Professor Howard Worner (1913-2006), metallurgist

Professor Howard Worner

Professor Howard Worner had an extensive career and was a seminal individual in the field of metallurgy. He was born into a farming family in rural Victoria and he attended the Bendigo School of Mines in the early 1930s. He studied at university until 1942 when, at the age of 28, he became the youngest ever recipient of a Doctor of Science (DSc) from The University of Melbourne.

He began his career at the National Health and Medical Research Council. After 'cutting his teeth' on researching amalgam for fillings, he became a Professor of Metallurgy and later the Dean of Engineering at The University of Melbourne. He worked for the next 27 years in directorial research roles for BHP, Rio Tinto and Victoria Brown Coal Council. With retirement in mind he moved to Wollongong, where he became the founding Director of the Microwave Applications Research Centre at The University of Wollongong. It was at this time he also published a very successful book, The Minerals of Broken Hill, the result of a lifetime hobby of collecting. The Howard Worner Mineral Collection is held in the Geosciences Department of Wollongong University.

Interviewed by David Salt in 2005.


Family background and early life

Howard, your career has been strongly linked to the minerals industry, but I believe your connection to minerals goes way back to the gold rush days.

Yes. In 1852 my great-grandfather Worner went with an uncle up to Bendigo to look for gold – in those days there was no underground goldmining, only surface mining. They didn't succeed with their gold searching, and eventually they moved west to Swan Hill. I think my great-grandfather rode a horse part of the way, but mostly he walked, because the uncle had him leading one of their two horses.

You were born in 1913 at Swan Hill, in the Mallee district of Victoria. Your father was a farmer, wasn't he?

He was. All the way back that I can trace, on the male side there were farmers in Somerset and on my great-grandmother's side there were farmers' wives in southern Scotland.

What are your memories of living out there in the Mallee?

I very much enjoyed life on the farm, especially with my second brother, Neil, who followed 13 months behind me. I was particularly interested in new aspects of farming, new ways of growing finer and finer wheat, and methods of making better, stronger wool. I had no idea of becoming anything but a farmer.

Were you and your brothers, Neil and Hill, good friends as youngsters?

We were great friends, right through life.

Is it true that on the way home from Yarram West Primary School you and your brothers would catch snakes and have them fight each other?

Yes, that's right. It was stupid, and not a very nice thing to do to the snakes, but we managed to get a lot of fun out of making them fight – and kill – each other. They poisoned each other.

But we also climbed tall trees and collected birds' eggs. We were the champion tree climbers for a long way round.

And I believe a car was a very strange thing to see there in those days.

Oh, yes. My father owned the first car in the district, and when it came in the front gate (a little over a kilometre from our house) it seemed very strange that this 'choog, choog, choog' vehicle was coming without any horses drawing it. Both my second brother and I hid from this vehicle!

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Bendigo: to technical school and the School of Mines

After Swan Hill, you moved back to Bendigo, where your great-grandfather had prospected for gold. What lay behind that move?

There was no water on the property – the area was in drought. This was in the late 1920s, and when the Depression of '29, '30, '31 came along, hard on the heels of the drought, it confirmed that the right thing to do was to go to Bendigo.

We went to a technical school there, which was appropriate because we learned welding, along with fitting and turning, carpentry and things like that, subjects to fit us to become better farmers.

Would you say that your interest in science, from a very early age, was mostly of an applied nature?

Yes, it was of an applied nature. But also, the gentleman who taught us science in the technical school – J Ayrton Bradbury, who was a marvellous teacher – captivated our minds with his stories about things that were happening in science. He was a major influence in the interest that my brothers and I took in things other than farming.

In fact, eventually Hill and I followed very similar careers. He even succeeded me, later in life, at the University of Melbourne. And Neil became a famous civil engineer, not only the chief engineer of the Snowy Mountains Authority but involved also with many other very large dams and hydro-electric schemes.

You all made a mark on the world. But before that the three of you went on from technical college to the Bendigo School of Mines. How did you actually get in?

