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Alexander McAulay (1863–1931)

by Bruce Scott

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Alexander Leicester McAulay

Alexander McAulay (1863-1931), mathematician and physicist, and Alexander Leicester Alexander McAulay (1895-1969), physicist, were father and son. Alexander was born on 9 November 1863 at Luton, Bedfordshire, England, son of Samuel McAulay, a Scottish Wesleyan minister, and his wife Jane Annie, née Sowerby. The famous mathematician Francis Sowerby McAulay was an elder brother. Alexander was educated at Kingswood School, Bath, Somerset; Owens College, Manchester, where he commenced an engineering course; and Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge (B.A., 1886) to which he was drawn by growing interest in mathematics. In 1888 he was appointed lecturer and tutor in mathematics at Ormond College, University of Melbourne (M.A., 1889), and in 1893 first lecturer and from 1896 first professor of mathematics and physics at the newly established University of Tasmania. On 6 February 1895 at the Hobart Registry Office, he married Ida Mary (1858-1949), daughter of Charles Butler, a Hobart solicitor, and his wife Georgine Jane, née Wilmot. Ida was an aunt of Charles Bean and her family was prominent in Hobart society.

McAulay was a lifelong advocate of the quaternion as a mathematical instrument in vectorial analysis. Introduced by the great Irish mathematician Sir William Hamilton in the 1840s, quaternions were important in the development of three-dimensional algebra. By the 1890s when the methods of modern vector analysis were displacing quaternions, there was much bitter debate. McAulay was at the centre of it, with his impassioned writings and his strong advocacy of the quaternion description of the physical world, in fields such as electro-magnetism, hydrodynamics and elasticity. This controversy never left him. He commented in 1924 that a referee had recommended against acceptance of a paper in which he used quaternion notation on the grounds that he might as well address his audience in Sanskrit. He had contributed the article on quaternions to the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1910-11) and earlier articles had appeared in mathematical journals. He had already published Utility of Quaternions in Physics (1893) and Octonions: A Development of Clifford's Biquaternions (1898).

With Professor E. G. Hogg, McAulay carried out a magnetic survey of Tasmania in 1900-01. He compiled a pocket volume, Five-Figure Logarithmic and Other Tables (London, 1909), remarkable for the amount of information it contained, that was used by scientists and engineers for the next fifty years. In his later years he published several papers on relativity. When failing eyesight hampered his research he adapted the Braille system to include his complex mathematical notation.

Perhaps his most lasting memorial was his pioneering interest in hydro-electric power development in Tasmania, about which he wrote to the Hobart Mercury in 1905. On the family property, Kanna Leena, at Shannon in central Tasmania, he studied the flow and fall of water from Great Lake. As a consequence of his advocacy the first major hydro-electric station was completed at Waddamana, close to their property, in 1916.

McAulay was a tall, gaunt figure, seen by his children as rather remote and forbidding, but always ready to enter into serious discussion with them on a range of topics. His wife enjoyed entertaining, and their country house at Shannon was often full of visitors. However, he shunned company and would disappear for days to a remote shack on the property, returning only for fresh supplies. In his later years he became even more of a recluse.

Incipient blindness caused him to cease teaching in 1924 and he was appointed research professor until his retirement in 1929. He died on 5 July 1931 of cerebral haemorrhage at home at Sandy Bay, and was buried in Hobart. His wife, their son and two daughters survived him.

Ida McAulay, born on 23 January 1858, was a feminist who rejected the argument of intrinsic differences in 'the mind-stuff of the sexes' and advocated higher education for girls, sex education and family planning. In 1899 she dismissed the claim that women would be drawn out of their sphere by the franchise: 'a woman's sphere is just that which she chooses to make it'. She was active in women's clubs and was president (1903-05) of the Tasmanian Women's Suffrage Association (later the Women's Political Association), resigning after a controversy. An active horsewoman, she was also a keen rifle-shot, admitting its cruelty—'but it is glorious'. She died at Sandy Bay on 15 October 1949.

