[Go to Australian Academy of Science Home Page]
Bright Sparcs Logo
Australian Academy of Science
Biographical Memoirs of Deceased Fellows

Originally prepared for publication as part of Bright Sparcs by the Australian Science Archives Project.

John Percival Vissing Madsen 1879-1969

By Sir Frederick White

John Percival Vissing Madsen was born at Lochinvar, in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales on 24th March, 1879. He died in Sydney on Saturday, 4th October, 1969 at the age of 90. He was the eldest of the family of four sons and two daughters of Hans Frandsen Madsen and his wife Annie (nee Bush).

John Madsen's life-long interest in science and technology was evidently inherited from and inspired by his father. Hans Madsen, born in Denmark, migrated to Australia in 1864 and, while working as a miner, became one of the first pupils of the Ballarat School of Mines. He was educated as a surveyor and followed this profession in many centres in New South Wales as an employee of the Surveyor-General. He had a keen interest in astronomy; in 1886 he contributed a paper to the Journal of the Royal Society of New South Wales on the polishing and figuring of 18" glass specula by hand and experiments with flat surfaces.

John Madsen received his early education at Sydney High School and was Dux of the school before leaving to begin his studies at the University of Sydney. Here he read physics and mathematics and graduated B.Sc. in 1900 with first class honours in these subjects and the University Medal for mathematics. A year later he graduated B.E., again with first class honours and the University Medal. In his later life when he was a senior member of the University he strongly advocated and indeed initiated the practice, which became common, of students taking the double degree in science and engineering.

His success in his University studies and the wide range of his interests clearly equipped him for a career as a University teacher. The opportunity came to him in 1901 when he was appointed Lecturer in mathematics and physics at the University of Adelaide. He had already had some experience in teaching for, while still a student and presumably to earn some money, he had acted as Junior Demonstrator in engineering and in physics in the University of Sydney.

He was certainly fortunate in his first appointment. W.H. Bragg, after a brilliant University career in Cambridge had been appointed to the Chair of Physics in Adelaide in 1886. Madsen joined the staff in 1901 and continued his association with Bragg until he left to become the Lecturer in Electrical Engineering in his old University in Sydney in March 1909. His period in Adelaide was therefore spent in close association with Bragg before the latter left in 1908 to become the Cavendish Professor of Physics at the University of Leeds.

Madsen and Bragg became close personal and life-long friends; in this period together each made major contributions to the physics of radioactive substances. In later years when Madsen visited England he renewed this friendship and indeed stayed with Bragg in the Royal Institution.

W.H. Bragg began in Adelaide his studies of radioactivity and x-rays that started him on his distinguished life as a physicist. In 1912 Bragg published his book "Studies in Radioactivity" and recounts in his first chapter how his interest in these phenomena was stimulated by the task of preparing the Presidential Address to the Physics Section of what was then known as the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science. This he presented in Dunedin, New Zealand, in January 1904.

These were the earliest days of the growing knowledge of radioactivity, the nature of the radiations from radioactive substances, of x-rays, and of the electron. Bragg says he 'was encouraged to review the researches of Lenard on the passage of cathode rays through matter, the work of J.J. Thomson on the electron and the properties of the new radiations which had been investigated by Becqueral, the Curies, Rutherford and others'.

There was at that time considerable doubt as to whether the gamma rays from radioactive substances and x-rays were of the same nature as the alpha particle and the beta particle. Bragg's earliest publications in 1904 were concerned with the properties of alpha particles. The experimental work in Adelaide in which Bragg and Madsen collaborated was concerned with the nature and distinguishing features of these different radiations.

Even three weeks before he died Madsen's memory of this period with W.H. Bragg in Adelaide was quite clear and, while then in hospital, he recounted to me his remembrances of early incidents in this association. It must have been not long after Madsen joined the staff that Bragg brought to his notice some of the published papers of Ernest Rutherford, presumably those in which Rutherford had described his early work on radioactive substances.