We got scholarships. Bear in mind that it was in the depths of the Depression and you needed scholarships to be able to afford to go. Even £4 or £5 a year was a lot of money for a farmer that didn't earn very much off the land.

I still remember the wonderful teachers that we had. After Ayrton Bradbury in the primary school, we had Walker as the lecturer in chemistry in the School of Mines, and White was the lecturer in geology. Those men, and the principal of the School of Mines itself, J R B Anderson (whom we always used to call Jarba, from his initials JRBA), were very influential.

So it was at the Bendigo School of Mines that you really began your formal education in science, starting to study chemistry, metallurgy and geology.

That's right. I managed to do chemistry, metallurgy and geology, although I wasn't supposed to do all three. When I enrolled to take them as final year subjects I was told, 'You can't do that. The examination timetable is not designed to allow you to do that.' However, I did study them all. Our name went ahead of us to the University of Melbourne, so when we went down there and inquired about what courses we would do, and our timetable, we would not be strangers. When I went down, they said, 'Oh, you're the young fellow from Bendigo who amazed us all by the range of your knowledge.' So I had been preparing for university life without being aware of it.

And you excelled at the Bendigo School of Mines, gaining a Gold Medal in 1932.

Yes. I was apparently the student with the highest mark for many, many years in the technical education system.

Both Neil and I topped the state in our respective science subjects, Neil particularly in the engineering side. I don't think there was anything really between us in our results, although I was nominally a mark or two ahead of Neil. We enjoyed being at the School of Mines, and it was no burden for us to major in more than one subject.

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Science studies at the University of Melbourne

From the Bendigo School of Mines you progressed to the University of Melbourne, where you gained a Bachelor of Science with First Class Honours in 1934. Can you tell us a little bit about this first degree?

I had the good fortune to have wonderful teachers. I had a very good professor, an Englishman who had graduated from Manchester and who was an excellent lecturer. Another fellow there was Percival Faraday Thompson (his parents must've thought there was something ahead of him!) who was completely different in personality. Together they cultivated the interest that I was developing in science and particularly in metallurgy, but the teachers in chemistry were also fascinated with the rate at which I could learn. I have heard it said, since I became a teacher myself, that it takes a good teacher and a good student to really make everything work. Perhaps that's so.

In my first year at the university, I got complete exemption for the first year because of the subjects I had done at Bendigo, and they permitted me to go straight into part 2, halfway through the year. I didn't have to do any subjects, including halfway through the second-year subjects. And it was wonderful. They treated me like a junior member of staff.

You went on to do research for your Masters. Is that when you began studying the properties of pure lead?

Yes, in my first MSc year. But let me divert to tell you how I came to be studying for the degree. Being a First Class Honours man, I was recommended to the top job for metallurgists out at Maribyrnong, at the Defence Standards Laboratory. And in the two first assignments that were given to me, I solved the problem in a matter of a few days. This caused the leader, Alan Robertson, to call me in and say, 'Worner, you're going to be an embarrassment to us, because we had a timetable for these projects that you were given and you've solved them in a matter of days. With your permission, I'm going to ring your professor and tell him I think this young fellow had better go back to the university and give up his job here.'

That was all very well but the job was paying about £400 a year, and when I went back, the maximum that my professor, Neil Greenwood, could rake together in scholarships for me was £150. He had to put two or three together to form this scholarship in metallurgy.

So one thing led to another. I made discoveries about the creep of lead (its continuous deformation under a steady load) which were absolutely fascinating both to me and to my professor. In this way I was encouraged to come to see research as a future career.

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Researching the creep of lead

What sort of research into pure lead were you doing?

I was looking in particular at its properties under very low stresses but for long periods of time. I found that traces of some elements, such as bismuth and tellurium, altered the rate at which pure lead would creep. Some would actually accelerate it, some would slow it down, and others would first slow it and then cause it to start creeping at an increasing rate. These were all new discoveries.

