April 2018

A brief history of the AusIMM

  • By Dr Sandra E Close HonFAusIMM(CP), Chair – AusIMM Heritage Committee

Celebrating 125 years of heritage with a look back at the story of the AusIMM and its remarkable people

The Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (AusIMM) formally dates its beginning as 4 April, 1893 when, as the Australasian Institute of Mining Engineers (AIME) it held its first General or Ordinary Meeting in Adelaide. (For simplicity the Institute will be referred to as ‘the AusIMM’ throughout this article.) This followed various prior meetings at which decisions to set up the proposed new Institute had been made.

As part of the celebrations for the Centenary of the Institute in 1993, John M Dew MAusIMM, a metallurgist and journalist, was commissioned to write the book, Mining People – A Century: Highlights of the First Hundred Years of The AusIMM 1893-1993. It is recommended reading for those who wish to track the development of the Institute and follow the changes in the resources industry in Australasia during that time.

The aim of this article is to highlight some of the key events of the first 125 years and to acknowledge the efforts and dedication of members who have contributed so much over that period. They made it possible for the AusIMM to survive through good times and lean times and to reach its 125th anniversary. Today, the Institute looks confidently to the future in its role as the pre-eminent organisation for those engaged in a wide range of professional pursuits in the resources industry. While its focus is on Australia and New Zealand, the AusIMM also reaches out to members across the globe, as it has throughout its life. There are few comparable organisations in Australasia that can claim such longevity and whose members have contributed so much to Australasia’s economic and social wellbeing.

Historically, membership was essentially confined to those holding professional qualifications in the major technical disciplines associated with the mining and mineral industry – principally mining engineering, metallurgy and geology. In addition, experienced, senior people who had a long-term association with the industry could be elected to membership if they had reached a nominated age. During the 1990s membership was broadened to include professionals who had qualifications in other disciplines but who were connected with the resources industry.

Throughout its history the Institute has acknowledged the achievements of its members by awards of various kinds, recognising their accomplishments and their contributions, whether they be to the AusIMM, to technical excellence and innovation, or to the industry. Today, there are a small number of Honorary Fellows, while the Institute Medal and the President’s Award head the annual list of special awards.

The founding members were drawn from men who were associated with the Broken Hill mines as well as those representing the various colonies and who were engaged in the mining industry itself, or in government posts or in academia. In those years, as now, travel was a way of life for many technical people within the mining industry and annual meetings were held in a different place every year, in either a capital city or a mining centre. The early publications testify to the Institute members’ geographic spread, frequent travel and the range of commodities they covered. The first volume of Transactions containing several formal technical papers was issued in 1894 and the Proceedings were commenced in 1904, intended to be issued frequently and to contain a variety of information, including AusIMM news and business. However, in 1912, the Transactions were discontinued and a new series of Proceedings was commenced, containing technical papers. These show the importance in those early years of Broken Hill as well as other fields, including the west coast of Tasmania, Mt Morgan and other areas in Queensland, and the rise of Kalgoorlie and the Golden Mile in Western Australia. It was a period of great innovation in the local industry, thanks to the intellect and ingenuity of the new breed of technically qualified professionals. The development of pyritic smelting in Tasmania by Robert C Sticht; flotation in Broken Hill by Delprat, de Bavay and others; and the innovations in the treatment of gold ores, including gold tellurides, on the Golden Mile, were all internationally significant. Their work featured in the early papers published by the AusIMM.

The Institute’s head office, while initially in Broken Hill, soon moved to Melbourne and has remained there ever since. Only a few branches were established in the early years, so even 50 years after its inception there were only seven AusIMM branches, supplemented by a similar number of local correspondents.

Initially, AusIMM membership was relatively small, although senior staff from most of the country’s metalliferous mines were members. After ten years, the number of members totalled 234 and after another decade membership had increased substantially, reaching 722 by the end of 1912, comprising three membership categories – Members, Associate Members and Students. Since then membership categories have changed from time to time.

