State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 10 October 1972


Professor Kernot in Militant Mood

W. C. Kernot was a graduate of the University of Melbourne and its first professor of engineering, from 1883 to 1909. The following draft letter is in his papers in the La Trobe Library and an original was presumably despatched. It is of interest not only as an example of sustained invective but as an illustration both of Victoria's historical problem of faulty bridge-design and of the perennial argument between the ‘practical man’ and the ‘theorist’.
To City Engineer
Hitherto in corresponding with you on the Subject of the Victoria St Bridge I have though intensely indignant at your proceedings treated you with considerable leniency & carefully avoided anything calculated rudely to shock your feelings. Recent events have convinced me that you are unworthy of such consideration, & have left me free to discuss in an outspoken manner your conduct from the beginning.
Our acquaintance commenced many years since, I was then young & inexperienced, I was not aware as I am now of the amount of conscious & unconscious deception existing amongst men. I was enthusiastic & earnest in the pursuit of truth & imagined others to be equally so. I am free to confess that you made a great impression upon me. Intensely disgusted as my scientific knowledge caused me to be with a great proportion of engineering practice I regarded you as a contrast to the ordinary ignorant empiric, that calls himself an engineer. In your work I thought I saw at any rate some regard for scientific principles, & did not meet with the outrageous inconsistencies & blunders that were so prevalent elsewhere. There were however two points in your character that troubled me somewhat. The first was the air of mystery you were so fond of throwing about even the simplest matters of engineering practice. I remember asking you on one occasion your reason for doing things in a certain way, & your replying in a very impressive manner in one word “Practice”. I was not satisfied but went away much perplexed. I am now convinced that you were unable to answer my question, that you had no satisfactory reason for what you were doing & were not honest enough to confess it. I shall for the future always doubt men who involve their work in mystery, & profess to be the possessors of a recondite host of knowledge not shared by ordinary mortals.
A second point in your character that greatly troubled me was your extreme severity in criticising candidates at the Shire engineers examination. With what avidity did you pounce upon most trivial errors, & convict men on the strength of a little slip made in the hurry of examination of the unpardonable crime of “want of practical knowledge”. And yet I am now certain that many of those men meant what was perfectly right but failed to express it clearly, or look at the matter from just the same point as you did. Contrasted with these trifling errors, your gigantic blunders in drawings that took many months to prepare are most unpardonable. I must say that there is a certain parable about two debtors that we often hear read in churches, which comes with great force to my mind just now.
On two occasions you submitted drawings to me for my opinion after calculation. One design, that made by Mr. Jonathan Rogers for Johnston St. I condemned, the other, Mr. Rawlinson's Heidelberg arch I approved. You accepted my conclusions &
acted upon them. Why can you not accept my conclusions now? The original design at Victoria St. was at least as good as the Heidelberg arch while your new spans present errors as serious & more palpable than those in Mr. Rogers’ girders. The fact is that like many others you are not unwilling to be scientific when it suits you. You find it pleasant to have your opinions backed up by mathematical investigation, but let that investigation run in the slightest degree counter to your prejudices & interests & at once you reject all scientific results as “mere theory”, and endeavour to persuade the public that the man of science is not to be trusted. Such conduct let me tell you is dishonest. If you really are convinced that the laws of statics are erroneous honestly avow your opinion, state your reasons fully so that others may have an opportunity of judging whether you have really made a new & valuable discovery, & base your practice upon your new lights. But be honest — don't play fast and loose with science.
When the Victoria St. question was submitted to you matters were in this stage. A bridge of very novel design & proportions had been condemned by Mr. Greene on the strength of a certain calculation. There was no practical evidence of weakness, no visible straining of parts such as has been often seen in other structures. The calculation was all the evidence supplied & its accuracy was challenged. You ought to have gone most carefully into the question of this calculation — you ought to have given us every possible opportunity of defending our design. But you did nothing of the sort. You evaded the real point at issue, you said not a word about the calculation, you condemned us unheard on the grounds of a mere vague impression. Let me ask you, did you realize the fact that professional reputations were at stake? Did you consider what a serious thing it was for me to have the results of years of study & teaching at the University condemned offhand? Are you aware that it is considered essential in every court of justice that before any man is condemned every point in his favour must be set forth in the clearest & fullest manner? Have you not observed how careful our judges upon the bench are to give most carefully & explicitly the reasons of their decisions? And why did you not conduct your investigation in a similarly fair & honourable manner? These are questions of the gravest importance. Then after the publication of your decision I repeatedly begged you to state where the error was & why you thought this bridge weak which calculation showed to be from every point of view double as strong as existing structures, but you would not answer. The truth is, I am convinced, that you could not. You had taken this extreme & most serious step without any sufficient reason. Then I challenged you to submit your calculations to some independent expert, or to have practical experiments tested for which I was willing to pay if proved wrong, but all was without avail. You were master of the situation, & preserved an ignoble silence. It was safer & more prudent from your point of view to condemn than to approve. If the bridge was strengthened no one could afterward prove that such strengthening was unnecessary, whereas if it remained as it was and anything did afterward go wrong you would be responsible. And so you decided to sacrifice the interests of my pupils, to injure my reputation most seriously & to waste hundreds of pounds of public money. Why if you felt doubtful about the structure did you not suspend your judgment & make enquiries into the stability of structures elsewhere? Why did you not announce that you were ready at a certain time & place to hear all that we
could adduce in favour of our structure? Had you shown a desire to act fairly, had you given us reasonable opportunity to “show cause”, then however much we might have differed with your conclusion we could not accuse you as I do at present of having played the part of an unjust judge & committed not only a great mistake but a most glaring and cruel wrong — of having robbed my pupils & myself of their good name & reputation, & committed an injury compared with which the violent seizure of our goods would be insignificant.