This applied to steel at red heat, but lead creep would change at room temperature. Fortunately, the school where I graduated had a big underground room where the temperature didn't change very much, and that made a marvellous laboratory for me.

Even in my first year of research I began to produce research papers which caused a lot of interest. I went on to increase the range of elements beyond those that were commonly added in commercial lead, and I found that although tellurium, for example, made the lead seemingly creep very, very slowly, often after about a month or two months – depending on the weight I had added – the lead began to change its amount of creep. And I discovered that the creep was occurring by a phenomenon at the grain boundaries: if you had very fine-grain material you had a lot of creep at the grain boundaries.

This was all novel, quite new in this realm where we were dealing with parts per million. It was fascinating and made me feel I had picked the right area to research.

But one of its applications made you uneasy, didn't it?

That's true. It had been realised that the steady creep of lead when certain elements like tellurium were added to it could be applied to timing devices that would trigger off explosions after half an hour or five hours or whatever. I was a pacifist in those days, and I wasn't very enamoured to discover that one of my inventions was being used as a timing device in explosives.

It's the way of technology, I suppose, that often we don't know how it will actually be applied, down the line.

Yes. Anyway, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor caused me to drop my pacifism and become fully supportive of the war.

You were telling me during lunch that you used to do some dreadful things during your research.

Well, in particular, I used to chew lead, 99.99 pure metal. It had an astringent taste which I found very pleasant, and I would chew it like chewing gum. Even then lead was not thought to be a good thing to ingest, but I didn't think it was that bad. And nobody stopped me from doing it, although they should've said, 'Hey, hey, you shouldn't chew that stuff.' I later came to realise what a poison it was.

In 1936 you were awarded a Master of Science, again with First Class Honours, and in 1942 you received a Doctor of Science for your published work. You were only 28 years old at the time, and the youngest person ever to receive a DSc from the University of Melbourne.

That's right, and I think I still am.

To achieve so highly, you must have had an enormous passion for your science.

Yes. My earlier passion for agriculture was transformed into a passion for science subjects, and I remain to this day fascinated with applied chemistry, metallurgy and geology. Those three branches of science continue to entrance me.

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Dental materials research

During the Second World War you were a research fellow working in the Dental Materials Research Laboratories in Melbourne, where you became a world expert in dental materials. What took you into such a field of research?

My research into adding trace elements to lead caused me to be given a problem in orthodontia, the branch of dentistry that deals with realigning teeth and things like that, where the arch wires used to straighten the teeth are affected by trace elements.

Consequently, the Professor of Dental Surgery said to the Professor of Metallurgy, 'Can you allow that young fellow to work with us? He's finding a lot of interesting things.' So I got a fellowship from the National Health and Medical Research Council, the first such fellowship ever awarded to a non-medical person.

Of course, by the time I came to work on dental materials I realised how dreadful it had been to chew lead! At the very least it would have ruined amalgam fillings in the mouth, which I was researching.

Anyway, I discovered that all sorts of fascinating things were to be found out about dental materials, and it allowed me to work as a scientist in new territory. This field was so novel and new that when I went to the British Dental Association's 1946 annual meeting, in Edinburgh, my reputation was such that they gave me a standing ovation. This Aussie boy was teaching them things in 'olde England'.

You were 33 when you made that first trip overseas in '46, on a Commonwealth Fellowship to England, so it had taken quite a while for you to start travelling.

Yes, but subsequently I've been overseas 70-odd times on trips for science.

I gather that you were quite shocked by the devastation that you could see the war had caused in England.

Oh, it was absolute devastation. All around St Paul's Cathedral was devastated. But I was amazed how the Germans, despite the Nazi atrocity, protected St Paul's. They demolished the fences around the cathedral but they didn't drop any bombs right on it, they didn't damage it. I think that, similarly, the Allies avoided demolishing Cologne Cathedral and a few other such things.

Did you meet the Queen when you were in England?