During World War I (WWI) the mining fraternity in Australia, including prominent members of the AusIMM, more than ‘did their bit’. Some were required to continue their usual work, with supply of minerals an essential part of the war effort, while others went on active service overseas. The Tunnellers, men who had worked in the mines, often led by officers and other ranks who were AusIMM members, undertook extraordinarily dangerous and exacting work. Their heroic deeds have received greater recognition as stories of their courage and expertise have come to light recently, during the commemoration of the centenary of the start of WWI. John Dew wrote of the distinguished service of several AusIMM members, including Oliver H Woodward and his Tunnellers’ exploits at Hill 60. Woodward’s story and that of his men was the subject of the 2010 movie Beneath Hill 60.

In its early years and throughout WWI the financial resources of the Institute were very limited. Since its inception, the Institute had followed a policy of publication as a means of members sharing their knowledge and this accounted for a significant proportion of its expenditure. The careful stewardship of Alfred Stephen Kenyon helped to ensure the viability of the Institute during those early decades and as noted in Mining People, he contributed greatly to the Institute for some 50 years. Today, a charming portrait of Mr Kenyon attributed to the artist Dora Meeson hangs in the AusIMM office in Carlton.

In 1919, members voted to change the name of the Institute from AIME to AusIMM in recognition that the range of technical professionals in the mining industry had expanded beyond engineering. So metallurgy was included in the new name but not geology. While understood to be an important aspect, geology was yet to be fully recognised and indeed utilised as the third essential element of technology in the industry. However, the fact that geology was not formally included in the name has been a subject of some debate ever since. Incorporation under the Companies Act was sought at this time and granted in 1921 and at that stage membership comprised Life Members, Members, Associate Members, Juniors and Students.

Former AusIMM logo.

During the 1920s the industry once again returned to a peacetime footing and as it grew, so did the Institute. In 1927 technical staff from the coal mining industry, particularly in NSW, were invited to join, as until then the AusIMM’s focus had been essentially metalliferous mining.

However, the post-war promise of the twenties was short-lived as the Great Depression began to take hold. By the 1930s there was considerable hardship, not only in Australasia but in much of the developed world. Low metal prices reflected the economic woes and the mining industry and its people were not immune. The AusIMM reflected the times, with its spending much diminished and activities and meetings reduced. Gold was one of the few bright spots at this time. Although the gold industry had declined substantially after WWI, in the Depression gold provided a means by which the ordinary man might win enough to feed his family, while the mines in Kalgoorlie remained operating, surviving on government subsidies. The development of Mount Isa, which began production in 1931, was a rare bright spot which offered employment opportunities for Institute members.

In 1936 the Institute appointed Miss Beryl Jacka as a typist and in 1948 she was appointed Secretary and put in charge of administration. She became a much respected stalwart of the Institute, which she served for 40 years until her retirement in 1976.

World War II (WWII) commenced in 1939 and once again many AusIMM men – there were no women members – contributed to the war effort. As before, some members were required to continue to work in their profession back home to ensure the supply of essential metals and materials, while others served in many theatres of war. A few of the extraordinary wartime experiences of AusIMM members are sketched in Mining People.

During WWII the Institute celebrated its first 50 years but in 1943 travel was restricted, so special arrangements were necessary to allow members representing all states and New Zealand and New Guinea to gather in Melbourne for the Jubilee Celebrations. A particular highlight of those celebrations involved goodwill gestures, such as conferring Honorary Membership on those representing many overseas and local organisations. Membership had increased slowly during and between the two wars, so that by 1946 membership stood at 1062, just a 50 per cent increase on that in 1912.

The 1950s, 1960s and beyond was a time of recovery and growth in Australia, its mining and minerals industry and in the AusIMM. Men returning from active war service undertook university education and the number of technically qualified professionals rose to meet the demands of the expanding resources industry and the growing interest in mineral exploration.

The Institute, via its members, had long been active in dialogue and cooperation with a range of organisations and as the industry grew the AusIMM served as a forum where senior industry people could meet to discuss issues of mutual interest. One outcome was the establishment of the industry research group Australian Mineral Industries Research Association Ltd (AMIRA) in 1959.