Madsen told me that on arrival in Adelaide he was given a very small room (which he shared with the cleaner) opposite the Professor's study. Bragg came there one day and presented these publications and asked Madsen to read them. Bragg told Madsen that he had ideas as to how the experiments described might be improved and extended and he wondered if Rutherford would mind his doing so. Bragg and Madsen agreed that it would be proper procedure to write to Rutherford and this Bragg did. According to Madsen's story and, as might well be expected, he received a very encouraging reply.

About that time Sir George Stokes had put forward his ether-pulse theory to account for the properties of x-rays. Bragg had considerable doubts as to the validity of this idea and advanced his neutral-pair theory which accounted for, in his view, the indifference of the x-ray to electric and magnetic forces. The joint work of Bragg and Madsen was concerned with the elucidation of this problem.

When Bragg went to Leeds he began a regular correspondence with Madsen which is of intense interest to the history of science of that time. One part of this is worth a mention.

Madsen had already begun the experimental investigation of the scattering of beta particles by matter and this work was published in the Philosophical Magazine in 1909. It was about this period that Rutherford began his consideration of the structure of the atom and Bragg was evidently in a position to know of Rutherford's ideas as well as of Madsen's experimental work.

In a letter to Madsen from Leeds in March 1909, there is a passage which refers to this and to the steps that Bragg took to make Rutherford aware of the work in Adelaide. Bragg's letter contains the following passage:

How do you like Rutherford's new atom? The situation is rather funny now. Crowther and Barkla were just now arguing in the Phil. Mag. about the x-ray scattering and its relation to JJ.'s theory: and Rutherford brings forward a theory which cuts the ground from under the feet of all of them if it is true. Rutherford's theory touches your ,beta ray work very nearly and indeed the law of scattering of the beta particle is very much to be determined in order to test his theory. Knowing that you were working away at this and having your last letter explaining what you had got I thought it best to show it to Rutherford. I think if he went at it hard he would with all his opportunities get ahead of you. He is a very generous chap and always ready to give everyone all he can so I thought that if I told Rutherford exactly what you were doing and had done, he would take you in, so to speak. Your results agree with his theory very well and you will see in his paper that he has made special reference to what you have published.

In the Philosophical Magazine for May 1911 Rutherford published his famous paper on 'The Scattering of the alpha and beta particles by Matter and the Structure of the Atom'.

Rutherford's postulate that the atom consisted of a central nucleus surrounded by 'a sphere of electrification' of opposite sign led him to calculate the distribution with angle of the alpha and beta particles scattered by a single atomic encounter. The very accurate experiments of Geiger and Marsden completely confirmed this theory. As Rutherford pointed out the law of scattering should apply equally for the beta rays. Experiments by Crowther in England and by Madsen in Adelaide were relevant in this connection but in neither case did these scientists have the benefit of the theory to aid in the design of their experiments. Rutherford believed in the work of both to support his theory but called for further experimental tests.

The work of Bragg and Madsen in Adelaide was in the front line of experimental investigation of these phenomena at that time. In 1907 Madsen was awarded his D.Sc. by the University of Adelaide for the thesis entitled 'The Ionisation of Gases after their Removal from the Influence of the Ionising Agent'. His examiners, Professors T.R. Lyle and J.A. Pollock of Melbourne, deemed this thesis 'very meritorious' and 'well worthy of the D.Sc. degree'. The substance of this paper was published in the Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of South Australia in 1908.

It is characteristic of Madsen that in seeking the approval of the University for the subject of his thesis he said in writing 'I wish it to be clearly understood that I am indebted to Professor Bragg for the suggestion of the subject of the thesis and for many valuable suggestions during the course of the work'.

Madsen was destined not to continue his researches in radioactivity and on the electron. In the early part of the 20th century Adelaide was separated by a great gap from the active centres of research in England. Letters and publications took a long time to arrive and even Bragg's voluminous and friendly correspondence with Madsen was not an adequate bridge.