Well, I went to a garden party. I can't honestly say that I met the Queen. [Laughs] But I stood very near the present Queen – who was then only a little girl.

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From university science and engineering posts to BHP in Newcastle

Following the war, you were offered the position of Professor of Metallurgy at the University of Melbourne. You served at the university for nine years, didn't you?

Yes. It was very thrilling to be appointed a professor in your old school. I succeeded Greenwood, who had elected to give up teaching and go into research. And I enjoyed teaching very much. It came naturally to me. I taught not only the science students but the engineering students about metals and alloys and so on.

During that time you were also asked to be the Dean of Engineering.

I was. I battled against it, on the grounds that I didn't think it appropriate that they appointed a Doctor of Science as Dean of Engineering. But the university said they wanted to make use of other qualities that they considered I had, and so I became Dean of Engineering.

This led to an unexpected move. I was chairing meetings with Mr McLennan – later Sir Ian McLennan – who became the chairman of BHP. And after a meeting of the Faculty he put a proposition to me that I should work for BHP, in Newcastle.

That must have been a fairly radical proposition for you.

Oh yes. Most people were moving the other way: a lot of people were being appointed professors after successful periods in applied technology. But I went the opposite direction, because I believed in applying science to technological problems.

So being appointed Dean of Engineering was perhaps a good indication of where you were seen to be taking your science?

That's right, although my academic colleagues didn't see it that way. They thought that moving out to industry was a slipping down rather than a step upwards.

You took the proposition very seriously, and in 1955 you and your family shifted to Newcastle. You would have found it quite different from Melbourne, I imagine.

Yes. There was no university there in those days. But I immediately joined the body that had set itself up to promote a University of Newcastle, and I got on its board. I was later on the first Council of the University of Newcastle.

Would you say your move to Newcastle started to put that city on the map of Australian science?

Well, it made the Novocastrians realise that their Steel City could produce good science as well as Sydney and Melbourne. And I enjoyed being the stimulator of that feeling. They didn't appoint me a professor, however, even though they would have liked to have me join the university in that role. But I enjoyed being on the Council of the university.

I've been very proud of the achievements of the University of Newcastle – and of the University of Wollongong. I stimulated both places to become full-blown universities.

What about your contribution to BHP in Newcastle?

I became the Director of Research for BHP. The site we selected for the BHP laboratories was right across the fence from the University of Newcastle, and it was a great experience to be living and working next door to the young, vigorous university.

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International consultant for a year

In 1963 you left Australia and worked for a year as an international consultant.

Yes. I left BHP because I had begun to explore fields of work – new technologies for steelworks – that Mr McLennan didn't think were relevant to BHP's focus.

I went to the United States Steel Corporation, in Pittsburgh, but after three months there I got weary of their bureaucratic approach to deciding how they could fit this fellow Worner into their organisation. (I was to have a brand new laboratory in south Chicago which was going to cost them millions of dollars, even in those days.) They had a finance committee, a science committee and an engineering committee, which met separately and came together only once or twice to put their opinions together. This was all taking so long that I finally said, 'Look, I'm going to explore other territory. I'll leave my application with you.'

In the meantime I went across to Germany, where Krupps were trying to attract me to their equivalent of director of research, but I decided against working there because they were very militaristic. Every door had a guard who saluted when we went in. I didn't know whether I was supposed to salute back, but the fellow who was showing me round did. I decided, 'Well, that's not the life for me. I'm not a militarist.'

Anyway, I went to England, where I met up with the chairman of Rio Tinto. He rang Sir Maurice Mawby, head of the Australian division – whom I knew already – and said, 'I've got Howard Worner in my office, and as you may have heard, he's decided he'll leave BHP. Would you be interested in talking to him?' Maurie said he certainly would, and so I returned to Australia straight away and joined Rio Tinto's company here, CRA.

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New smelting processes at CRA, and new uses for brown coal

Your new position as Director of New Process Development for CRA allowed you to explore some of the ideas and innovations that you had been considering. Had you thought about what you would like to focus on?