The AusIMM undertook to organise the Fifth Empire Mining and Metallurgical Congress held in 1953. It was a major effort, involving sessions and tours in various locations in Australia and New Zealand plus the publication of seven volumes covering many aspects of mining, metallurgy and geology, with papers written by many members detailing the current state of the industry. Then, in 1965, the AusIMM organised the 8th Commonwealth Mining and Metallurgical Congress and once again produced several similar technical volumes.

Underground workers, circa 1960s.

These publications set the standard for what became the AusIMM’s prestigious Monograph Series. Several of these Monographs have continued the systematic documentation of the state of the industry from time to time. It is believed that the AusIMM is unique in publishing an ongoing series over such a long period, with new volumes written that provide up-to-date details of virtually all the significant deposits and operating mines, covering geology, mining and metallurgy. The papers and information are contributed voluntarily by members with the permission of their employers and then edited by the AusIMM. In 1996 the Spectrum Series was initiated to include volumes that covered a wide range of topics but were less rigorous in nature than the Monographs. Over a period of almost 70 years, six extensive volumes covering the then-current state of the geology of ore deposits in Australia have been published, while there have been four comparable works on the prevailing state of mining and metallurgy as well as specific volumes on New Zealand. To date, a total of 32 Monographs and 24 Spectrum Series volumes have been published.

Shortly after the 1953 Empire Congress, the Queen was petitioned and the Institute was granted a Charter of Incorporation in September 1955. Today a Royal Charter is a reasonably unusual distinction and for practical, regulatory purposes the Institute operates under the Companies Act. The principal documents governing the Institute and its members are the Charter, the By-Laws and the Code of Ethics. These are updated from time to time after appropriate consultation. When the Royal Charter was conferred, the name of the Institute changed subtly – the word ‘The’ with a capital T was added to the formal title, thus from 1955 onwards, the official abbreviated title is ‘The AusIMM’, although stylistically the name is more commonly rendered with a lowercase ‘t’. This has remained a source of much confusion!

Mineral exploration increased substantially as post-war recovery proceeded in the 1950s and 1960s. This led to the discovery of several new mineral provinces. AusIMM members were integral to these discoveries, as the need for trained professionals grew significantly. Geologists were needed to explore for new deposits and mining engineers, metallurgists and geologists were then needed to develop and operate the new mines and treatment plants. Exploration began for oil and gas in the 1950s and this ultimately led to the developments in Bass Strait and the North West Shelf. The 1960s saw the first developments in the huge iron ore province in the Pilbara, in north-west Western Australia. Also in the 1960s, a major new nickel province was discovered after significant nickel sulphides were found at Kambalda in Western Australia.

The increase in AusIMM membership numbers reflected the rapid expansion in the whole industry, rising from just over 1000 at the end of WWII to 2667 by the end of 1959. Although some AusIMM members had always been employed in various government positions and in education, there were a greater number of members in these roles too, in line with the increase in commercial activity.

The 1960s also saw another change. John Dew notes that the first female member, Florence Armstrong, was admitted in 1960, some 34 years after she graduated as a geologist. Few women members were elected in the 1960s, as I can personally attest. John Dew also noted that even in the early 1990s there were only about 330 female members, comprising some four per cent of membership. Of these the majority were students, with only 50 female members being qualified professionals. Today, the situation has improved, but female members are still in the minority. Female members totalled around 1000 by 2010, of which around one-quarter were students; and just over 1500 currently, of which around one-fifth are students. Although addressing gender equality within the industry has been a slow process, especially compared to other industries, steps to be more inclusive are being taken. Between 1995 and 2003 three attempts were made to set up a committee to investigate the subject but it was only on the third attempt that what is now known as WIMnet was established to become an agent of change.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, notwithstanding the ups and downs, the local resources industry continued to grow, reflecting economic conditions, the changing market and the vagaries of commodity prices. AusIMM members lived through the heady days of excellent employment opportunities and the downturns that often meant unemployment. Despite the fluctuations, membership continued to rise, so that by the AusIMM’s 75th Anniversary in 1968 there were nearly 4000 members and by 1970 the total had risen considerably to just over 5000. The number of branches had increased substantially to total 27 in many operating centres and in capital cities, with branches in New Zealand, New Guinea and Fiji in addition to Australia. Also, several Women’s Auxiliaries had been formed, principally for wives whose husbands were members. Such groups enabled women who had much in common to get together, assist with conferences, provide support for women whose husbands were often absent and also support those who were widowed.

