Engineering manufacturing in Melbourne has its origins in 1842, when Robert Langlands and Thomas Fulton established the Port Phillip Foundry to serve the district's fledgling pastoral and commercial industries. Early orders included wool-presses, tallow-boiling vats, steamship repairs, and the ubiquitous farriers' and wheelwrights' work. Materials were in short supply, but although the firm's first machine tool was a primitive foot-operated treadle lathe, after just three years it produced the first Melbourne-made steam engine for a flour mill at Heidelberg. By 1846, business had grown to the point where Fulton established his own foundry next door.
The discovery of gold in 1851 had a profound effect on Melbourne's fledgling engineering industry. Initially shortages of skilled workers and escalating costs made business difficult, but by 1854 the introduction of deep lead alluvial mining and quartz-mining was creating a demand for heavy mining machinery. The city's rapid growth also created a demand for new products, with ornamental cast-iron lace and columns being turned out amid the Chilian mills, Berdan pans, stamp batteries and pumps for the mines. In 1854, Langlands Foundry and another local firm built Australia's first steam locomotive for the Hobsons Bay railway, when engines ordered from Britain failed to arrive for the opening. The gold rushes attracted dozens of skilled metalworkers to the colony, many of whom established their own businesses over coming decades. Enoch Chambers opened Melbourne's third foundry at Prahran, in 1856, and within seven years was employing 120. By the early 1860s Melbourne boasted over a dozen engineering works, including the first specialist firms, like Robison Bros' Victoria Copper Works, Danks brass foundry and several agricultural implement-makers.
After 1870, the introduction of protective import duties and preferential public contracting saw two decades of strong sustained growth. Government orders became a major stimulus for new enterprises and technology. Langlands installed Australia's first steam riveting machine, after winning a contract to build bridge girders for the North Eastern Railway, while Fultons established a new foundry specially to make cast-iron pipes. Significantly, both firms extended onto low-lying ground south of the Yarra River, marking the beginnings of a major concentration of engineering in South Melbourne.
No firm epitomised the boom era more than the Austral Otis Elevator & Engineering Co. Ltd. Founded in 1880, with just £600 in capital, by the end of the decade it employed 300, producing pumping engines, mining machinery, hydraulic lifts and huge steam engines for the city's cable trams and first electric power stations.
The greatest contributor to public expenditure was the Victorian Railways, which in the peak year of 1889 let £300 000 worth of contracts to Melbourne firms for everything from dog spikes and platelayers' trolleys to goods wagons and bridge girders. Among them Robison Bros and Campbell & Sloss won a contract to build 25 locomotives for Melbourne suburban lines, breaking the virtual stranglehold that the Phoenix Foundry at Ballarat had held on Victorian locomotive contracts since 1871. In 1888, the Victorian Railways opened its own workshops at Newport, where 548 steam locomotives were built between 1893 and 1951.
The 1890s depression hit Melbourne's engineering industries particularly hard. Government spending vanished almost overnight, building and construction ceased and mining investment hit an all-time low, forcing many firms into insolvency. Export orders for machinery for the Kalgoorlie mines stimulated a gradual recovery from 1896, but it came too late for Melbourne's oldest foundry, which closed its doors in 1897. By 1900, engineering and related metal trades represented a quarter of Melbourne's manufacturing employment and metropolitan firms were making a leading contribution to Victoria's position as a net exporter of steam engines and general machinery.
Federation brought the promise of wider markets freed from the restrictions of intercolonial tariffs. Typical of a new generation of enterprises was the business founded by George Kelly and Edward Powell Lewis in 1899. Within five years it was employing 50 men and had absorbed the Atlas Iron Works where Lewis served his apprenticeship. By 1915 it was a nationally recognised manufacturer of engines, air compressors, centrifugal pumps and structural steelwork.
A.H. McDonald & Co. pioneered the manufacture of petrol engines, and later tractors, road rollers and diesel engines from its works in Hawthorn (and later Richmond). Nearby, R. Werner & Co. specialised in refrigeration plant for meatworks, dairy factories and orchard cool-stores, while George Weymouth produced some of the first Australian-built electric motors and centrifugal pumps.
