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Jack Maxwell Rayner (1906–1982)

by Ken McCracken

This article was published:

Jack Maxwell Rayner (1906-1982), geophysicist, was born on 22 October 1906 at Granville, Sydney, eldest of three children of Sydney-born Oswald Ralph Edward Rayner, fruiterer and confectioner, and his wife Nellie, née McIlquham, born in England. Jack attended Granville Public and Parramatta High schools; he was school captain of the latter. Winning a bursary to the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1929), he gained first-class honours in mathematics and physics.

At the beginning of the Depression Rayner needed to support his family. With the assistance of Professor Oscar Vonwiller, in 1929 Rayner became a trainee geophysicist with the New South Wales Department of Mines and was immediately seconded to the Imperial Geophysical Experimental Survey. Catapulted into a more senior role by the death of the deputy-director, he wrote the section on electromagnetic techniques in the final report. He then became the ‘hands-on’ consultant geophysicist for the Aerial Geological and Geophysical Survey of North Australia and split his time between field investigations and his duties with the Department of Mines.

On 16 July 1938 at St John’s Church of England, Camberwell, Melbourne, Rayner married Phyllis Arnell Salmon; she later accompanied him on AGGSNA field trips. Moving temporarily to Broken Hill, New South Wales, Rayner used gravity and magnetic techniques in a survey that identified the southern extension of the main lode and led to the establishment of New Broken Hill Consolidated Ltd. His surveys there added at least ten years to the life of the mining operations.

During World War II, based on his experience with magnetic prospecting, Rayner worked on neutralising the magnetic fields of ships (degaussing) to minimise the risk of triggering magnetic mines. The magnetic compass being vital to military operations on land, at sea and in the air, Rayner collated the scattered observations of the magnetic declination observed over the previous three decades and made them available as magnetic maps for operational use throughout Australia and in the western Pacific Ocean. The success of the IGES and AGGSNA in stimulating mineral discovery and the wartime need to increase mineral production led to his transfer to Canberra in 1942 as chief geophysicist to the Mineral Resources Survey of the Commonwealth Department of Supply and Development.

In 1945 Rayner and (Sir) Harold Raggatt visited geological, mining and petroleum organisations and companies in North America. Their report defined the nature and structure of the Commonwealth Bureau of Mineral Resources, Geology and Geophysics, established in 1946. As its inaugural chief geophysicist (1946-52) Rayner emphasised seismic and magnetic technologies that were vital to the discovery of commercial oil and gas fields. Appointed deputy-director in 1952, he helped to plan the scientific aspects of Australia’s Antarctic program and the nation’s contribution to the International Geophysical Year (1957-58). As director (1958-69) he transferred in 1958 the several components of the BMR from Melbourne to Canberra. According to his son, Rayner’s philosophy of the job of the BMR was ‘to find the haystacks, so that mining companies could find the needles’.

The ‘father’ of exploration geophysics in Australia, Rayner provided the foundation for Australian geophysics and for the country’s geophysicists to become world leaders in their craft and to promote Australia’s prosperity. During the 1950s and 1960s he was the senior Australian representative on international bodies, including the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics. He was a fellow (1936) of the Institute of Physics (London). In 1967 he was appointed OBE.

Retiring in 1969, Rayner immediately became a consultant to Conzinc Riotinto of Australia Ltd and was a director (1970-81) of Aquitaine (Australia and New Zealand) Ltd. Hard working and serious, he published many scientific reports and technical surveys. Survived by his wife and their son and daughter, he died on 6 October 1982 in Canberra and was cremated. The Rayner Glacier in Enderby Land, Antarctica, is named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. B. Edge and T. H. Laby (eds), The Principles & Practice of Geophysical Prospecting (1931)
  • R. Wilkinson, Rocks to Riches (1996)
  • Preview: Australian Society of Exploration Geophysicists, nos 126-129, 2007
  • Canberra Times, 6 Mar 1969, p 8
  • Australian Financial Review, 20 July 1970, p 30
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ken McCracken, 'Rayner, Jack Maxwell (1906–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


22 October, 1906
Granville, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


6 October, 1982 (aged 75)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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