After a most extraordinary lapse of time your plans were at last matured. I certainly expected that whatever other faults they might present, they would be at least as strong as the original structure. To my utter amazement not only did you commit most singular errors in the buttresses & bracing, parts not vital, but showed in your designs for the new girders an ignorance of the first principles of statics that I have rarely seen equalled. At the Kew end you sacrificed two-thirds of the strength by arranging the cross girders in a way that any intelligent layman who had never given an hour's thought to engineering questions would at once have seen to be wrong. This strange to say you altered on receiving a protest from me. Your girders at the Collingwood end were I happen to know so wretchedly designed in the first instance as to subject the metal to a strain of 13 tons per square inch. The public works authorities rectified this, but reluctant to make more alterations than were absolutely necessary passed as safe a bar loaded to £8½ tons per square inch. This was going very far seeing that £6¼ tons is the greatest possible stress in any part of the original structure. In carrying out the work you omitted vital rivets & so increased the stress from £8½ to £10½ tons. I publicly objected to this. You minuted my letter in a way that revealed your true character. Fairly cornered, completely checkmated, there was one & only one way to admit the error & recommend the Council to adopt my suggestion. Did you do this? No, you shirked the question with a most untruthful & contemptible attack upon my professional reputation & threw dust into the eyes of the councillors. You mean & dishonourable old man, you would rather ruin another man's reputation, you would rather risk the lives of those using the bridge a hundred times over, than admit any exception to the dogma of your own infallibility. It was well for you that we did not meet the day your minute was published as I should have had great difficulty in restraining myself from inflicting the personal castigation you so richly deserve.
The public works authorities, alarmed by my revelation, inspected the bridge & discovered that you had broken faith with them by omitting vital rivets. They made the simple and most reasonable request that the omitted rivets be supplied. You replied as I saw by the Age of 6th Sept. that this was unnecessary the “rivets being in double shear”. Now Sir you either know the principle of a rivetted joint & the effect of a single leading rivet or you do not. If the latter be true you are not fit to be trusted with the design of any girder work whatever. If the former, you are wilfully deceiving the Richmond Council, & knowingly jeopardizing the lives of the public. Choose which alternative you like. I don't envy you either of them.
This completes the shameful story of your dealings with the Victoria St. Bridge — a story as far as I know unparalleled in the history of engineering of a structure carefully designed by competent & educated men, without any adequate reason condemned & altered, & left capable of carrying only half the load it was at first
adapted for.
Men of your stamp are the curse of engineering practice, & the greatest impediment to engineering progress. You set aside the most clearly demonstrated scientific principles as “mere theory,” if they do not agree with some vague impression, based on no sufficient data & supported by no intelligible reasoning which by a strange perversion of language you call “practical experience”. When will you learn that scientific principles are the true practical experience of the wisest & most competent men of all ages, while the altogether unreliable nature of what is improperly called so by ignorant empirics is evidenced by the endless inconsistencies of engineering practice, for every one of which some man or other could quote “practical experience” as a justification? Be assured there is false knowledge in this world as well as true, that much that has been most firmly believed in past ages is now seen to be quite wrong, that appearances are notoriously deceptive as well in structures as in men, the strong often looking weak & the weak strong. The only absolutely true reliable & enduring information is to be found in the realm of exact science, which men in their ignorance & folly persist in designating “mere theory”.
I now dismiss you from my acquaintance. I have proved beyond a doubt that you are professionally incompetent, & can only conclude that the somewhat meritorious work you did in years gone by, must have been either copied from elsewhere, or in reality be due to the ability of your subordinates. I have found you devoid of that sense of justice & fairness which is dear as life itself to all good men. I have found that rather than admit an error when fairly cornered & brought to bay you will risk men's lives, & impugn their reputations. This being so I have no choice but to wash my hands of you, to leave you as a man whom I cannot respect either personally or professionally. Regretting that your conduct throughout this unfortunate affair should leave me no other choice.
I am
W. C. Kernot