John Wager interview, 24 June 2014, 1 July 2014 and 8 July 2014

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John Wager interview, 24 June 2014, 1 July 2014 and 8 July 2014




Fifty years ago, the UWA engineering degree was a five-year programme. It included the equivalent of a full year of practical experience in industry, which enabled John to gain valuable experience in aircraft engine assembly with the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation in Melbourne, and precision measurement as a machine-shop inspector with the Chamberlain tractor factory in WA.
After graduation with honours in Mechanical Engineering, he undertook a two-year graduate apprenticeship with the English Electric company, in Lancashire, England.
He was then appointed lecturer with the UWA Department of Mechanical Engineering, Later becoming an associate professor. At UWA he followed his interests in precision measurement in manufacturing, gaining a Master of Engineering Science degree which led to his being invited to serve, during a university vocation, as a UN consultant in the development of metrology and fine instruments in Seoul, South Korea.
John was later awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, enabling him to complete a PhD at Purdue University in the US. His PhD topic related both to precision measurement and the computer controlled machine tools then becoming wildly used in world industry. This resulted in his being elected one of the few Australian members of CIRP, a world-wide manufacturing research body, based in Paris.
John retired from UWA in 1997, but was then invited to serve as a consultant on a major engineering education project in Indonesia.
He has been a member of the Institution of Engineers, Australia for over fifty years, and has held a number of posts, including Chairman of the WA Division, Chairman of the National College of Mechanical Engineers and National Vice-President, responsible for Education and Assessment.


Wager, John


University of Western Australia Historical Society


Copyright holder University of Western Australia


MP3 files


Oral History

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Julia Wallis


John Wager


Room G48, Arts Building, UWA


Interview 1: 48 minutes, 43 seconds
Interview 2: 1 hour, 45 seconds
Interview 3: 25 minutes, 18 seconds
Total: 2 hours, 14 minutes, 46 seconds

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbs

Time Summary

Interview 1
Track 1
00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis

Track 2
00:00 Born 20 June 1932 in Subiaco. Father had been born in Singapore. Grandfather worked as company secretary for Wearne Brothers, Singapore. His mother’s father was from the Isle of Man. Attended Subiaco school until 1942. Then moved to the farm at Koorda in the wheat belt. Schooled in a one room school in Koorda. He moved to live with his maternal grandmothers in South Cottesloe in 1943. He caught the steam train from Mosman Park to Subiaco. Subiaco centre was industrial with warehouses and shunting sheds. He spent time as a child watching the locomotives shunting. The loco drivers used to let him ride on the footplate.
06:41 He won a scholarship to Perth Modern School as did his brother and sister. It was a co-ed school but the girls and boys were segregated. Most of the other children were from local schools as there were no boarding facilities. He matriculated in 1949 and always wanted to be an engineer. By 1948, they were back in the family home in West Subiaco. He rode his bicycle on weekends to Perth airport in Maylands. He was very interested in aircraft engines and design. He was awarded an exhibition for entry to UWA.
11:25 UWA was centred at Winthrop Hall. There was no Reid Library. The engineering faculty was located at Shenton House which made them independent of the rest of the campus. George Munns was the gardener and he used a horse and cart. The Engineering School had a handful of retired war veterans as students. Their experience encouraged John to travel. Two of them commuted by dingy from Como across the river.
15:17 The engineering degree was 5 years. The fourth year contained practical experience in industry. From September 1952 to March 1953 John worked with Commonwealth Aircraft at Fisherman’s Bend in Melbourne. CAC was building jet engines. The bulk of students were in Civil Engineering and they worked at the Public Works Department or the Water Board. In John’s final year there were only 5 studying mechanical engineering.
20:03 At that time there was no Professorial Head of School. Ray Minchin and Gordon Lutz were the teachers. They had practical experience in industry. The first year was a general year when students studies civil, electrical and mechanical engineering. Civil engineering was more popular perhaps because it seemed more relevant. There were a lot of State cadetships. The engineering students were quite separate from the rest of the campus. There was great rivalry between the engineering students and the law students. They used to have a tug of war. John recalled the 1950 graduation ceremony where Sir James Mitchell was asked to be the speaker. A student dressed up as him and came on and did a ‘speech’ before the official speaker arrived.
29:09 There were sporting competitions such as the Goyder Cup. There was an Engineers Ball every year. One year the ball was open to the public. There was a mock bull fight in St George’s Terrace put on by 3 engineering students. They also took part in PROSH.
31:41 The lectures took place in Shenton House. The laboratories were buildings over from the Second World War. They contained boilers and steam engines. John was very happy with the course. He particularly enjoyed the practical experience in industry. In 1953 to 1954 he did a second stint in industry where he was a machine shop inspector at Chamberlain Industries. A superintendent there called Bert Webster really took John under his wing and increased his interest in gears and gear levers. This led to his topic for his Honours dissertation where he obtained First Class Honours. He chose to study the stress between one gear tooth and the other gear tooth using photoelasticity .
39:27 Although John’s Hon ours dissertation had very slight practical application he stayed interested in measurement and gauging. This had application later on when he did his Masters. By the 1960s, pneumatic gauging was quite widely used. Today air gauging is a thing of the past and measurement is done electronically.
43:17 The Second World War had an impact on Perth and industry. Chamberlain’s in Welshpool used to be the munitions factory. There were the State Implement Works and Midland Junction Railway Workshops were building marine engines. There was plenty of opportunity to work in industry in WA but John wanted to go overseas and applied for a graduate apprenticeship at the English Electric Company in Preston, Lancashire. Due to the difference in university terms between Australia and England he spent some time working at the Ford Motor Factory in North Fremantle which later became a brewery at the beginning of 1955. While working here an engine crushed the big toe on his right foot. As a result of this, he came very passionate about industrial safety and introduced this subject when he was lecturing.

