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William Shand Watt (1876–1958)

by Heather Nash

This article was published:

William Shand Watt (1876-1958), mining engineer and meteorologist, was born on 2 January 1876 at Green Island, Dunedin, New Zealand, sixth of eleven children of Dr Michael Watt, Presbyterian minister, and his wife Isabella, née Shand, both Scottish born. He attended the Otago Boys' High School, Dunedin, and the Otago School of Mines, gaining an associateship in mining and a certificate of metallurgical chemistry and assaying (1900). In 1902 he obtained an associateship in metallurgy.

He spent time at Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, before lecturing in mining engineering at the Zeehan School of Mines, Tasmania. On 2 January 1907 at St Paul's Church, Ascot Vale, Melbourne, Watt married Hilda Muriel Maude with Anglican rites; they were to remain childless. At Zeehan Watt acted as meteorological observer in addition to teaching. In 1911 he came first in a competitive examination for the post of Tasmanian divisional officer in the newly established Commonwealth Bureau of Meteorology. In 1921 he transferred to Melbourne as head of the bureau's climatological section. He was appointed assistant director in 1927 and in June 1931 succeeded H. A. Hunt as Commonwealth meteorologist.

The promotion was not straightforward: there was concern in meteorological circles that the position had been inadequately advertised abroad and reservations were held about the calibre of the local applicants. Within the public service itself the post was eagerly contested. As acting Commonwealth meteorologist Watt successfully appealed against the initial appointment of H. Barkley, the bureau's assistant research director.

Watt's term as Commonwealth meteorologist coincided with the expansion of aircraft services that led to a demand for more accurate weather forecasting. To assist in the 1934 London to Melbourne air race, the bureau established an office in Darwin which later became an integral part of the war effort. During the 1930s meteorological offices were opened at Australian airports. The bureau's staff grew dramatically and Watt introduced a special education section which offered formal training courses for meteorologists and observers. In August 1935 he represented Australia at a British Empire meteorology conference in London and went in September to a larger international gathering in Warsaw. In 1937 he attended a conference in New Zealand which considered meteorological aspects of the proposed trans-Tasman air services. He retired in 1941. Survived by his wife, Watt died on 15 April 1958 in Brighton Private Hospital, Melbourne, and was cremated.

Sharing with his father the advantages of a liberal education, Watt was versed in the classics as well as in engineering and science. The bureau remembered him as a man of wit, with 'a reminiscence or story to suit every occasion'. His brother Dr Michael H. Watt (1887-1967) was director-general of health in New Zealand in 1931-48.

Select Bibliography

  • Argus (Melbourne), 7 Jan, 24 Feb, 21 Apr, 19 June 1931, 28 Nov 1934, 21 June, 23 Aug, 19 Sept, 30 Oct 1935
  • information from Bureau of Meteorology, Melbourne and Historical Records Committee, Presbyterian Church, Dunedin, and Otago Boys' High School, and Otago School of Mines.

Citation details

Heather Nash, 'Watt, William Shand (1876–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 23 July 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 January, 1876
Green Island, Dunedin, New Zealand


15 April, 1958 (aged 82)
Brighton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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