While the Institute held an annual conference in different locations, it was in the 1970s that other conferences began to be arranged on specific topics. This practice has grown over the years so that now about ten conferences are held annually. These contribute significantly to the Institute’s financial position and are important for professional development, providing a platform for the exchange of knowledge and technical advances between members. Special Conference Committees are responsible for the technical aspects and program and are supported administratively by the AusIMM’s conference and publications departments. Short courses are sometimes offered in conjunction with conferences, and in addition to formal conferences, symposia are also arranged in various locations.

Concerned with some of the dubious reporting practices of the 1960s, particularly in relation to the nickel boom, the AusIMM joined with the Minerals Council of Australia to form the Joint Ore Reserves Committee (JORC) in 1971 (with the addition of the Australian Institute of Geoscientists  in 1992), in order to examine the issues regarding public reporting and ore reserve and resource classification. This resulted in the development of the JORC Code, which continues to be regularly updated. Subsequently, the AusIMM also introduced the VALMIN Code in 1995 to cover the technical assessment and valuation of mineral and petroleum assets and securities for independent expert reports. This Code has also undergone several updates. The JORC Code has become the template for several organisations in other countries that have introduced similar codes for public reporting by mining and exploration companies.

The First Oil Shock in 1973 initiated a focus on energy resources, with major coal fields opened up in Queensland and New South Wales and new uranium discoveries in the Northern Territory. Many AusIMM members switched employment from the metals to the coal sector. The late 1970s saw the discovery of the huge Olympic Dam copper/uranium/gold deposit in South Australia and this was followed in the early 1980s by a resurgence of the gold sector, due to new technology and the free float of the gold price. Many professionals in the industry who had experienced the nickel boom and bust and then the energy upsurge turned their talents to gold exploration and production.

In the early 1980s a review of the Institute was undertaken by Sir James Foots and a further review was undertaken by Jack Liebelt in 1990, leading to a number of changes. Meanwhile total membership numbers continued to rise slowly to 6238 by 1980 and to just over 8000 by 1990.

However, the October 1987 stock market crash had taken a severe toll and many AusIMM members found themselves once more searching for a job. Recovery over the next decade was slow, despite a boom in the gold sector, so conditions remained tough for many members. The advent of the dot.com boom in the late 1990s compounded the unemployment problem for many technically trained professionals, as capital was directed to the dot.com start-ups and little was available for mineral exploration or support for operating mining companies. The AusIMM went through difficult times too and was financially constrained, reflecting the straightened circumstances of many of its members.

The Institute had long recognised the importance of encouraging students who would subsequently join the minerals industry. The annual Student Essay prize dated from 1923 but the establishment of the Education Endowment Fund in 1989, supported by donations from mining companies, made it possible to offer substantial scholarships annually to eligible students. Currently, around ten or more substantial scholarships are granted each year, as well as a number of other awards and prizes.

By 1997, eligible members could obtain optional Chartered Practising status and this was converted to the optional category of Chartered Professional in 2000. It was introduced for members who wished to signify their commitment to maintaining competency and undertaking continued professional development, with accreditation in the various professional practice specialities being subject to ongoing review.

