Historical Context

The following passagees have been taken from "Coming of Age - The British Association in Australia, 1914" by Peter Robertson and published in The Australian Physicist, March 1980, pp23-27.

In June 1914 over three hundred British scientists left England for Australia to take part in the 84th meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. It was a bold decision by the British Association to hold their annual meeting in Australia. No scientific meeting had ever been held on such a grand scale.

Before the scientists had even landed in Australia, war had been declared. As events rapidly escalated in Europe, the visitors continued their tour of the Australian capitals, giving lectures, holding discussions, visiting universities, observatories and museums, and making an extraordinary number of excursions to points of scientific interest. Probably no other meeting in Australia has generated the same degree of public interest in science. The benefits for Australian science were many. The leading British experts brought the small number of Australian scientists up to date with recent developments resulting in an important stimulus to local research.

The possibility of a British Association meeting in Australia had first been mooted as early as 1884, but for a variety of reasons it was decided that the time was not yet ripe. The idea was raised again in 1909 at the initiative of the Melbourne physiologist James W. Barrett, and a committee chaired by the chemist Orme Masson was established to formulate plans and take the necessary preliminary action. The invitation from this committee to hold the 1914 meeting in Australia was formally accepted by the British Association in June 1910.

Since its foundation at York in 1831, the British Association had held a meeting each year in a different part of Britain, with the broad aim of spreading knowledge of the progress of science to the general public… Meetings were [also] held in Canada in 1884, 1897 and 1909, and also in South Africa in 1905. The visit to South Africa was in fact to be the model for the Australian meeting. The proceedings were not to be confined to a single centre, but five widely separated cities.

The machinery for organizing the Australian meeting was to require numerous committees, and eventually the services of several hundred people. In each of the five states a committee was set up under the presidency of the State Governor, and a Federal Council was formed in November 1912 under the Prime Minister. The actual task of organizing the visit was then delegated to a smaller Federal Executive with Orme Masson as chairman and David Rivett as secretary. Aged only 27, Rivett was to show something of the organizational genius which in later years played a decisive role in the establishment in 1926 of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (the forerunner of the CSIRO), and then as the founding father of the Australian National University.

More than 5000 Australians enrolled as local members for the meeting - a record attendance for the British Association. In the words of O.J.R. Howarth, the official historian of the British Association writing in 1922, "the Australian meeting was by far the most successful the Association has ever held".
Published by the Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre on AustehcWeb, April 2004
With support from Professor Ken Rivett and The University of Melbourne
Listed by Bill King and Gavan McCarthy
HTML edition Ailie Smith
Updated 13 November 2007

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