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Dr John Connell AM
22nd October 1913 - 16th May 2016

The following short article was first published in the
White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No.707 of 3rd June 2016

The Three Johns

In the days of early European settlement of Melbourne all machinery and equipment had to be brought in by boat from elsewhere or you had to make do with what you could cobble together here. By the time of the gold rush there was plenty of money flowing around and serious manufacturing was starting to appear. However, the advanced stuff still had to come from Britain or elsewhere.

When James Harrison of Geelong invented the world�s first commercial refrigeration plant, he had to go to Scotland to have parts made to sufficient precision. His later attempt to ship refrigerated meat to England failed due to imperfect local workmanship on his refrigeration equipment.

When a major cable tram network for Melbourne was planned, the private owners decided on the use of the highest quality cable throughout. (Nowadays they might have decided on quality cable to the node with cheaper unreliable rope taking the trams the rest of the way at slower speeds.) Australia did not have the manufacturing capability to produce cable of such quality and length, so it was brought in from England. As the cable came in one continuous length it had to be coiled onto a series of horse-drawn drays which then had to proceed in unison to the destination.

Cable trams served Melbourne well for a number of decades and were gradually intermixed with the newer electric trams. By the early 1920s, a young boy from Brunswick would look forward to Anzac Day each year where he was allowed to take the combination of cable tram and electric tram to the city to watch the parade. He later told how it was not so much the parade he came to watch � it was to watch General Sir John Monash taking the salute. He would arrive early and sit on the ground in his favourite position opposite Parliament House where he had the best view of the salute.

It was this young boy, also named John, who was to play a part in Melbourne not being nearly so reliant on overseas engineering skills.

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Come World War II and our young lad sitting on the footpath watching the troops had now become one of them. He served in the Middle East in some of the toughest places in New Guinea and was quickly promoted to the rank of Major.

During the interim there had been a depression but John Monash had overseen a state-wide electricity grid (essential for manufacturing) and had pioneered the use of Monier reinforced concrete in Australia (essential for construction).

The younger John had worked as a junior draftsman before the war and when he returned he decided to continue his engineering studies at the Working Men�s College (now RMIT). When his former boss died prematurely in the late 1950s, John put himself deep in debt in order to buy the business where he once worked as a draftsman. This was a huge risk. Australians have little tolerance for failure in business and there were other companies already in that space. But he now owned a business and before long had put his own name on it � John Connell.

Meanwhile, another John with remarkably similar background had returned from the war where he had been promoted to the rank of Lt. Colonel, continued his engineering studies and set up his own company. He also put his own name on the business � John Holland.

Australia needed a lot of infrastructure but could the locals compete with larger companies who could bring in expertise and equipment from overseas?

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From the 1960s on, John Connell and John Holland (and a few others like them) grew their businesses and realised that in the post-war world it was no longer a matter of business as usual where you tried to make each project as good as the last one. Now each project had to be better than the last and this required constant creativity, innovation and superior design. The best of Australia�s engineering houses brought people with those skills in-house and when that was not possible set up overseas relationships. Quality control in the supply chain was important and so reliable partnerships were fostered.

By the 80s, certain Australian engineering firms were not only holding their own in Australia, they were taking on international projects and punching well above their weight. The modern engineering house was now established where big ideas about how we live and the way we could live were being canvassed. Some of Australia�s engineering houses had become so successful on the world stage that they were merging or being subsumed into multinational organisations that could take advantage of large international projects and tap into international supply chains and partnerships. Connell Wagner has been subsumed into Aurecon, John Holland has been bought by the China Communications Construction Company, GHD has merged with CRA, and SKM has become part of Jacobs. Australian engineering houses became design and construction houses and eventually became part of the global industry rather than small local players.

And through all of this tremendous change, John Holland and John Connell have been major players.

if people like this can create major international companies from scratch in a lifetime, imagine what the next generation can do.

John Holland died seven years ago at the age of 85. His company was responsible for many major bridges around Australia and the construction of the new Parliament House in Canberra. You can read what we said of his contribution in our Newsletter No 316.

John Connell died just over a week ago at the age of 103. His companies were involved with the construction of the Melbourne Underground Loop, the Melbourne Arts Centre and Connell Wagner had offices and projects throughout Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Middle East and England as well as Australia and New Zealand. He was an active board member on a number of important Melbourne and Australian institutions.

One of Sir John Connell�s last formal acts was to last month was to present the John Connell Medal to a younger distinguished engineer, Peter Bowtell � a handing over of the baton to another generation. You can see details at The next generation

Perhaps we should leave the last words to John Connell:

�We are what we are because of the people who are amongst us � I firmly believe that the first person singular has no place in the grammar of progress. All achievements are the result of a team effort with every part of that team performing to his or her utmost�.

Vale Dr John Connell