Thus, although Madsen was at that time on the threshhold of being one of the leading workers particularly as to the nature of beta rays, he abandoned these researches when he went to Sydney. This was perhaps inevitable and, looked at in retrospect and particularly from the point of view of his later contributions to science in Australia, not altogether to be regretted.

In Adelaide Madsen was already beginning to turn his attention to the teaching of engineering and this became his absorbing preoccupation when he took up his new post of Lecturer in the Department of Engineering in his old University of Sydney in March 1909.

The Engineering School had been established in 1881 with the appointment of W.H. Warren as Lecturer and later as the first Professor of Engineering in 1884. When Madsen returned the school was already of considerable size with some 90 to 100 under-graduates. In this rapidly developing department he obviously played a leading role in the progress of the teaching of electrical engineering as is clear from his promotion to Assistant Professor in 1912 and to full Professor in 1920. Madsen thereby became the first Professor of Electrical Engineering in any Australian University. Dr. D.M. Myers has contributed the following account of Madsen's resourcefullness in building up his new department.

In this capacity, Madsen refused to accept the low level of finance as an excuse for inactivity in research and he set about establishing in his department the research activities which were to develop in a spectacular manner for years to come. A facet of his character which endeared him to his colleagues was his determination to provide them with the facilities they needed in spite of formidable financial and other obstacles. Much of the sophisticated equipment developed in his department had its origins in 'Madsen's junk heap', a remarkable collection of scrap machinery and components which had been begged, borrowed or stolen from a variety of sources. If a stocktaking had ever been required, it would have been an auditor's nightmare as the only record was in the ample filing system of Madsen's mind. On many occasions he proceeded unerringly through the vaults of his department to find just the piece of equipment needed to fill an urgent need, and it is impossible to over-estimate the saving in time and labour resulting from his propensity for collecting.

A further contemporary picture of the Madsen of this period is given by the following extract from the Engineering Year Book of 1926:

It was not until the beginning of Third Year that we met Professor Madsen and his subject of Electrical Engineering, which is rather a pity, as his untiring energy was what really instilled into our minds the true idea of efficient work. He is one of the busiest men in the School, and consequently one of the hardest to find when you want him - always conferring with mechanics or contractors, inspecting St. Paul's Oval or at a meeting. Yet his lectures are more effective than any others we get, due probably to his clear and concise idea of the usual pitfalls for young students of electricity and the saving grace of first principles as opposed to details. A regular bogey-man at exam. times, he demands a very high standard from his 'studes'-and usually gets it. To him alone, we owe whatever slight conception we have of the importance of filthy lucre and 'coasts' in engineering undertakings.
Professor Madsen is chiefly noted for a quite distinctive gait, and for a small cardboard case, which ever and anon is brought forth from the depths of his coat pocket, only to disappear again in the twinkling of an eye.

Five years after his appointment to Sydney the great war of 1914-1918 broke out. Madsen was appointed as Chief Instructor and Officer Commanding the Engineer Officers Training School at Roseville, New South Wales. At the end of hostilities, the Secretary of the Department of Defence, in writing to thank the University for Madsen's services, said:

This gentleman's high technical and professional attainments coupled with the wholehearted energy which he brought to bear on this important work has enabled this department to send forward highly trained Engineer Officers to the front.

Sir Walter Bassett met Madsen for the first time when he was attached to this school; he has contributed this note of this experience.

Following preliminary training early in 1915 at the Engineers' Depot in the Domain, Melboume, I was fortunate to be posted for further training to Madsen's Officers' Training School, at that stage in Moore Park, Sydney.
Madsen made a splendid Commandant for such a School. He was well equipped as a teacher and made full use of his prowess. In addition, he was skilful in helping us by making us each in turn take a class for some small section of work, while he listened in and commented when necessary.
There was nothing of the professional 'military' man about him. He maintained a mixture of hard discipline during work periods, and at other times a smiling ease and warm friendliness.
Apart from school technical work he was a tiger for regular physical exercises. The principal daily exercise was a pre breakfast five mile run in Moore Park, a run which inevitably ended with the field widely spread out, but with Madsen himself, at 36, up near the leaders, and still smiling.
He naturally enough developed a well trained school, and one with a fine spirit.

