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William Stone (1858–1949)

by H. C. Bolton

This article was published:

William Stone (1858-1949), electrical engineer and physicist, was born on 12 May 1858 in Hobart Town, son of William Stone, builder, and his wife Betsy, née Haydon. Emma Constance and Grace Clara were his sisters. He came to Victoria as a boy and in 1883 joined the Victorian Railways as an electric foreman. In 1905 he was appointed electrical and lighting engineer in the telegraph branch.

In 1907 the Victorian government commissioned from C. H. Merz of Britain a report which recommended the electrification of Melbourne's suburban railways. After the State government authorized the proposal in 1912, Stone toured Britain, Europe and the United States of America studying electrification. Next year he was promoted to chief electrical engineer in the new electrical engineering branch which had been created to transform the suburban railway system from steam to electric traction and which also expanded the Newport power station. He worked closely with Merz's assistant, F. F. P. Bisacre, who visited Australia in 1912-13. Electrification of the railway began in 1913 and the official opening took place on 28 May 1919.

Stone, who as early as 1893 had sat on a railway committee comparing the use of black and brown coal for steam engines, was appointed in 1917 to the advisory committee on the utilization of brown coal; the other members were H. Herman, H. R. Harper and F. W. Clements. The committee recommended the foundation of a state electricity commission, government distribution of electrical energy for industrial development and the establishment of an open-cut mine and power-house at Morwell in the Latrobe Valley. In 1919 Merz, who had first canvassed the possibility in 1908, supported the use of brown coal for electrification.

Retiring from the Victorian Railways in 1920, Stone retained his membership of the engineering faculty of the University of Melbourne (1903-37). A keen amateur scientist, he had a lifelong interest in microscopy. He helped his friend H. J. Grayson to make his ruling engines for microscope test plates and diffraction gratings. Stone was also a pioneer of X-rays and, from 1896, made at least nineteen focus type tubes. Another friend, A. G. M. Michell, encouraged him to work on lubrication: Stone made an absolute viscometer for lubricating oils and helped Michell with his crankless engine. He maintained a long and fruitful scientific correspondence with Bisacre from 1921 to 1934, and was assistant to (Sir) Thomas Lyle on the Grayson engines at the University of Melbourne in 1932-34. Stone's papers reveal him as a practical scientist who sought practical solutions to practical problems with an enthusiasm that elicited from his contemporaries both affection and respect.

A rather gaunt, bearded man with a domed forehead and prominent cheekbones, Stone had married Jane Simpson Massie with Congregational forms at St Kilda on 4 March 1885. He died, a widower, at his Kew home on 25 January 1949 and was cremated. His son and five daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Australasian Radiology, 19, 1975, p 216
  • 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, 1987, p 493
  • R. W. Home, Bibliography of Physics in Australia to 1945 (manuscript, History and Philosophy of Science Department, University of Melbourne)
  • W. Stone papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

H. C. Bolton, 'Stone, William (1858–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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