Meet Your Maker: Ian Polmear

- Mathew Bate

Above: Ian Polmear in his home in Mont Albert North.

Ian Polmear is a visionary leader. Acting as Head of Department for Materials Engineering from its inception at Monash in 1970 until 1991, Ian became an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1993 for his services to materials science and engineering. Still making his way most weeks to Clayton, Ian is an icon of the Monash’s engineering faculty and continues to publish books on alloys.

Your tenure at Monash is remarkable. When you were younger and considering a career, did you always have metallurgy and engineering in mind?

Ian Polmear: Well, when I was quite young I unexpectedly got an appointment in the Aeronautical Research Laboratory (ARL), which is called something else now, in Fishermans Bend. I thought that when I graduated I was going to work in industry. And I did. I had three jobs in the first 18 months. None of them turned out to be all that interesting [laughs]. At the time, the government wanted to strengthen the defence laboratories, of which ARL was one. They were recruiting and the carrot was that they would send you to England for two years at their expense to gain research experience.

I applied for one of those and I didn't really do any homework beforehand, I just went along to the interview. We had a day to write essays and comment on this and that. In the end we were seated before a U-shaped table and we were questioned. I remember that eventually they got round to the old, classic question, "What are you interested in?" I looked up at the ceiling and I thought, athletics? Girls? Anyway, out of the blue I said "aluminium”, and that was that. They asked why and I talked about how it was the second most-used metal after steel or iron. I was also interested in aircraft, which I sort of had as a hobby.

Anyway, nothing happened after that and I got engaged. Suddenly I came home one day and there was a letter offering me the position of Experimental Officer Grade One for ARL. The letter said that, if I accepted, they expected me to leave for England within three months. I had just got engaged to my first wife, who was halfway through her nursing course. That was all thrown to the side; we got married and we were on a boat.

And so she came over with you?

Oh yes, you could bring your wife, children everything. It was a very generous scheme and I was very lucky. I was interested in age hardening, which is strengthening metals by forming very small precipitates in alloys. When I mean very small, you could get a million billion in a cubic centimeter. Although I was interested in this, you couldn't see them at all because electron microscopes hadn't been invented yet. ARL happened to be interested in that because that was a way of strengthening their aircraft alloys.

I was sent to the Fulmer Research Institute, 25 miles west of London, to work with a guy called Dr George Hardy who was the leading fellow in England at the time in the area I was interested in. We became very good friends and I shared an office with him and learned a great deal.

Where does Monash come in? When did that journey begin for you?

I was made Principal Research Scientist in 1963 at ARL. By then, there were about a dozen people reporting to me. But I was getting pulled away from actual metallurgy, because I had to read a lot of reports and criticise them and all that sort of thing. I thought, well, if I'm going to change, then I might want to try and get a job at university, for which you needed a doctorate.

So I put together a thesis with my published work [and] got permission from Melbourne University to put in for a doctorate of engineering. To my surprise, that was accepted.

I remember that eventually they got round to the old, classic question, "What are you interested in?" I looked up at the ceiling and I thought, athletics? Girls? Anyway, out of the blue I said "aluminium”, and that was that.

At the beginning of 1967, someone asked me if I was going to apply for the professorship [of materials science] at Monash University. When Monash Engineering started it had civil, mechanical, electrical and chemical departments. They appointed four professors and eventually the professors and the Dean thought that we ought to do something in metallurgy. At that time, there was a movement overseas towards materials science. So they advertised for a Chair of Material Science and I thought, well, I'll have a go. I was the successful candidate and so I joined Monash in August 1967.

When the university appointed me we had a very good Vice-Chancellor, a chap named Lewis Matheson, a superb guy. He was actually an engineer. I remember he rang me up at the start and said, "Welcome. Materials is your patch, go to it. If you need any help, give me a call." So it was great. I was given a lot of support. It was a very exciting time because we were creating something new.

So what you were tasked to do at Monash was very new for Australian standards?

Oh yes, it was a very new thing. There were metallurgy departments in Australia, but they were different. Also, $75,000 was allocated to me when I was appointed. I said we must have an electron microscope, so we purchased an electron microscope as well as a testing machine. They also gave me a senior lectureship position and we appointed a chap named Brian Cherry. He was a plastic polymer guy from England. Myself, Peter Thomson, Brian Cherry and Reg McPherson started to think about what we ought to do in the future. We all thought that where we ought to go was into materials – not materials science so much as materials engineering, because we were in an engineering faculty.

We really drew the map of what we thought we wanted. We got backing from the Institute of Engineers Australia (IEAust) because most students who wanted to do engineering wanted to be in a profession. We got a preliminary agreement from IEAust stating that, if we went ahead with our plan for a new department and were successful, the course would be regarded as a professional one.

We held a big conference in 1982 at Monash, called the International Conference on the Strengths of Metals and Alloys. It was the largest metallurgical conference that had ever been held in Australia, with over 100 people coming from overseas. That was quite important. It was part of our broader vision to make our department recognised internationally as well as locally.

Can you recall the first lectures you gave at Monash?

You need to understand that engineers will have you for breakfast if they think they can. In the first lecture I delivered at Monash, I decided I'd be friendly but tough. So the students were playing up a bit and I said, "Third row from the back, out."

You kicked the student out?

[Laughs] Yes, and to my surprise the student actually went outside. Anyway, two or three lectures after that I was dealing with a difficult subject and as I finished I thought, that went down quite well; they were very attentive. As I was cleaning the board I could see, out the corner of my eye, a student coming down the tiered lecture theatre. I thought, gosh, I'm going to get my first question. Sure enough, this well-dressed young man came down and said, "Can I ask you a question?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Where do you buy your shoes?" I thought it was a scream.

The next lecture I got another question. A student came down and he said, "I sail a sharpie and I've bent my aluminium mast. What do I do?" I said, "Buy a new one." [Laughs]. That was John Bertrand, the guy who won the America's Cup in ’83. At the time he was the junior sharpie champion in Australia.

From all accounts, the staff in the department’s early days were very close. How did the department operate back then?

There was no class distinction between the academic staff and the technical staff, which often exists, because we grew up together and [the technical staff] were very, very important. Everyone was treated equally. The department is now, unfortunately, in different locations, but we were all in the one building back in the day. We were virtually in one corridor. I used to say that the most important decisions were made leading up against the wall.

We used to encourage people to leave their doors open so the students could come and go and staff could come and go. That worked very well. [...] We had a really good group of people in the beginning. We were all very co-operative and we used to meet in my office at 5pm every Friday for a drink. We'd just put our feet up and talk about anything.

Interview