Bradfield, 75 years on – part 1: the Science of Engineering

Recently I spent 10 minutes or so at Sydney’s busy suburban Strathfield Station while changing trains in the evening peak hour. As I waited I watched the synchronised dance across the station’s eight platforms as double-deck trains arrived, disgorged commuters, picked up more passengers and departed, all relatively quietly and with little fuss.

On my platform the movement was almost hypnotic, as four or five identical Waratah trains arrived in succession, stayed exactly the same length of time and then departed little more than two minutes apart. Whatever the state of the ageing Strathfield Station or the wider flaws of the Sydney transport system, the calm passage of these trains, all less than 10 years old and each carrying up to a thousand passengers, gave the impression of a reasonably modern, functional urban rail network.

My thoughts turned to John Job Crew Bradfield, the engineer whose name is inextricably linked with the development of Sydney’s transport infrastructure in the early 20th century. I don’t believe Bradfield had any special connection with Strathfield station which was opened in the 1870s, but he had a large hand in creating the electrified railway network which passes through it. He also oversaw the planning and construction of the two other key components of this network, Sydney Harbour Bridge and the underground railway in Sydney’s CBD.

Later when I was looking up some facts on Bradfield I realised that the 75th anniversary of his death on 23 September 1943 is approaching. In a modest commemoration I’ve decided to revisit not so much about the man himself, or indeed his achievements, but rather what he wrote about them. I’ll be concentrating in particular in this occasional series on Bradfield’s thesis for the degree of Doctor of Science in Engineering, which he was awarded by the University of Sydney in 1924.

Detail from the cover of Bradfield’s 1924 thesis (source: University of Sydney eScholarship Repository)

Every time I look at it (the thesis is available from the University repository) I’m struck by the extraordinary breadth of its scope – I suspect that no other thesis before or since has combined as a single subject the author’s own work in managing the planning and construction of a major bridge and an underground railway, as well as the electrification of a suburban rail network.

Bradfield uses the thesis to summarise his thinking behind these projects. I want to explore the significance of his ideas for Sydney’s current transport dilemmas and planning debates. Despite the many social and technological changes which have happened over the last century, I think many of these are still relevant and important.

Bradfield certainly wasn’t short on vision. His thesis strongly promoted the view that engineering played a critical role in providing infrastructure (then called capital works) to support population growth and, more fundamentally, national well-being. Engineering, like many other professions, tends to see the world through a paradigm which emphasises its importance to society, but these sentiments would have found wide support in the confident era between the end of the Great War and the start of the Depression – after all, engineering was dramatically changing the physical landscape of cities around the world.

The graduation of JJC Bradfield (1st on left) with the first degree of Doctor of Science in Engineering awarded by the University of Sydney in 1924 (source: NSW State Archives)

But Bradfield went much further than that. While most of his thesis is relatively plainly written, the language of the preface is much loftier in style. The opening paragraph claims the potential for engineering to encompass pretty much every other area of human activity and, at its highest level, to integrate materiality and spirituality in some sort of majestic national synthesis:

The Science of Engineering is many phased, all the arts and sciences come within its purview. It records and analyses every advance in Science, researches to thoroughly understand these advances and by its natural magic – the art of applying the manifold seen and unseen phenomena in nature for the use and service of mankind – the science of engineering exercises the greatest of all influences on the material well being of any nation, recording, energising, creating, indeed making national existence possible. The highest plane of Engineering Science can only be attained by the perfect blending of the utility of material things with the beauty of spiritual things, and esteemed will be the work of the Engineer whose life is happily influenced; its characteristics will be simplicity, harmony, breadth, its keynote, majesty, beauty. (in this and all Bradfield’s quotes used in these posts his original spelling, punctuation, grammar and word capitalisation are retained)

Having proclaimed the centrality of the “Science of Engineering” to society in this somewhat flowery language, Bradfield then discusses its specific application to Sydney:

In attempting to solve the traffic problems of this growing city, the arts and sciences, pure and applied must be availed of to their fullest extent. Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics, Geology, Mechanics, Architecture, Metallurgy, Electricity, Geodesy, Economics, the Production and Properties of Materials, the temperament, characteristics and habits of the people, the political needs of the day, indeed nature in all her manifest aspects must be studied. The past history of the city must be known, present day conditions understood and the future visualised with imagination, origination and a sound practical judgement.

While this is somewhat akin to the integrated planning model often espoused (if not delivered) by successive present-day governments, it was also a more traditional view than the comprehensive planning approach adopted by the 1908/09 Sydney Improvement Commission which formed the basis for Bradfield’s proposals (see Robert Gibbons’ thesis for a discussion of this). For Bradfield engineering was the only scientific way, superior to all others, to blend the diverse range of skills needed to resolve Sydney’s transport issues; ultimately, it seems, he believed these could be addressed primarily as engineering problems.

In many ways we have moved on from this obviously technocratic approach but there are still many echoes of it. One example is the current NSW government’s determination to apply specific transport infrastructure modes such as motorways, metros and light rail and to rely on infrastructure financing models that preference opportunities for major redevelopment along these corridors, even where these may not be the most appropriate options.

Whatever its shortcomings as a planning model by modern standards, Bradfield succeeded in applying his engineering-based approach to visualise a future for Sydney and then implement the most important components of that vision. In doing so he helped define the city’s pattern of growth and its very shape and structure for much of the following century. And while urban and transport issues and the planning responses to them have changed and evolved considerably, there are still some interesting things we can learn from Bradfield’s 1924 thesis.

I’ll explore some of these over the next few weeks, but in my next post I’ll take a look at one unusual way in which Bradfield’s thesis signalled how he broke new ground; his appointment and generous recognition of a woman who played a substantial part in the successful construction of the Harbour Bridge – Kathleen Butler.

This entry was posted in Growth, History, Infrastructure, Sydney metro area, Transport and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Bradfield, 75 years on – part 1: the Science of Engineering

  1. Pingback: Bradfield, 75 years on – part 2: “the only woman present” – Kathleen Butler and the Bridge | StrategicMatters

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