Yes. After I left BHP, new ideas began to flood into my mind and I started taking out provisional patents for a lot of them. And when I went to see Mawby I already had about half a dozen new patents in my mind. Anyway, Mawby was delighted to take me on, and he introduced me to his deputy on the technical side, Struan Anderson. So I was cast in my new role, and I went on to make a reputation for myself with novel ideas and so on.

During your time with CRA you worked on a revolutionary new process called WORCRA, for continuous smelting. How did this process get its name, and what was the challenge it involved?

WOR was the first part of my own name, and CRA was the abbreviation for Conzinc Riotinto Australia. The concept still hasn't been fully developed. Everybody agrees it is wonderful, but the difficulty is to scale it up. In Sweden, in relation to steel, I managed to do it at up to eight or nine tonnes per hour scale.

So, conceptually it can be done, but there is a lot of technical challenge?

That's right. I demonstrated that these things could be done on one, two, three, four and up to nine or ten tonnes per hour, but the difficulty was in going from there to 100 tonnes per hour, or 500 tonnes per hour.

And to develop these ideas that you had, you would sit down and start sketching out schematic drawings of how the actual technology might work?

Yes. I had a marvellous few years cultivating my ideas and working out how to transfer them from large bench scale to commercial scale.

You retired from CRA and left in 1975.

Actually, at first I didn't retire entirely from CRA. I worked in the head office and tried to stimulate people in the company to try new ideas. It was a stimulating period, but not as much as the period before Mr Arthur Roux, who put a dampener on research and development.

It seems that at several times you were a bit frustrated by the businesses you were associated with, when they did not want to work through with innovative ideas or try new things.

They didn't, but I realise that some of my ideas were ahead of their time. Those ideas would work better now, with all the multi endeavours of the computer scientists and so on. But I enjoyed my career. As I look back, I am very satisfied with it.

In 1975 you moved down to Melbourne, where you then held the position of Chairman of the Victorian Brown Coal Council until 1982.

Yes. A number of government bodies sought to have me join them, but the position that appealed to me was the one in the Victorian Brown Coal Council. I could see all sorts of new potentials for brown coal, other than just to generate power by burning it under boilers. And I had the satisfaction of having oil from coal proved up to a certain extent. It'll come good, but the time has to be right.

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'They won't let me retire': research in Wollongong

In 1983 you moved to Wollongong, where you now live. What was behind this move?

It was largely family. My wife was in her 70s and beginning to get frail, and I wanted to be near our daughter. She had married the chief librarian of BHP, who had been moved from Newcastle down to Wollongong. So we kept our ears and eyes open for something nice to live in down here.

And you still had a bit of science left in you, because you started working – in your garage – on microwave applications.

[Laughs] It seems I couldn't leave science alone. Microwaves were known as a good means of cooking, and I thought that this rate at which you could cook things might be applicable to other carbonaceous materials besides food. I started to work in the kitchen but my wife said, 'This is not very pleasant,' and so I went down to the garage. I soon found I didn't have the space there to set up my equipment, but the technical college said, 'By all means come and use our foundry, and we'll give you our chief foundry man to help you.'

Then the Vice-Chancellor at the University of Wollongong, Ken McKinnon, heard that I was doing this work. He sent a message to say he wanted to talk to me, and he said, 'I hear you're doing some interesting experiments over in the technical college. You know, this is the place where you ought to be doing those sorts of interesting experiments.' So he arranged for me to get a research fellowship in this university, and I've been here ever since. They won't let me retire.

So in fact you were the founding Director of the Microwave Applications Research Centre, which was set up to explore these microwave technologies.

Yes, that's correct.

Also, in the early 1990s you developed a way of converting steelworks waste dust and sewage into usable iron compounds.

I got a lot of satisfaction out of that, but once again it's a matter of the costs of scale-up. Things worked marvellously on large bench scale, but they weren't easy to make economic at tonnes per hour.