Interview 2
Track 1
00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis

Track 2
00:00 In 1955, John was a graduate apprentice at the English Electric Company in Preston which designed diesel electric locomotives that were exported all over the world. Most of the manufacturing in WA was on a very small scale. English Electric’s Deltic engine was very efficient and very effective. The railway locomotive plant was in one building and the aircraft building was across a cobbled street. EEC paid for John to travel there by ship. They had factories all over the UK. In the 1950s EEC was the place to be to experience design and construction.
05:48 Towards the tail end of his apprenticeship there John saw the UWA lecturer position advertised on the notice board. He felt that he could use his experience in industry to assist UWA students to learn and understand about the practical use of mechanical engineering. The Ford factory experience led to him incorporating industrial safety into the final year of the course. English Electric had a good safety record.
09:56 Back in Perth John was offered a University house for rent south of the campus for 6 months until they bought a house in Daglish. The Engineering Faculty was still small although student numbers had increased enough to warrant another lecturer position. John taught the methods of conventional manufacture with lectures and hands on experience in the labs. John enjoyed the freedom of being a university lecturer. He took the students out to visit factories and plants. Civil engineering students were still going into the State cadetship schemes. Mechanical engineering graduates tended to go to the eastern states. John experience at English Electric enabled him to teach elements of engineering design and the difference between function and manufacture.
15:43 In academia there were specific topics and lectures but the choice of research was quite free. In 1959, John acquired a Master of Engineering Science at UWA by studying air gauging. To stay in academia and retain freedom of choice in research topics it became obvious he needed a PhD. He was granted study leave and applied was awarded a US Fulbright Scholarship which enabled him to study for his PhD (1964-1967) at Purdue University, Indiana, USA. His topic was the useful life of the machine cutting tool. This proved to be a useful component in the harnessing of computers and machine tools.
21:08 In last ten years of his time at UWA he was able to establish a Computer Aided Design and Manufacturing Laboratory. Students now designed on a computer rather than a drawing board. John’s Honour thesis of stressing in gears, his Masters in pneumatic gauging and then his PhD topic studying the life of machine tools all had practical application in industry at the time.
23:22 In 1977, in view of his industry interest and research, John was invited to join CIRP (College International pour la Recherche en Productique), the International Institution for Production Engineering Research, based in Paris. You had to be invited by at least one international member of that group. At the time there were only two other members in Australia – both in the eastern states. To remain an active member you or your research group had to contribute a paper every second or third year, accepted by an international jury of CIRP. John’s projects were not earth shattering but fitted quite neatly into the programmes of the other members of CIRP. For example, John’s team looked at precision grinding. A legacy of the munitions factory being located at Welshpool in WW2 meant that there was a Metrology Laboratory in the School of Engineering. John feels that these research projects were of benefit to UWA.
29:00 Later on Professor Ben Downes came out from England to be the Professor of the School of Engineering. A PhD was necessary to graduate through the ranks. John went from Senior Lecturer to Associate Professor however he was more concerned about undertaking research and forging overseas contacts in order to acquire and share knowledge that would benefit the students. A key one was the Cambridge ACDMM (Advanced Course in Design, Manufacturing and Management). CIRP involved research papers and attending international conferences. They had discipline specific groups at these conferences where wide ranging discussions took place. Quite often these conferences took place during university vacations. The Cambridge ACDMM was a full year programme which meant that he needed study leave to take part. UWA generously granted him study leave of 6-12 months on six occasions in order to take part in this programme. John found out about this on an earlier sabbatical where he was working for an aircraft orientated company in Bedford, England.
34:05 John’s first stint with ACDMM was in 1985/1986. Graduate students with a strong interest in manufacturing could apply to take part in these industry projects. There were lectures but the main part of the project was a practical component in industry solving a problem and writing a report. There would be 9 projects during that year in a specific geographic area. ACDMM had been in existence since c 1963 and ran projects each year. It was a win-win situation for all concerned.
39:40 In 1993, Cambridge accepted John for another 12 month period but told him they wanted him to find the 9 projects in the Darvel Valley in Scotland. One of these projects was with Vesuvius (UK) Ltd at Newmilns who sourced their raw materials from Capel, WA. The original lace making industry originated here also. John‘s project involved using computer generated machining. John had discovered his family origins in the Isle of Man and suggested an industrial project there. Martin-Baker Aircraft Co. Ltd provided 2 projects.
52:46 John was learning a lot. Back home, it made the UWA course more relevant. John devised a ‘Humans in Industry’ course in the final year with IFAP.