By this time, the Institute’s governing body was a Council, comprising some 25 to 30 Councillors elected by geographic area. Council meetings were held in Melbourne and all Councillors paid their own travel and expenses personally or were supported by their employer. However, it was considered that the time had come for a change and following a vote of members in 2000 the governance was changed substantially. In 2001 the Council was discontinued and a much smaller Board of Directors of some ten members was elected, not based on geographic boundaries. The branch structure and the role of branch chairs and office holders remained intact, as did the various other established committees. In time, a number of societies were also formed better to represent the interests of various technical specialties within the AusIMM. An annual Congress was also initiated, attended by a representative of each branch, committee and society, as well as AusIMM Board members and senior staff members.

By the 21st century the nature of the industry had changed considerably, as had the management and ownership structures of many of the mining companies. Where once a significant proportion of senior management was likely to be technically qualified locals, increasingly the larger companies were multinational, with a broader range of professionals in senior management positons who were not necessarily technically trained and who did not always reside locally. This had an impact on the AusIMM, including the representation on the AusIMM Council, as the close connection between such companies, their senior management and the AusIMM changed. This was also reflected in the composition of the new, much smaller
Board introduced in 2001.

Image: Shutterstock.com.

The arrival of personal computers, followed by the introduction and subsequent growth of the internet, enabled a new era of communications to open up, both for AusIMM members and staff. This has made an extraordinary difference to how the AusIMM operates and what services it is able to offer to members but notwithstanding, the printed AusIMM Bulletin (published in its first format in 1939) still remains a real favourite.

The ability to reach out and connect with members via the internet was vital in meeting a need that had become difficult for the Institute to deal with. As the practice of fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) employment was developed in the 1980s and continued to increase, more and more members began to work at sites on this basis. Thus, their access to a local branch and its activities was limited and there was little opportunity to provide alternative means of contact and information exchange for them, given the nature of their rosters. However, as communications technology continues to evolve, opportunities for information delivery and interconnectivity continue to expand for the benefit of members wherever they are located.

In its early years, the Institute had relied on members volunteering their time to attend to administrative tasks. Over time it employed a small number of staff as membership increased and this was supplemented by some assistance from mining companies. By the 1980s the staff totalled 12 but as membership increased it was necessary to employ more staff, with the number rising to 20 by 2000. Apart from the general business of the organisation, including overall management, finance, membership matters and so on, specialised departments arose to focus on specific areas such as conferences, publications and communications, policy and advocacy, and branch and committee support.

The early years of the 21st century have proved both exciting and challenging for the Institute, its members and staff. Membership rose significantly as employment of professionals in several sectors of the resources industry boomed, so that by 2010 there were some 10 400 members, including almost 1200 students and staff numbers had risen to 30. The number of students enrolled in minerals-related courses had escalated during the boom, so that more student chapters had been formed. While older members were familiar with the boom and bust nature of much of the industry, the boom and the ultimate decline that followed proved to be extraordinary. The impact of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 added to the challenge, while local issues such as the short-lived Mineral Resources Rent Tax introduced in 2012 caused much concern. The impact on members of such a huge increase in the need for technical professionals, followed by a slump and the resultant unemployment, was substantial. The Institute sought to advocate where possible on behalf of its members. Fortunately, for the first time, the Institute itself was in a position to offer some relief to members who had fallen on hard times, with reduced fees, publication and conference costs, plus some practical support from branches.

Today, membership stands at almost 13 000 members, of which just over 1000 are students, with a staff of 35, many of whom have professional qualifications. While the Institute and its membership remains primarily Australasian-based, it has always had an international reach which over the years has expanded, so that today there are members from diverse backgrounds spread around the globe.

Throughout its 125 years the AusIMM has played two important roles for its members. First, it has provided a forum for professional development through discussion and distribution of technical information – in person, by the written word and more recently by using a range of electronic means. Secondly, it has enabled people with a common interest to connect – for professional networking and for broader social interaction. One of AusIMM’s real strengths is that it has remained an umbrella organisation – its members benefit from a broader perspective, as it brings together people of different but complementary technical and professional skills and experience within the mining and minerals industry. Thus, the AusIMM remains uniquely positioned to serve its members in the future.

Feature image: AusIMM inaugural meeting, 1893.

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