The Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, as it is known today, was established in 1967 when the Department of Applied Mechanics merged with the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Before 1967, the two departments operated separately. Both departments were initially small. Applied Mechanics had three academic staff in 1964 – Ken Hunt (also Dean of the Faculty), John Crisp (Senior Lecturer) and Harold Nolle (Lecturer). Mechanical Engineering was similarly sized. It had a Head of Department, Ronald Barden, a Senior Lecturer, Cliff Stevenson and a Lecturer, Peter Banks.
Irene Murray worked as secretary for John Crisp and the Applied Mechanics department from 1966. She recalled that at the time, Applied Mechanics was a small department with only about six staff members, ‘it was like a little family’. Bill Melbourne joined the Department of Mechanical Engineering in 1967, teaching Fluid Mechanics among other subjects. Melbourne took up a Senior Lectureship made vacant by the departure of Peter Banks. When he joined, Bill remembers it as a department of ‘young academia’.
By 1967, however, it had become clear that the two departments – Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics – were going to have to merge. A former staff member recalls feelings of sadness amongst her colleagues in Applied Mechanics at the time of the amalgamation. However, after the amalgamation it remained a happy department. Bill Melbourne reflected that instead of having two separate departments, the newly formed Department of Mechanical Engineering incorporated solid and fluid mechanics as well as engineering design.
Robin Alfredson applied to join the department in 1970. His application was accepted and he started in 1971, specialising in noise control. Alfredson was part of a team that built an anechoic chamber for acoustics research. Alfredson came to Monash after having spent a year researching for NASA, and was keen to continue his research as well as his teaching. The Department of Mechanical Engineering, like the other departments within the Faculty recognised the importance of research and encouraged its staff. ‘I think Monash was evolving, or developing’, remarked Alfredson, ‘and it recognised the need to do research, so the teaching was part of the activity, but in order to be up to date you had to constantly be doing research’.
When Ron Barden left the department in 1973 to become a consultant, John Crisp took over as Head of the Department. By this stage there were 14 academic staff members working in the department, and approximately 100 undergraduate students.
One of the most significant legacies of Ron Barden’s time as Chair of the department was the establishment of what he called ‘authentic involvement’ of industry in the engineering course. Starting out as five or six meetings a year with a handful of academics, students and outside engineers, these meetings developed into final year projects for many of the students who got to work closely with industry professionals. Bill Melbourne continued to encourage this collaboration when he became Chair of the Department. Despite no longer hosting the evening sessions, university collaborations with industrial engineers and engineering firms still continued in 2000 at the time of Melbourne’s retirement.
The Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering has world-class facilities and laboratories, which continue to sustain Monash’s close connection with outside industries. The Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering has three wind tunnels at Monash. The biggest of these is the largest wind tunnel testing facility in the southern hemisphere. It produces the highest wind speeds and has the ability to test full-scale motor vehicles. Bill Melbourne recalls undertaking large volumes of contract research work for the United States Environmental Protection Authority in the early 1990s. Industry funding, which resulted from close links between the department and practising engineers, helped establish these facilities and keep them running.
Today the Wind Tunnel Facility is used in a broad range of aerodynamic testing, including vehicle development, airplane, truck, train, building, cycling and yachting. The facilities are available for staff, student and industry research.
The department also has a world-class wave tank. This 50 metre by 2.5 metre channel was opened in 1981. Designed to model the continental shelf on which Australia is situated, this tank is used by the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering as well as other departments at Monash in order to conduct studies on wave patterns, tides, currents and their effects on fixed structures.
In 2008 the department changed its name to the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, better reflecting its areas of research and expertise. In 2011 the department has a number of research centres working closely with staff, postgraduate students and industry, including: the Institute of Railway Technology, Fluids Laboratory for Aeronautical and Industrial Research, and the Robotics and Mechatronics Research Laboratory. The department has an international reputation for excellence in teaching and research. Current areas of research interest include: aerospace, turbulence and combustion; maintenance technology; and micro/nano solid and fluid mechanics. In 2011, the Department was awarded the top rating of 5 by the Australian Excellence in Research Assessment (ERA) exercise – only one of two mechanical engineering departments in the country to receive this rating. In 2011, current Head of the Department Mark Thompson reflected back on his time at Monash University commenting ‘I have seen mechanical engineering diversify its focus from larger applications such as buildings, automobiles, planes and turbines to include smaller-scale applications such as micromotors, UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and bio-engineering technology.’