Interview 3
Track 1
00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis

Track 2
00:00 On a study leave in 1974, John taught at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. Apartheid was at its peak. As an adjunct to this course he taught a 1 week graduate course in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), Mozambique during the War of Independence as the guerrilla forces of the Mozambique Liberation Front or FRELIMO (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique) made their way to the capital. During a term vacation in 1977, he taught in Seoul, South Korea. In 1988, he lectured at Hunan University, Changsha in China. The tensions in China eventually led to the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. In 1990, John attended a CIRP conference in Berlin when the wall came down. John retired from UWA in 1997. In 1998 he was engaged for a 12 month education project in Indonesia. He witnessed protests against President Suharto who resigned on 21 May 1998.
03:13 When John joined UWA in 1957 only the automobile industry was left operating in Australia. Korea was becoming a major power in manufacturing and also Japan and China. One of John’s PhD students was from Hunan and the invitation to teach in China came through him. John’s elder daughter was the second female student in Engineering, the first female recipient of a Clough postgraduate scholarship and is now CEO of the Water Corporation.
07:23 UWA was very generous in granting study leave every 7 years. John is also grateful for the Fulbright Scholarship that enabled him to study for his PhD in the USA (1964-1967). John’s experiences were shared with his students on his return. He was able to create new units or part units. First Years were presented with a series of lectures on Conventional Manufacturing Metallic Materials (casting, forging and machining). Senior students were given lectures and practical sessions on Unconventional Machining Methods. The senior students were assisted to design and build an EDM machine.
13:27 John established the CAD (computer aided designed) laboratory. Computer-aided design took over from drafting. It was now possible to design in 3D. Later John obtained finance to covert the CAD laboratory to a CAD CAM laboratory and obtained a computer operated lathe and a milling machine. John introduced a subject in overall manufacturing and method study. He also ran units on design for manufacture. He taught work measurement for quantity production and introduced a lecture series on Operations Research and Linear programming He developed and delivered courses on Statistical Quality Control. The final year included a unit on Humans in Industry. He also introduced lectures on verbal communication, report writing and body language.
21:47 John is grateful for the opportunities he received over his 40 years with UWA. He believes the School of Engineering at UWA stood up well in comparison with other universities in Australia and overseas. UWA is quite different today. When he turned 80, the Dean of Engineering invited John and his family back for a lunch at University House.



Wager, John, “John Wager interview, 24 June 2014, 1 July 2014 and 8 July 2014,” UWA Historical Society: UWA Histories, accessed July 13, 2024,