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Williams, George Kenneth (1896–1974)

by D. F. Branagan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

George Kenneth Williams (1896-1974), metallurgist, was born on 21 February 1896 at Tarnagulla, Victoria, third child of Victorian-born parents William Williams, schoolteacher, and his wife Laura, née Heyward. The family moved to Bacchus Marsh, where he attended state school and won a scholarship to Wesley College, Melbourne. Awarded a major scholarship to Queen's College, he studied mining engineering at the University of Melbourne (BME, 1920; MME, 1925; D Eng., 1934).

In March 1919 Williams began work with Broken Hill Associated Smelters Pty Ltd, at the company's research station in South Melbourne. The facility investigated methods of improving the treatment of lead at B.H.A.S.'s smelting works, Port Pirie, South Australia. Gilbert Rigg, the technical director, instructed Williams to examine the Parkes refining process. This procedure, which used zinc to help separate gold and silver from lead bullion, was employed throughout the world. Involving a sequence of intricate heating and cooling operations, the process was inefficient and resulted in 'a great waste of fuel and loss of time'. Williams heated numerous mixtures of silver, lead and zinc to liquefaction then observed the behaviour of the metals as they cooled.

Transferred to Port Pirie in 1921, he applied his laboratory results in a series of trials. He worked under O. H. Woodward who next year made him superintendent of the research department. Williams's new crust enrichment process, which markedly reduced the cost of producing silver, was patented and put into operation in 1923. He described his work in a paper published (1925) in the Proceedings of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, and submitted an expanded dissertation for his master's degree. On 26 May 1926 at St Paul's Church of England, Port Pirie, he married Phyllis Marion Bensley.

Williams set out to change the total lead-refining process from forty-eight episodic batch operations—carried out by large crews and requiring an extensive area—to a continuous flow process. After successful trials in late 1925, a semi-commercial de-silverizing plant was constructed. Extensive tests from August 1927 to the end of 1928 indicated the need for a larger, but still semi-commercial plant, with bigger kettles providing more space to allow the de-silvering crusts to form and be removed. A new series of tests began on 2 January 1929.

Although the costs were very high, both Woodward and (Sir) Colin Fraser, the chairman of the board, supported Williams. Work went on at a 'frantic' pace, spurred by Williams's enthusiasm and his rapport with his foremen and labouring staff. He discussed plant problems freely with his subordinates, explained the steps he was trying to achieve, and always listened to their ideas and suggestions. As a result, they became personally committed to the project. Frank Green recalled that he 'could be a hard driver, but the technical men received an unforgettable lesson in concentrated analytical thinking, persistence in the face of reverses and, above all, the will to succeed'. 'G.K.' had an ability to focus on the work needed to achieve results, and not to be diverted by peripheral issues.

Consistent commercial grades of lead were finally attained in August 1930 when Williams and his team began operating a large, three-section kettle successfully. An even larger, four-section kettle came into use in October. The timing was fortunate as the Depression soon reduced the amount of money available for research. Other stages of the continuous-flow refinery—the prior removal of arsenic, antimony and tin and the extraction of zinc after de-silverizing—were quickly implemented. During the subsequent preparations for commercial operations, the high-quality iron and steel castings required for the kettles were built by the Sydney firm of Bradford Kendall Ltd. The cordial relations established between Williams and the managing director Jim Kendall were strengthened by their mutual love of horse-racing.

The big kettle was the vital unit in the continuous refining train. It was 'a monument to the genius' of Williams and 'one of the great achievements in modern non-ferrous metallurgy'. Patented, the process was 'duplicated in most of the large lead-producing areas of the world'. Williams ensured that royalty payments were divided equally among the staff and workmen involved in its development, and among the widows of those who had died. He published a description of his work in the Proceedings of the A.I.M.M. in 1932 and in a book, The Development and Application of the Continuous Lead Refining Process (Melbourne, undated), which established his international reputation as a leader in the field. The University of Melbourne awarded him the W. C. Kernot medal for 1931. Additionally, he won the medal of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy in 1942 and the gold medal of the Institution of Mining and Metallurgy (London) in 1951.

Williams was responsible (from 1930) for advances in the design of blast-furnaces used in the treatment of lead, and (from 1934) for improvements in the sintering process. He was appointed chief metallurgist in 1933, assistant general superintendent of B.H.A.S. in 1935 and works manager in 1942. Moving to Britain in 1948, he was metallurgical consultant to Consolidated Zinc Corporation Ltd and to Imperial Smelting Corporation Ltd in the development of its blast-furnace for the production of zinc at Avonmouth, Bristol. In 1957 he returned to Melbourne as a consultant to Consolidated Zinc Pty Ltd (Conzinc Riotinto of Australia Ltd from 1962). Retiring in 1966, he lived in Adelaide. Queen's College, University of Melbourne, elected him a fellow in 1967, and the university established the G. K. Williams laboratory for extractive metallurgy. He died on 6 April 1974 in Adelaide, and was cremated. His wife and their two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • F. A. Green, The Port Pirie Smelters (Melb, 1977)
  • Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, Proceedings, no 129, 31 Mar 1943
  • Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, Bulletin, no 548, July 1952
  • Age (Melbourne), 9 Apr 1974.

Citation details

D. F. Branagan, 'Williams, George Kenneth (1896–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 30 July 2021.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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