It would be true to say that Madsen's greatest national service to Australia was made possible by his very active co-operation with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research after this body was founded by the Commonwealth Government in 1926. The history of the founding of CSIR has been comprehensively recorded elsewhere. The need for a national institution for scientific research had been widely discussed following Federation. The new Commonwealth first set up the Institute of Science and Industry, but later replaced this by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research with wider powers.

The Council met for the first time from the 22nd to the 25th January, 1926; prior to the second meeting, Madsen, by correspondence and discussion with the Executive Committee of the Council, had put forward two proposals and had been given power to make preliminary investigations of these proposals prior to reporting to the second meeting of the Council which occurred between 23rd and 25th November of that year.At that meeting and subsequently the Council discussed the programme of research to be undertaken and the minutes reveal a wide array of proposals largely concerned with the problems of the primary industries in Australia. However, Madsen as an engineer and physicist had other ideas.

On the 25th November, 1926 he attended a meeting of the Council, not then being a member of it, and proposed the founding of a Radio Research Board and later, at the same meeting, made proposals for the maintenance of the standards of weights and measures for the Commonwealth. These events mark the beginning of two major interests that Madsen pursued effectively in collaboration with CSIR and in which he maintained a very close personal interest throughout the remainder of his life.

Engineers throughout Australia were conscious, in an environment of growing industrial activity, of the need for properly maintained standards of weights and measures and their interest was stimulated by the powers given to the Commonwealth, under its new constitution, to legislate in this field.

All industrial, engineering and commercial activities, whether these be concerned with the buying and selling of goods or land or with engineering construction and even involving the simple transactions of the grocer and the butcher, depended vitally on proper and accurate measurements. Scientific investigations are frustrated if measurements made cannot be interpreted with accuracy throughout the scientific world.

This was of course generally understood. The National Physical Laboratory had been founded in the United Kingdom in 1900 while the Bureau of Standards in the United States of America was founded in 1901. The primary question in Australia was whether this country was also in need of a comparable institution to maintain the primary standards of mass, length, time and the multitude of others that are derived from these.

The history of the events that cleared the way for action to be taken for the maintenance of Australian standards of weights and measures is complex; the most significant events are as follows.

The first was that in the framing of the Science and Industry Research Act 1926, the Government had given power to CSIR to undertake 'the testing and standardization of scientific apparatus and instruments and the carrying out of scientific investigations connected with standardisation of apparatus, machinery, materials and instruments used in industry'.

Thus CSIR had to consider the actions that it should take to fulfil its obligation under this Act.

Secondly, it became clear to the Executive Committee that the State Governments, hitherto responsible for the supervision of legal measurements, wished some action to be taken. In September 1936 a conference of Commonwealth and State Ministers resolved that if the Commonwealth Government enacted legislation covering the establishment and maintenance of Commonwealth standards of weights and measures the States would co-operate fully in regard to the uniform adoption of such standards throughout Australia.

In 1938, some twelve years after Madsen's initial proposals to the Executive Committee, positive action was possible; with the concurrence of the Minister, approval was given for the establishment and staffing of the National Standards Laboratory. Madsen was asked by the Executive Committee of the CSIR to supervise the construction of the building and the initial allocation of work to the various sections of the scientific staff employed and to assist generally in the development of the whole project. He arranged for the appointment of heads of sections and organised for them specialist training abroad particularly at the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington in England.

The Executive Committee of CSIR had at that time the policy of establishing its laboratories, wherever possible, within the grounds of the Australian Universities. Madsen, through his University connections, obtained, on behalf of CSIR, the concurrence of the University of Sydney to build its new laboratory in the grounds of that University. This planning and action was overtaken by the outbreak of war in 1939. Indeed some of the senior officers sent overseas were at the National Physical Laboratory in England during the early part of the war.