As export markets became more important, larger regional firms began relocating to Melbourne to be closer to port facilities. In 1906, H.V. McKay moved his Sunshine Harvester Works from Ballarat to Braybrook Junction, where he built the largest agricultural implement works in the southern hemisphere, with over 2000 employees. Technical innovation, strong exports and a diverse product range sustained the company's growth while the community which developed around the works became the suburb of Sunshine. In 1911, Charles Ruwolt shifted his general engineering and dredge-building business from Wangaratta to Richmond.
Melbourne engineering firms made only a minor contribution to armaments during World War I, although shortages of overseas machinery created new import replacement opportunities. Thomas McPherson & Son began the local manufacture of machine tools in 1915, while the Sutton Tool and Gauge Co. were making milling cutters, broaches, dies and precision gauges by 1917.
After the war, the extension of Commonwealth import tariffs encouraged further import replacement. Entirely new products emerged, such as automotive components, welded steel pipes, bulk petroleum storage tanks, radio masts and electric power transmission towers. In 1921, Kelly & Lewis became the first major engineering firm to move away from the inner city, purchasing 50 ha at Springvale, adjacent to both the main Gippsland Railway and the new electricity transmission line from Yallourn.
In 1936, General Motors-Holden (GM-H) built Melbourne's first motor car assembly plant at Fishermans Bend. GM-H also joined forces with BHP and four other leading Australian companies to establish the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC), to build military aircraft for the Royal Australian Air Force at another factory nearby. The American-designed Wirraway trainer first flew on 27 March 1939, with 300 delivered by the time Japan entered the war in 1941. CAC went on to make 1436 military aircraft by 1949, including the locally designed Wackett trainers and Boomerang fighters. Next door the Government Aircraft Factory (GAF) opened in 1939, building British-designed Beaufort bombers and Beau-fighters. After the war, GAF designed and built the successful Nomad aircraft.
During World War II, the government-owned Footscray Ammunition Factory and Maribyrnong Ordnance Factory were greatly expanded, while annexes at the Newport Railway and Preston Tramway Workshops assembled aircraft components, artillery guns and landing craft. Private firms produced machine tools, motor vehicles, millions of artillery shells and hundreds of different aircraft parts. Defence work brought experience in making precision tooling, gauges and jigs and mass production as well as introducing new technologies such as aluminium and magnesium casting.
After the war, GM-H turned its experience in the mass production of aircraft engines towards the development of the Holden, the first entirely Australian-built mass-produced car. Launched in November 1948, the Holden was enthusiastically embraced by Australian motorists, with 200 000 produced by 1955, when GM-H opened a second assembly plant at Dandenong. Around the same time, the International Harvester Co. began manufacturing trucks at Dandenong and Ford established an assembly plant at Broadmeadows, where the first Australian Falcons were produced in 1960.
Continuing shortages of imported machinery and strong industrial growth created one of the best periods on record for Melbourne engineering firms during the postwar decades. Dozens of smaller firms found niche markets for everything from canning machinery to box-nailing machines, hand tools, domestic appliances and construction equipment.
In 1961, GAF led Australian engineering into the modern era, installing the first numerically controlled (NC) machine tool. By 1968, McPhersons were making NC tools in Melbourne, while in 1974 Australian NC Automation (ANCA) developed the first Australian-designed computer numerical controller. ANCA subsequently formed an alliance with the Melbourne-based machine tool makers, Zenford-Ziegler, producing 700 controllers over the next decade.
The early 1970s was a difficult period for Melbourne engineering. Escalating wages combined with 25% reductions in import tariffs, leaving many firms uncompetitive in export markets. Over the next two decades much rationalisation occurred, with established firms like Vickers Ruwolt, Jaques and Kelly & Lewis being absorbed by larger corporations, and closing their Melbourne works. By the end of the 20th century, the surviving firms were more internationally competitive and export-focused. The GM-H engine plant at Fishermans Bend was producing 300 000 engines a year, seven-eighths of which were destined for export, while ASTA, formed from the former GAF, was producing carbon-fibre components for Boeing aircraft.