Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Kenneth (Ken) MacDougall (1884–1960)

by Beverley Firth

This article was published:

James Kenneth (Ken) MacDougall (1884-1960), engineer, was born on 25 September 1884 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, son of Scottish-born parents James MacDougall, importer, and his wife Elizabeth Brydie, née McRobbie. His father acquired, through an unpaid debt, a nail-manufacturing plant which was incorporated as the Austral Nail Co. Pty Ltd in 1891. Ken attended Malvern Grammar School and the Working Men's College (1901-03), gained a diploma in electrical and mechanical engineering, and was employed (from 1904) by the Melbourne City Council's electric supply department. He designed equipment for wire-drawing for the Austral Nail Co. in 1911, and was hired as a consultant when Lysaght Bros & Co. Ltd built a wire-drawing plant in Sydney in 1914.

At Christ Church, South Yarra, on 23 March 1916 MacDougall married with Anglican rites Olive Wilks Francis (d.1958). On 20 April that year he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Commissioned in January 1917, he embarked for Britain in August. After serving on the Western Front with the 3rd Pioneer Battalion in February-April 1918, he was recalled to design and oversee construction work at his father's new wire-plant at Newcastle, New South Wales. His A.I.F. appointment terminated in Melbourne on 14 August.

By 1921 Austral had joined with the British firm, Rylands Bros Ltd, to form Rylands Bros (Australia) Ltd. In 1924 the Broken Hill Propriety Co. Ltd acquired Rylands; MacDougall, whose technical expertise was recognized by Essington Lewis, became manager. The Newcastle plant specialized in high-carbon products such as rope wires, spring wires, and nails; the three-ribbed 'star' fence-post was patented soon after MacDougall took charge. By 1935 Rylands was drawing equivalent wires twice as fast as the best American mills. A notable inventor, MacDougall devised the 'keyhole' type of self-locking tie for the binding of 'dumped' wool. Although 'Mr Ken' was known for his good relationship with employees, he left personnel and industrial matters to his deputies. Possessing a strong voice, Lieutenant Colonel MacDougall commanded (1942-45) the 32nd Battalion, Volunteer Defence Corps, which guarded the steelworks. Some Japanese shells fell on the works, but no one was killed.

His enthusiasm for the design and development of new products and techniques contributed to the world leadership of Rylands in wire-making. After his retirement in 1952, MacDougall was chairman of Lysaght Bros, the Australian Wire Rope Works Pty Ltd and Bullivants' Australian Co. Pty Ltd. A member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, London, he was president of the Rotary Club of Newcastle and of the Newcastle branch of the New South Wales Chamber of Manufactures; he was also a member of the Technical Education Advisory Council and a foundation councillor (1949) of the New South Wales University of Technology. The university awarded him an honorary D.Sc. in 1955.

MacDougall was an engineer at heart. He enjoyed spending his weekends boating with his family on Lake Macquarie. While manager of Rylands, he lived at the Works House, the company cottage on the hill at Mayfield, designed by his wife. Survived by his daughter and two of his three sons, he died on 10 February 1960 at his New Lambton home and was cremated with Presbyterian forms.

Select Bibliography

  • BHP, Newcastle Wiremill 75th Anniversary 1919-1994 (Newcastle, NSW, 1994)
  • BHP Review, June-Sept 1955, p 36
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 July 1949, 25 Feb 1950
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 11 Feb 1960
  • A. Smith, The Australian Wire Industry: An Economic, Business and Technical History (M.Comm. thesis, University of Newcastle, 1982)
  • private information.

Citation details

Beverley Firth, 'MacDougall, James Kenneth (Ken) (1884–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


25 September, 1884
Hawthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


10 February, 1960 (aged 75)
Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia

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