The building was completed in 1939 and the National Standards Laboratory began active operations. But the stress of war required a rethinking of the immediate work for this institution. With the considerable growth in the Australian munitions manufacturing industry there was a call for a service to this industry particularly by supplying tools and gauges to control the dimensions and accuracy of the munitions output. As a result the National Standards Laboratory in collaboration with the Munitions Supply Laboratories in Melbourne quickly expanded existing facilities for providing this service. Particularly in the early stages of this endeavour Madsen, as the representative of the Executive Committee of CSIR, played an important role as a stimulator and a Coordinator.

When the war ended the staff were able to resume their rightful role as originally planned. Before many years had passed the National Standards Laboratory became the custodian of the legal standards of physical measurement for Australia and, with the passage of the National Standards Weights and Measures Act, and the setting up of collaborative arrangements with the State Weights and Measures Authorities, the original concept that Madsen had in presenting his ideas to the Executive Committee of CSIR in 1926 began to be realised.

Madsen's proposal to the CSIR in 1926 that a Radio Research Board be formed to encourage research in the Universities received the wholehearted support of the Council. Madsen's efforts in this direction were supported by the then Director of Posts and Telegraphs and Secretary of the Postmaster-General's Department, H.P. Brown. The funds needed were provided both by the CSIR andthe Post Office. This meant that the Board could get under way and by 1929 had already appointed its first investigators.

Once the Radio Research Board had money to support its research activities a steady and increasing stream of scientific publications began to appear, many of which were published in special bulletins of the CSIR entitled the 'Radio Research Board Reports'. Support was given initially to research activities in the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne. When this work first began, the original radio broadcasting system of Australia had not long come into existence and, as a result, there was considerable interest in the spacial distribution of the signal strength of the broadcast transmitters. One of the first papers published under the auspices of the Board was on the field intensity measurements around some of the broadcasting stations that then were in operation (1930).

In 1930 the investigation of the distribution of atmospherics and thunder storm activity began with these researches located mainly in Melbourne University.

Another theme was soon to become one of the principal interests of the scientists working under the Radio Research Board. Early in the 20th century, as a result of Marconi's successful transmission of radio waves across the Atlantic, the existence of ionized layers in the upper atmosphere was postulated by Heaviside and Kennelly. In 1925 Appleton and Barnett performed the now famous first experiment giving direct proof to the existence in the upper atmosphere of ionization layers capable of reflecting radio waves. This experiment initiated widespread interest in the use of radio methods for the investigation of the upper atmosphere and, to the scientists of the Radio Research Board, the opportunity of making similar investigations in the southern hemisphere had immediate appeal. The first measurements of the heights of the Heaviside layer over Australia were recorded in 1930. From then on there gradually developed comprehensive studies of the ionized layers over Australia and the effect of these layers on the nature of the down coming signals reflected from them. These studies were important for two reasons. They were of practical interest to those who had the responsibility for the development of communications by radio over long distances but they were, in themselves, of intense interest as providing a means for the measurement of the characteristics of the upper atmosphere. The level of ionization and its variations with time were determined, the pressure and temperature of the atmosphere at these levels found, and the atmospheric constituents ionized by the sun's radiation identified.

New techniques were devised for the continuous automatic observation of the changing conditions aloft so that by 1939 a considerable vol. of information of this nature had accumulated.

The work of the Radio Research Board prior to the outbreak of war in 1939 contributed considerably not only to the knowledge of radio propagation in a wide variety of conditions but also had added to the knowledge of the upper atmosphere which was also being gained in the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere. The Australian researches ranked equally with those overseas.

This, in itself, is a tribute to Madsen's imaginative approach to the possibilities presented by the Radio Research Board in the encouragement of this type of science for this country.

