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Story: Scott, Robert Julian

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Scott, Robert Julian


Railway engineer, professor of engineering

This biography, written by John Pollard, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Robert Julian Scott was born at Plymouth, Devonshire, England, on 14 September 1861, the son of Commander Robert Anthony Edwards Scott, RN, and his wife, Fanny Mary Julian. Robert Falcon Scott, later the Antarctic explorer, was his cousin. Robert was educated at Abbey School in Beckenham, Kent, King's College, London, and the Royal School of Mines.

After serving with the locomotive department of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, possibly as an apprentice railway engineer, at the age of 19 or 20 he began a career with the New Zealand government railways. Notable designs to his credit were the first Australasian motor car (a 35-horsepower steam buggy), the prototype insulated frozen-meat wagon, New Zealand's first home-built locomotive, New Zealand's first oil engine, the Prairie or Scott locomotive, and the first government-built locomotive. At 26 he had risen to be general manager at Addington Railway Workshops, Christchurch.

In 1887 New Zealand's first department of engineering was set up at Canterbury College, initially under the professor of mathematics with the young, imperious and ambitious Scott as one of two part-time lecturers. The department's beginnings were meagre, at first no more than evening classes for local apprentices. A staffing crisis arose in August 1889 when the railways promoted Scott to the post of head office engineer at Wellington. The Canterbury College board of governors resolved it in November by offering him the full-time post of lecturer-in-charge of the new School of Engineering with the promise of a chair 'when the success of the School warranted it'.

Scott gave up his promising first career to foster almost single-handedly the vision of a great national engineering school. He even declined a salary increase to ensure the building of a mechanical engineering laboratory. This was completed by 1891 but funds for the essential equipment were not forthcoming until 1894. Through Scott's driving ambition an electrical engineering block was opened in 1902, a hydraulics laboratory in 1914 and a new wing containing three laboratories plus a large drawing office was completed, equipped and opened in 1923.

Scott, like most engineers of his time, lacked a formal university qualification. Academic snobbery was rife at Canterbury and the promised chair in engineering eluded him. In 1894 his title was changed to professor-in-charge, which time contracted to professor; but the formal status was withheld until his retirement on 28 February 1923, whereupon he was honoured by elevation to professor emeritus.

Continuing support by the board of governors did give Scott enormous power within the college. In many respects the school was conducted as a separate institution. It was financed by a separate endowment, unlike the professors he communicated directly with the board, and he had friends in high places.

On 22 October 1889, at Riccarton, he had married Gertrude Elizabeth Bowen, the daughter of Georgina Eliza Markham and her husband, Charles Christopher Bowen, a distinguished politician, educational reformer and a member of the senate of the University of New Zealand. Richard Seddon, the premier and a former engineering apprentice, developed an affinity for Scott who resembled him in both stature and manner. The local engineering industries, too, were enthusiastic backers.

To gain government and public support Scott provided courses for engineering apprentices, and offered engineering institution examinations and the school's own associateship to provide an academic qualification for students lacking in mathematical skills. He had few precedents to guide his specification of experimental equipment and the compilation of a degree syllabus, but by 1907 his was one of only two colonial courses which were accredited by the Institution of Civil Engineers.

Robert Scott's expertise brought him chairmanships of commissions on rolling stock, the Addington Railway Workshops, tramway brakes and wartime munitions. He was granted a seat on the college's professorial council in 1890 and became its chairman in 1893. In 1903 the governors handed over their seat on the university senate to Scott, primarily so that he could frustrate any attempt by Auckland to build up a similar school. He held the senate post until his retirement.

Within the school, Scott, nicknamed 'Loppy Scott' because of his awkward gait, was omnipotent: 'Engineering potentate, bulging in the waist-coat, / Clumping down the corridors with firm, proud tread'. His confidence and self-esteem were tremendous. He would tell the class, 'There are only two experts on locomotive design in the world. One is in England, the other is about to deliver this lecture.' He was, however, immensely popular with students; they went sailing with him, he established the student engineering society, and at his retirement past students flocked to wish him well. Fiercely protective of his school and his students, he successfully backed their peccadillos against the wrath of the college authorities, few of whom dared challenge him.

The price of independence, paid mainly by the staff, was the acceptance of an academic head who behaved more like an admiral than a dean. The faculty concept had to wait until his retirement, but by then it was too late. The drive and innovative abilities of his successors had withered under the overwhelming personality of their 'Engineering potentate'. It took more than 20 years for the school to shake off the founder's thrall.

Robert Scott was a respected marine designer who to the end of his days skippered his vessels along the New Zealand coast, using his house on Horomaka Island, Port Levy, as a base. In spite of the open-air relaxation his academic career was plagued by recurring eye trouble together with bouts of ill health, perhaps due in part to chronic overwork compounded by his huge bulk. He died of heart failure in Christchurch on 8 November 1930. Gertrude Scott had predeceased him in 1909. They had no children but in later life Scott had been guardian and mentor to Peter Phipps, a future vice admiral.

Scott coloured the lives of many, but his greatest contribution was his early vision of engineering education as part of the university sphere. Once seen, that vision became the dedication of a lifetime.

How to cite this page:

John Pollard. 'Scott, Robert Julian', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2s9/scott-robert-julian (accessed 24 July 2024)