Alexander Leicester McAulay was born on 15 November 1895 at Bellerive, Hobart, and educated at The Hutchins School, the University of Tasmania (B.Sc., 1916), Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (B.A., 1921, M.A., 1926) and the University of Manchester (Ph.D., 1921). During 1917-18 he had been employed by the British Air Ministry and the Ministry of Munitions. In 1922 he was appointed lecturer in physics at the University of Tasmania, and professor in 1927 when a separate chair of physics was created. On 1 January 1932 he married Margaret Kathleen Hogarth who drowned a week later on their honeymoon. On 14 December 1934, at Campbell Town, he married Joan Paige Oldrey (d.1949).

During his term as professor the physics department grew into one of the most active in Australia. In appearance, Leicester McAulay stood out in a profession not renowned for conventionality. He was tall and thin with hawk-like features, long untidy hair and shabby clothes. His trousers were just prevented from responding to the pull of gravity by a three-inch belt (or occasionally a piece of string). When he was the only member of staff and student numbers were small, his teaching was very informal, often conducted around a pot of coffee. His lecturing style was unconventional, not liked by those students expecting to take notes with a minimum of thought and effort. He would pace up and down while he talked, flexing a metre stick through what appeared to be impossibly large angles. Then he would step to the blackboard where he might lose his way through a mathematical derivation. Yet many of his students found inspiration in his lectures, particularly those in which he discussed his ideas on the concepts of physics which excited him most—time and space, relativity, matter and energy, the uncertainty principle, and man's interaction with the environment. Some of his graduates made notable contributions to physics in Australia and overseas.

His unusual abilities were probably more evident in research. He had studied under (Lord) Rutherford and had many of the qualities of that giant of experimental physics. His experiments were always simple, aimed directly at the basic problem; his students learned to think carefully about the aims and underlying principles of their work because any limitations were quickly exposed by his searching questions. The breadth of his interests was reflected in the number of research groups in the physics department. The topics of particle physics, cosmic radiation and metal surface electrochemistry were included among his early publications. He became interested in biophysics in the 1930s at a time when most physicists felt that their field of study did not extend beyond the inanimate world. He encouraged the establishment of experimental stations in Antarctica, Macquarie Island, New Guinea and around Tasmania.

The optical industry established in Hobart resulted from McAulay's judgement and confidence during World War II. In 1940 when Australia had no optical industry and was desperately short of components for military equipment the physics departments in all universities were consulted for optical experience. Though his department had none, Leicester built up a team which short-cut procedures and within months was producing precision prisms and lenses for gun-sights and cameras. He and co-workers developed an entirely new method of lens design.

In his later years he became fascinated by the physics of mental processes, believing that a flaw in deterministic theories lay in the uncertainty principle. Just before he retired he conducted some experiments in psychokinesis and parapsychology. He was a fellow of the Institute of Physics, London. His main recreations included bushwalking, flying, skiing and acting. In later years he took up painting and was a skilled gardener.

Failing health caused him to retire in 1959. McAulay died of coronary vascular disease on 10 April 1969 at his home at Sandy Bay, and was cremated. He was survived by his third wife Bettina Nancy, née Morgan-Jones, whom he had married on 25 October 1951 at Chatswood, Sydney, and by a daughter of his second marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • M. J. Crowe, A History of Vector Analysis (Nelson, British Columbia, Canada, 1967)
  • A. McAulay Bibliography in University of Tasmania, Calendar, 1931, 1952, 1958
  • Hecate, 2, no 2, July 1976
  • Togatus, 23 Apr 1969
  • Mercury (Hobart), 6 July 1931, 11 Apr 1969
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 July 1931
  • Ida McAulay papers (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • University of Tasmania Library Archives
  • family papers and letters (privately held).

Citation details

Bruce Scott, 'McAulay, Alexander (1863–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 18 July 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]


9 November, 1863
Luton, Bedfordshire, England


5 July, 1931 (aged 67)
Sandy Bay, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

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