However, the presence of the Board had another important effect on the growth of Australian science. Although it was the practice after a time of the Board to employ some full time scientific leaders the Board devoted its funds mainly to the support of the research workers of the electrical engineering and physics departments of the Universities. It became possible for those students wishing to undertake post graduate studies to do so in the fields of interest to the Radio Research Board. Many scientists now in prominent positions in the Universities of Australia, in CSIRO, in the departments of Government such as that of Civil Aviation and in private industry, gained their initial experience as research scientists through the help given by this Board. Madsen, as Chairman and his associates through the financial aid continuing year by year given to the Universities at a time when research funds were otherwise very limited created lively schools of upper atmosphere geophysics and radio science. This was in fact Madsen's original objective and he fortunately lived to see the extraordinary influence it had on Australian physics.

In the University of Sydney it was the Department of Electrical Engineering that became the centre of the researches financed by the Board. Here the senior members of the Board's staff had their laboratories to house their equipment and the students supported by the Board. Madsen's personal influence was considerable for he not only had an intimate knowledge of the programme but exerted his skill to assist his colleagues. Although his senior colleagues were responsible for initiating and carrying out their own researches Madsen throughout continued his interest and afforded them his active assistance.

With the outbreak of war in 1939 the scene of necessity changed. Although many of those concerned with these researches were diverted to other work, the Board successfully developed its activities to be of value to the fighting services. Under war time conditions radio communications became of paramount significance and it was of vital interest to the fighting services to be able to foretell the conditions for successful radio communications particularly when this had to occur over areas of the globe occupied by the enemy.

The Radio Research Board created an Australian centre for the forecasting of radio communications conditions. This centre, based principally on Sydney University, collaborated with similar groups in the United States and England and throughout the war provided important data of this nature to the fighting services.

At the termination of hostilities the Board resumed its peace time role of supporting University physics and electrical engineering and this still continues.With the increasing finances made available to it the CSIRO, by the Postmaster-General's Department, the Overseas Telecommunications Commission and the Australian Broadcasting Control Board, it became possible to support a wide range of researches in many of the Universities of Australia. Today grants are given to the majority of the Australian Universities and the variety of research investigation has increased with a corresponding output of valuable scientific results.

Throughout the pre-war period, during the period of hostilities and for many years afterwards Madsen continued his role as Chairman of the Board and as an enthusiastic stimulator of University research throughout the Board's agency.

The importarice of Australian contributions to radio and upper atmosphere research were recognised when the International Union of Radio Science held its 10th General Assembly at Sydney University in 1952. Madsen was elected President of URSI for this meeting and this was certainly a compliment to him since it was the first time that an International Union had met in this country.

The secret development of radar in Great Britain and the vital part it played in the air defence of that country is one of the great stories of the last war. The full story of radar research and development in Australia and its use in the south west Pacific area of operations has not yet been published; when it is Madsen will figure as a principal leader in this effort.

The idea of using the reflection of radio waves from aircraft to detect their presence in the sky approaching Great Britain was an adaptation to this purpose of the techniques which had been so successfully used in upper atmosphere radio science. As a result of the experience of the scientists of the Radio Research Board there were many in this country capable of taking up these studies when the war-time need arose.

In February 1939 the United Kingdom Government invited Australia to share its secret knowledge of R.D.F. which became known later as radar. When this invitation arrived it was to Madsen that the Executive Committee of CSIR turned for advice and help. In consultation with the Government and the leaders of the fighting services, it was decided that CSIR should set up the Radiophysics Advisory Board to bring about a proper contact between the scientists and the services and to be responsible for recommending the principal decisions regarding research, development and production. Madsen was invited to be its first-chairman.

The need for a special secret radio laboratoryimmediately became evident and it was Madsen who proposed that this be built as an additional wing to the partially completed building of the National Standards Laboratory in the grounds of Sydney University. Indeed under the impact of the urgency of war this laboratory, which became known as the Division of Radiophysics of CSIR, was completed before its sister institution the National Standards Laboratory.

The scientists in this Laboratory played a conspicuous part throughout thewar in the development of the special radar systems to meet the needs of the fighting services in this theatre of operations. Through the Radiophysics Advisory Board, and to safeguard the secrecy of these activities, arrangements were made with the Postmaster-General's Department for the production of radar equipment for service use.