The Broken Hill origins of a major minerals collection

At the University of Wollongong you are still asked occasionally to discuss research matters with students, aren't you?

Yes, I have the pleasure of being a research mentor to a number of people, including my own grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I am a born teacher, I think.

Just before this interview, when I was over in the sciences building, a young person came up and started asking me questions. And when she learned that I was the inventor of a lot of the things that were mentioned in the exhibits there, she was very obviously excited. That often happens. I get a lot of satisfaction out of it.

That would have been next to your minerals collection, which you began when you visited Broken Hill in 1932 and collected some mineral samples.

I became fascinated with the variety of minerals that occurred in the one ore body at Broken Hill, and I have continued that interest right through till this present day.

Earlier, you mentioned collecting birds' eggs. Perhaps collecting has been part of your passion for life.

It has, yes.

Your minerals collection is now displayed here at the university, and indeed is one of the finest such collections in all of Australia, isn't it?

Well, I wouldn't say in all of Australia. It's the finest minerals collection in a university school. This is the only university in Australia with a space given over to the knowledge of minerals, their classifications and so on.

I originally had three and a half to four thousand samples, but when we moved from Melbourne to Wollongong I realised it was unlikely that enough space would be available for all the specimens. So just a thousand have gone into that collection.

I believe that you still have a few at home.

Yes. They are favourites or they have sentimental connections, such as that I found them in unusual places.

So you've lugged this collection of minerals all across Australia. As you've moved from city to city, it's followed you around?

That's true. I've had the good fortune to be closely associated with several universities – Newcastle, Wollongong on the more applied side, Sydney and Melbourne. And I've had a lot to do with cultivating Adelaide and Western Australia, particularly the School of Mines side of activity. It's all been very rewarding for me.

In 1983, the year you moved to Wollongong, you put together a book entitled The Minerals of Broken Hill, which was a big success and was much sought-after overseas.

Yes. I went abroad with that book. We sent two and a half thousand copies over to Tucson, Arizona, but I found that they were all gone in two and a half days! We should have printed twice as many, even three times as many.

Copies of the book are probably as rare as hens' teeth now.

The book is still famous.

As is your minerals collection. It's great that things which gave you such great pleasure are in such high demand.

Yes. I have got the great satisfaction of seeing this university department of geology, or earth sciences, being proud to set up my collection. It attracts a lot of attention.

Reflections on a creative and rewarding life

You said earlier, in relation to being asked to take on the position of Dean of Engineering, that really you weren't an engineer. But perhaps you were, in many ways, an engineer in scientist's clothing.

Engineering and science were sisters or brothers to me. I have often puzzled over how the Australian Academy of Science discerned this work that I was doing, because it was outside the realm of pure science. But I think Sir Ian Wark must have had a hand in my election to the Academy of Science, which occurred in time for the great debate in the Academy as to whether they should cultivate people who had a knowledge of the fundamental sciences but also a very strong leaning toward the applied side.

And in fact you played an important role in the establishment of a new Academy focusing on the technological sciences.

Yes, because a lot of my friends in the Academy of Science said, 'Howard, it's going to take years for you to get sufficient support to create an applied category within the Academy of Science, so why don't you try to set up an Academy of Technological Sciences?' We subsequently added the words 'and Engineering' to avoid leaving the engineers out of the picture.

Howard, it seems to me that you have had a very full life.

I've had a very rewarding and interesting life and career. It may seem to have been a very long way from farming, but I can well remember sitting in the little private one-teacher school when the Better Farmers Association had their meetings about ways of improving the rate of growth of legumes and other crops, and ways of growing better, finer quality wheat, and finer quality wool. These were all taking place when I was in my early teens, so even as a farmer boy I was becoming interested in these sorts of areas. And then it wasn't really a huge step for me to go to the Bendigo School of Mines or to become the Director of Research for BHP.

Thank you for sharing a few of the golden moments of your life.

Thank you.

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