
  • W. R. Armstrong, History of State Electricity Commission of Victoria (manuscript, SEC Library, Melbourne).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

R. W. Home, 'Lyle, Sir Thomas Ranken (1860–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 25 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]


26 August, 1860
Coleraine, Londonderry, Ireland


31 March, 1944 (aged 83)
South Yarra, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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