As the war progressed, although secrecy was still maintained, a widening circle of scientists, engineers and industrial firms were brought into this effort and as a result a considerable number and a wide variety of specialised equipment was designed and produced.

With the arrival of the US forces in Australia, and particularly when the Japanese campaign in-the Coral Sea began, attention was turned to the design of portable air warning equipment suitable for the very mobile operations that ultimately took the American and Australian forces from New Guinea to the north of the area and ultimately to Japan. Many sets of the light weight air warning equipment were made. They were manned principally by the personnel of the Royal Australian Air Force and played a conspicuous part in the northward island hopping advances under General MacArthur.

These were extremely strenuous days for Madsen since, as Chairman of the Radiophysics Board, particularly in the early phases of these operations, he had the direct responsibility to see to it that the ideas of the scientific staff were properly aligned to the needs of the fighting services and, moreover, that production arrangements to supply the services with equipment were adequate. Neither of these requirements were particularly easy.

He resigned as Chairman of the Radiophysics Advisory Board in 1942 when it became evident that it was the production of equipment rather than scientific research that was of paramount importance to the services.

It was Madsen who conceived the need for the closest possible liaison between Australia, Great Britain and the United States. He went overseas on several occasions to initiate a very comprehensive liaison arrangement that was to bring about the exchange of information essential to progress in war time science at a time when this was the only method of exchanging scientific and technical knowledge.

Madsen's enthusiasm for the part Australia could play in the scientific war effort commanded respect overseas. He renewed his past personal friendship with W.H. Bragg and met many of the leaders of the British radar effort. In particular, since he and Tizard were of such similar personalities, they became firm and close friends seeing much of one another in the Athenaeum in London. He was shown most of what was being done in Britain and arranged for intelligence of this great effort to be available to his colleagues in Australia.

Similarly, with the help of the Australian Minister, R.G. Casey in Washington, he established a close liaison between the U.S.A. and Australia. His anxiety about the situation in Singapore led him to initiate active support there from Australia. This was cut short by the Japanese invasion of that part of the world. By good fortune he left Honolulu only a few hours before the Japanese attack.

When the war ended Madsen's desire still further to support research in the Universities did not by any means abate. In 1944 he conceived the idea of forming another body to support research, this time principally in the field of electrical engineering. He sought and obtained the co-operation of the Electrical Supply Association of Australia, an Association representative of all the power generating authorities throughout the Commonwealth. This Association provided the necessary finance to support an Electrical Research Board which was founded and began work in 1944, Although of more recent origin than the Radio Research Board, the Electrical Research Board has been able greatly to stimulate research in many fields in a no. of Universities.

Madsen's success as a Professor of Electrical Engineering can be attributed mainly to his firm belief that progress in electrical engineering had its origin in physics, a view not always held by engineers at the time of his appointment. This is amply shown by his continuing interest in the physics of the upper atmosphere which he described in the University of Queensland's Macrossan lecture in 1935 and in the emphasis he placed on the need for the scientists of the National Standards Laboratory to devote a considerable proportion of their time to research.

He maintained a continuing interest in the life of scientific societies; he was a Fellow of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, and of the Institute of Physics (Australian Branch). He was President of the latter body in 1945 and Chairman of the Australian National Research Council in the same year. Madsen was elected a Fellow of the Austratian Academy of Science in 1954 shortly after the founding of that body. He regularly attended the congresses of ANZAAS.

In addition to all his other activities in association with CSIRO he served as a member of the Advisory Council from 1949 to 1955 and was a member of the N.S.W. State Committee.

Madsen retired from his Chair in the University of Sydney in 1949 at the age of 70; he had served much longer than usual to maintain his activities during the period of the war and for some years thereafter. He was Dean of Engineering in 1942, Chairman of the Professorial Board and a Fellow of the Senate of the University. When he retired after just on 50 years service to his University he was made a Professor Emeritus.

