Melbourne’s new university came to life in an era that was characterised by a heightened focus on industrial advancement and technological development. Everything about this new institution – from the first courses it originally planned to offer in science, applied science and engineering, to the background of the members of its governing body, the Monash Interim Council – reeked of science and technology.
If the links between Monash University and science and technology were great, then the links between Monash University and engineering were even greater. Its very name tied the institution to an outstanding engineer and community leader, Sir John Monash. This connection to engineering was reinforced in the choice of individuals to fill the early leadership roles at the new University – Robert Blackwood, Chairman of the Interim Council and Monash’s first Chancellor, was a leading industry engineer and former Dean of Engineering at the University of Melbourne. The first Vice-Chancellor of Monash, Louis Matheson, was also an engineer with an outstanding academic reputation both overseas and in Australia. All of these links that aligned Monash with engineers and engineering laid strong foundations for the Faculty of Engineering before the first academic staff appointments were even made.
At the first meeting of the Interim Council in June 1958, Chairman Robert Blackwood presented his tentative plan for the development of the University. After a lengthy discussion, the Interim Council agreed that the first faculties to be established at Monash University would be Engineering, Science and Medicine. These three faculties would be closely followed by Arts, Commerce, Applied Science, Education and Law, in precisely that order. Engineering was the first named of them all.
Despite the Interim Council’s support, Blackwood’s schedule for the creation of the faculties did not go ahead as intended. Thanks to intervention from the Australian Universities Commission (AUC), faculties of Arts and Commerce were added to the starting lineup. When Monash opened its doors in 1961 it would have five faculties – Engineering, Science, Medicine, Arts and Commerce. Forced to adapt to the AUC’s changes, but eager to hold on to the emphasis on science and technology, the Interim Council’s planning for science related disciplines became all the more important. The first batch of positions advertised by the Interim Council left no doubt as to the focus of Monash University. As well as a Vice-Chancellor, Monash was seeking professors of Engineering, Chemistry, Physics and Biology, and a Librarian who would be granted professorial status.
Within the context of the forces that combined to bring Monash into existence and the various agendas at play during its establishment, a strong engineering presence at the university was critical. It was precisely for this reason that the professorship in engineering was among the first academic posts to be advertised in 1959. The response to the advertisement was positive. By April 1959, the Interim Council had received a total of 27 applications for the Chair of Engineering. By June 1959, the pool had been reduced to a shortlist of five.
In July of 1959 Robert Blackwood and the recently appointed Vice-Chancellor, Louis Matheson conducted interviews with potential academic appointees to Monash in the United Kingdom. It is possible that at this point Blackwood and Matheson first met with James P. Duncan, then head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Sheffield. This meeting, if it did indeed happen then, would have been particularly significant, for it was Duncan who was first offered the Chair of Engineering at Monash. In August 1959 when Blackwood returned to Australia after interviewing candidates oversees, Professor Duncan was invited by the Interim Council to accept the Monash Chair. Several months lapsed while the Interim Council waited to receive word from Duncan. In early February 1960 it finally came. A letter from Professor Duncan informing the Council that he would not be accepting the offer.
After receiving Duncan’s reply and reporting it to the Interim Council, the Staff Sub-Committee agreed to meet immediately to reconsider the applications for the Chair. A significant period of time had passed since the offer was made to Duncan and an appointment to the Chair was critical if planning for the engineering faculty was to stay on schedule. A meeting was held on 19 February 1960 to discuss the Chair of Engineering. The remaining shortlisted applications were reviewed once again with the intention of offering the position to one of these original applicants. By the end of the meeting a unanimous decision had been reached. Kenneth Henderson Hunt would be offered the Foundation Chair of Engineering at Monash University.
At the time he applied for the Monash Chair, Ken Hunt was a Senior Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Melbourne. After completing his education in the United Kingdom, Hunt was called to serve in the armed forces – first in the Royal Engineers and then later in the Eighth Army – during Word War Two. After the war Hunt spent two years working as an engineer in industry in the UK. In 1949 Hunt moved with his young family to Melbourne, where he joined the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Melbourne. There, his teaching and research activity focused on thermodynamics and heat engines, as well as theory of machines and mechanisms. Hunt’s personal research interests were in the field of mechanisms.
Hunt first applied for the Chair of Engineering in early 1959. Nearly a full twelve months had passed since he first declared his interest in the position. It was fortunate then, that on 1 March 1960, when Robert Blackwood wrote to Hunt offering him the Foundation Chair, his enthusiasm for the post had not waned. In fact, it was palpable. He accepted immediately and concluded his official reply to Blackwood with the words ‘please realise that I value the trust that your Council places in me, and I look forward with keen interest to the years which lie ahead’.
Matheson set about negotiating Hunt’s release from the University of Melbourne. After a drawn out period of talks and maneuvering between the two universities, a compromise was reached and Hunt was free to commence his new position in early June 1960 – on the proviso that Hunt continue to teach his allocated subjects at the University of Melbourne for the remaining two terms of 1960. By the time the inaugural meeting of the Monash University Professorial Board was held in the Vice-Chancellor’s residence on 8 November 1960, Professor Ken Hunt, Chair of Engineering was well and truly established as a Monash staff member.
Ken Hunt was one of the University’s earliest academic appointments. He would leave an indelible impression on the University’s history and shape the Faculty of Engineering from its very inception well into its future development.