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George Smith Duncan: tramway engineer

In 1852 George Smith Duncan was born to George and Elspeth Duncan of Dunedin, New Zealand, third son in a family of seven boys and four girls. His parents had emigrated from Scotland three years previously.

In the mid-1860s his father took his three eldest boys back to his home country and put them through school at Clifton, England. Duncan subsequently attended Edinburgh University where he studied engineering. On his return to Dunedin, Duncan completed his studies at Otago University, his practical training being carried out with the local firm of Messrs Thompson & Simpson. The young graduate subsequently was appointed provincial engineer of the District of Otago, and entered into private practice in 1876 as a partner in the firm of Reid & Duncan.

Cable cars in Collins Street Melbourne, circa 1910
Cable cars in Collins Street, Melbourne, circa 1910 (Russell Jones collection)

In 1879 he suggested that in light of the development of cable tramways in America, that Dunedin’s hilly topography would be ideally suited to this form of transport. As a result, he was granted a concession for seven years to build and operate a cable tramway. The Roslyn cable tramway opened in February 1881, the first cable tramway outside the United States of America.

Although short, it was unusual in that it was a single-track tramway, as most other cable tramways were double track. It proved a success, and was followed by a second line to Mornington, this time double track, which was extended two years later to Maryhill. However, Duncan’s association with the Dunedin tramways had ceased at this point, his younger brother Alfred taking over the reins. Cable tram lines continued to be built in Dunedin up to 1906, the last line not being closed until 1957.

Despite being engaged in other fields of engineering, Duncan was by now recognised as a world leader in the field of cable tramways. In 1883 he was invited by Francis Boardman Clapp to go to Melbourne as the consulting engineer to the MTOC for construction of the Melbourne tramway system. Subsequently he was appointed engineer to the MTT in May 1884, although he remained consulting engineer to the MTOC.

Clapp and Duncan made a quick trip to the USA to investigate tramway developments, and determined that cable tram technology was the way to go for Melbourne. Construction commenced on the first line in October 1884, from Flinders Street to Richmond. The lines were opened as follows:

  Richmond 11 November 1885
  North Fitzroy 2 October 1886
  Victoria Bridge 22 November 1886
  Clifton Hill 10 August 1887
  Nicholson Street 30 August 1887
  Brunswick 1 October 1887
  Johnston Street Bridge 21 December 1887
  Brighton Road 11 October 1888
  Prahran 26 October 1888
  North Carlton 9 February 1889
  Toorak 15 February 1889
  North Melbourne 3 March 1890
  West Melbourne 18 April 1890
  South Melbourne 17 June 1890
  Port Melbourne 20 June 1890
  Windsor-Esplanade 27 October 1891

This massive undertaking was completed in an amazingly short period when considered with infrastructure projects of comparable size today — the total size of the network was 44.16 miles of double track. The period also saw the construction of three horse tramways by the MTT from cable termini to Hawthorn and Kew, and from Royal Parade to the Zoological Gardens.

George Smith Duncan

George Smith Duncan.

Duncan was an innovator with the technology, taking special care in addressing reducing cable wear around curves, which was a major issue with regard to running costs. Where possible, this was done by diverting the cable away from the slot around a large sheave, requiring the gripman to throw the rope when rounding the curve. He saw no problem with using gravity or momentum running at selected points, although this was not permitted on other systems. It also lead to the occasional requirement for passengers to get out and push the tramcar around these curves if the tramcar had been forced to stop.

He also invented and patented the emergency slot-brake, which is used in San Francisco to this day, although it was never used in Melbourne.

Duncan was also a shareholder in the independent Clifton Hill to Northcote & Preston Tramway Company, and was supervisory engineer during its construction, although he did not hold any operating role. This line opened on 18 February 1890, but did not meet commercial success, actually being later abandoned for a period of three years, despite a proposal to extend the tramway from Clifton Hill to Elwood along Hoddle Street and Punt Road. It was then acquired by the Northcote City Council and run under a number of franchise agreements before being directly run by the Council. It was taken over by the M&MTB in 1920.

Duncan resumed private practice whilst the network was under construction, and resigned from his position with the MTT in March 1892, although he remained a consultant to both the MTT and MTOC. He shortly thereafter sailed for Europe and America, being honoured in London by being elected a Member of the Institute of Civil Engineers for his efforts on the Melbourne cable tramway system. On his return to Australia, he recommended to the Brisbane municipal authority against the construction of cable tramways, instead plumping for electric traction.

From 1894 he was active in the field of mining engineering, introducing into Victoria the cyanide process for extracting gold from ore and mine tailings. The firm of Duncan, Noyes & Co, of which he was the principal, was recognised as having enormous expertise in this field. His younger brother Alfred, his son and other members of the family also worked for the firm.

Later in life he became interested in extracting gold from seawater, and achieved this goal in 1912 from the waters of Port Phillip Bay, although at great expense. He persisted in pursuing in the goal of reducing the cost of this process until shortly before his death, but was unsuccessful in achieving this aim.

Duncan was of a modest and reserved manner, but well known by family and friends as having an affectionate and generous nature. True to the stereotype of engineers of Scots ancestry, he brought tremendous ability, focus and concentration to his work, which also showed in his passionate addiction to the Scottish national game of golf.

George Smith Duncan died in 1930. Nobody else had built so large a cable tramway system as an integrated network, and brought it to a peak of such efficiency. If he had published a book on the construction and operation of cable tramways, it would have been the standard reference work. However, by the time he had the time to do so, cable tramways were already obsolete, and he was ever a man who looked to the future.


Keating, John D. (1970) Mind the Curve! Melbourne University Press

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Last updated 3 January 2002.
Content copyright © Russell Jones 2001-3. Reproduced with permission.