The award to Madsen by his own University of an honorary Doctor of Science degree gave him enormous satisfaction. Dr C. McDonald on this occasion made the following remarks:

The conferring of an honorary degree on a man of distinction is always a happy occasion, but when the recipient is an alumnus of the University which grants it, the honour falls on him with greater grace, for the University,though a loving mother, demands the most rigid standards of achievement from her own children.

He immediately joined the board of directors of an important company concerned in the manufacture of communications equipment, and he became very active in the company's interests, maintaining this connection until not many years before his death.

His efforts in the interests of science and of Australia were recognised by the award to him of a knighthood by His Majesty the King in 1941.

Madsen started his career in Adelaide by making distinguished personal contributions to the early studies of the structure of the atom and radioactivity. In other circumstances, if he had been living in England for example, he might well have continued this work and joined the ranks of the atomic physicists. To follow this career with distinction in Australia in 1909 was clearly almost impossible; the pace set by Rutherford and others was too fast to permit anyone living so far away as Australia to participate.

Whether or not Madsen made a deliberate decision to abandon this life of personal research cannot now be decided but for a man of his character it is not improbable that he saw in the University of Sydney an immediate opportunity of a different kind. At the University the electrical engineering department was there to be attended to and Madsen threw himself into this with enthusiasm. In Sydney University, as the first Professor of Electrical Engineering, he built up a distinguished department in that subject.

His energetic interest in scientific affairs was not satisfied by the University scene. By 1926 his abilities as a determined planner and administrator had matured. Many of his closest friends were involved with the new Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and through this body Madsen saw the opportunity to play his part in a wider national scene. He was the creator and mentor of Australia's National Standards Laboratory and its associated activities. His Radio Research Board brought University research in upper atmosphere geophysics and radio science to its present high level and laid the firm foundation for further advances particularly in radio astronomy. Through the Electrical Research Board he encouraged further research in the Universities.

Madsen's whole life was dedicated to science and engineering. Even his opponents who feared his determination, diplomatic skill and enormous energy never attributed any other motive to him than that of wanting to further the progress of science in the way that he felt it should go.

He served his country in the first world war in the training of army engineers and made a much wider contribution in the second war through his active chairmanship of the Radiophysics Advisory Board.

He was a keen tennis player and for many years he relaxed by beach fishing on the south coast of New South Wales. It were here that he took his young family and later went with close friends. He delighted to expound his theories of time and tide to account for good or bad catches. Beach fishing had in his view to be subject to scientific analysis.

At his home in Roseville he had an excellent workshop where, in his limited spare time, he practised the craft of his profession of engineering. Metal and wood working gave him joy for he admired the skills of these, the craft that supported more sophisticated engineering.

Despite his boundless energy and devotion to the cause of science, his home became a focal point for the widespread family of which he was a member. They, and many other close friends, regularly enjoyed the warmth of his hospitality, and he was never too busy to give advice and guidance to those who sought it, even on matters far from the realms of science. His loyalty to his friends and colleagues was perhaps the foremost of his many human attributes.

He attracted close personal allegiance from those who found him stimulating and encouraging. Their achievements he relished and admired and were of importance to him but he was not much concerned with those who were not of this group. His strength was that in all his endeavours he had clearly planned objectives which he followed with determination and skill.

In his last days when it was evident to him that his time had expired he assisted others in the important task of recording the history of those activities in which he and his colleagues had played a direct part over so many years. When he died few of those of his contemporaries remained who had passed with him through the seventy years of initial growth of scientific research in physics and engineering in this country. His passing certainly marked the end of an epoch in the history of Australian science.

This memoir was originally published in Records of the Australian Academy of Science, vol. 2, no. 1, Canberra, Australia, 1970.

Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 1995
Comments or corrections to: Bright Sparcs (bsparcs@asap.unimelb.edu.au)
© Australian Academy of Science
Prepared by: Victoria Young
Updated by: Elissa Tenkate
Date modified: 8 April 1998

[ Top of page | Bright Sparcs Home | Biographical Memoirs List | ASAPWeb ]