Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Shephard (1852–1940)

by H. C. Bolton

This article was published:

John Shephard (1852-1940), manufacturing engineer and microscopist, was born on 2 December 1852 at Masbrough, Yorkshire, England, son of William Shephard, grocer, and his wife Ann, née Rickett. John was sent to school at nearby Rotherham and apprenticed at the age of 10 to local engineers Guest & Chrimes. The firm made plumbing equipment, scientific instruments (such as photometers), and glass prisms (for use in chandeliers). With a co-worker Ralph Davies, Shephard studied metallurgy, mechanical engineering, electricity and magnetism at Firth College, Sheffield.

In 1883 Shephard emigrated to Australia. Next year he and Davies set up an engineering business in South Melbourne. At the office of the registrar of marriages, Carlton, on 31 January 1885 Shephard married Alice Emma Roberts, a domestic servant. Davies Shephard & Co. (later Davies Shephard Pty Ltd) manufactured and repaired water meters, made brass fittings, cut gears, and designed and built scientific instruments. The rapid expansion of the urban water-reticulation system and the formation of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works in 1890 led to an increased demand for the firm's plumbing products. Davies opened a branch in Sydney. In 1904 the partnership was dissolved: Davies took over the Sydney offshoot and Shephard retained the Melbourne operation. About 1930 Shephard handed day-to-day control of the business to his son Caleb, but continued as the firm's managing director. The company began to manufacture Kent rotary-piston water meters in 1933, a product which gained nationwide sales.

In 1889 Shephard had joined the Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria (president 1899-1901). Specializing in the descriptive study of freshwater Rotifera—a phylum popular with microscopists—he published his findings in the proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria (member 1894, president 1912). Although he was an amateur and regarded microscopy as a form of relaxation, he became 'one of the mainstays' of the Microscopical Society of Victoria and joined the Quekett Microscopical Club, London.

Like his friend H. J. Grayson, Shephard was interested in the problems of resolving microscopic images. Optical microscopes were calibrated using a slide with parallel lines drawn at known distances apart; some lines had to be less than 0.00004 inch (1 micron) apart. By 1891 the firm of Davies Shephard had manufactured a microtome. The experience gained in making this instrument, and in using it to cut specimens one micron in thickness, gave Shephard the confidence to convert its basic structure into a micro-ruling engine with which he could scratch lines on slides for microscopes. His engine was in service by 1894, making glass rulings at an astonishing 100,000 lines to the inch, that is, about 0.25 micron apart. This high-precision instrument was as good as, if not better than, any of its kind in the world.

Shephard ruled a graticule for the transit telescope at Melbourne Observatory and a micrometer for the University of Adelaide. His laboratory notebook reveals that he also made a diffraction grating, but it has not been found. Survived by his wife, and their son and daughter, he died on 15 May 1940 at Brighton and was cremated; his estate was sworn for probate at £51,923.

Select Bibliography

  • H. C. Bolton, 'The Development of Ruling Engines in Melbourne, 1890-1940: A Link between Amateur and Professional Science', Historical Records of Australian Science, 6, no 4, July 1987, p 493, and for sources.

Citation details

H. C. Bolton, 'Shephard, John (1852–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 December, 1852
Masbrough, Yorkshire, England


15 May, 1940 (aged 87)
Brighton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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