Hugo K. Messerle

Hugo K. Messerle
Death date


Emeritus Professor Hugo K Messerle BEE, MEngSc, DSc (Melbourne) PhD (Sydney) joined The Sydney University in 1952, and became Head of the School of Electrical Engineering in 1972. He retired in 1991 as USYD Head of the School of Electrical Engineering and Director of the School's Electrical Engineering Foundation, which he founded.

Professional Associations

MAIEE 19??, SM-AIEE(IEEE) 1959, FIEEE 1983.


He established a major research program in Power Engineering, Plasma Technology and MHD Electrical Power Generation at the University of Sydney. In 1984 he was elected Chairman of the UNESCO International Liaison Group on MHD. He was active in engineering education and chaired the '2nd International Conference on Engineering Education' in Sydney in 1989. In 1989 he set up the International Liaison Group on Engineering Education and was its first Chairman. He has been awarded the Centenary Medal of IEEE (USA) 1984, and the 1994 Medal of the Australasian Association of Engineering Education.

His recent interest was in the area of Eco-Effectiveness and Sustainability. He initiated the establishment of the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering's Committee on Sustainable Development in 1979 and was the Chairman from 1992 to 1998.

Hugo Messerle was born in Palestine, his parents being members of the small religious group called “The Temple Society”. “The Temple Society”, led by Pastor Hoffmann, was a group that broke away from the State Evangelical Lutheran Church of Stuttgart in Germany, in the 1850’s. Other members of this society migrated to Russia and also to USA. Hugo’s father, a cabinet maker, was born in the Caucasus’s in Russia of this group. The Templers group in Palestine, (unconnected with the Knights Templars of the Crusades) maintained their own German language, schools, culture and traditions, but nevertheless had good relations with the surrounding Arab and Jewish population. After the first world war, Palestine became a Mandate of the British government. In 1941, after the outbreak of the second world war, the British became concerned, with the advance of Rommel in North Africa, that this large German group would undermine the security of Palestine for the British. The German settlements were then surrounded by armed guards and became internment camps. Furthermore over 600 Templers, together with other Germans, were deported from Palestine on the large British boat, the QE I. Hugo and his parents were put on this boat, not knowing where they were going. It was only after their departure that they found out that they were destined for Australia, where they were interned for 5 years at Tatura, a small town in northern Victoria.

The Templers were treated very well by the Australian guards, despite many in these internment camps expressing understandable sympathy for the German cause. Classes were organised for the children in the camps, and Hugo did these courses and a full examination for university matriculation. However, these courses were nearly all in German, and were designed for matriculation at German universities, facilitated through Berlin by the Red Cross. After the war was over and the treatment of the Jewish population within Germany became public knowledge, there were very strong anti-German feelings particularly from the Jewish population within Palestine. As a consequence the Templer community remaining within Palestine, became untenable as a coherent German group and there was little possibility of the Templers in Australia returning to Palestine. However, the new German government validated the matriculation exam that had been passed by Hugo and three others in the internment camp. Furthermore, after significant difficulties, the University of Melbourne also accepted these exams as matriculation for Melbourne university, and Hugo was able to enrol and study at the University of Melbourne. He graduated with first class honours in Electrical Engineering and also obtained a Masters in Engineering Science and a Doctor of Science degree from the University of Melbourne and a PhD degree from the University of Sydney.

It is remarkable that from such beginnings, as an internee confined for 5 years for the protection of Australian society, Hugo went on to become a leading Australian academic, a research scientist with an international reputation, and was head of the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Sydney for almost 20 Years. This career has three components, his many research publications, his influence as head of a university department, and his research contribution in the field of Magneto-hydrodynamic power generation.

Hugo’s first major publication was the book “Dynamic Circuit Theory”, published by Pergamon press in 1965. This 656 page book is not only about circuit theory, but has material on electric machines, induction motors, control theory and transformers. It is packed with mathematics. When I borrowed this book from the CSIRO library where I work, I noted that the borrower’s card was crammed full of names of people who borrowed the book. Many of the diagrams in this book were drawn in Indian ink by Renate, his wife. A second book of Hugo’s is “Energy Conversion Statics”, published in 1969. In a recent Google search, I found that Hugo has written a third book, published only after his retirement, on Hugo’s research specialty “Magneto-hydrodynamic Electrical Power Generation”. I was surprised that Hugo had not proudly shown a copy of this book to me on any of my visits to his home after his retirement. Hugo was not that type of person. Renate had to make quite a search of his office, just to find a copy of the book. Of course, Prof. Messerle has many papers published in scientific journals and International Conference Proceedings, for example on plasma interactions with electrodes, stability theory of MHD “Disk” generators and circuit interruption. He also wrote papers on more general subjects such as “Restructuring Tertiary Education in Australia”.

Hugo Messerle was Head of the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Sydney for almost 20 years. Prof. Messerle calmly shouldered the onerous and stressful duties of Head of Department such as allocating teaching duties among staff members, recommending particular staff for promotion, organising new courses within the department and representing the department on numerous university committees. Hugo was quiet, not autocratic, had an admirable emotional stability, and was an effective leader who had the consideration of his staff at heart. Hugo also made significant general contributions to university and public life: he was founder and chairman of the Committee on Sustainable Development of the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. He was the founding Director of the Electrical Engineering Foundation at the University of Sydney, Director of the Board of the Warren Centre, Chairman of the Computer Research Board and set up the International Liason Group on Engineering Education. He was also a member of the International Current Zero Club. He was awarded the 1994 Medal of the Australasian Association of Engineering, the Centenary Medal of the IEEE of USA in 1984 and also a Centenary Medal of Australia.

Finally we come to Hugo’s contributions to his research field of magneto hydrodynamic power generation. Australian electric power is largely generated from the burning of coal to make steam. The possibility of doubling the efficiency of generating electric power from coal, using magneto hydrodynamics, has been investigated by large research groups in USA, Europe, USSR and Japan for many years. Hugo championed this research and had his own research group in this area at the University of Sydney, doing both theoretical work and also experimental investigations at the old White Bay Power station. Hugo participated in conferences and meetings overseas in this field, and also invited many research leaders such as Prof Eustis from Stanford, USA, Prof Shelkov from Moscow, Russia, Prof. Shioda from Japan and Prof. Rosa from USA, to visit Australia. Prof. Messerle was elected Chairman of the UNESCO International Liaison Group for MHD Power Generation in 1984, an unusual honour for an Australian for a committee with membership from US, Europe, Russia and Japan. Hugo was awarded the IEEE centenary medal.

The concept of MHD power generation involves plasma moving at supersonic velocities in a magnetic field, with the possibility of doubling the efficiency of generating power. It now appears unlikely that this concept will be used, one reason being that “dirt”, present in all coal, condenses at the electrodes of the MHD duct as slag. Either the slag is conducting, in which case the electrodes are shorted out, or the slag is an insulator, in which case no current flows to the electrodes.

Several months ago, at an International Plasma Conference in Japan, the Plenary Lecturer described current plans for a manned space mission to Mars. The method of propulsion of this vehicle is to be through the use of plasmas moving at super-sonic velocities in a magnetic field from super conducting magnets. This technology involving high temperature plasmas, is essentially the same as MHD technology on which Prof Messerle spent much of his life. Thus instead of this technology being used, as was Hugo’s aim, to convert mechanical forces into electric power, it may be used the other way around, to convert electrical power to mechanical forces, to propel mankind to Mars!

Prof Messerle also made a remarkable contribution to the Uniting Church in Australia, where for almost 20 years he was chairman of the Continuing Education Committee of this church.

While reminiscing to a friend about his early life, Hugo said “I landed in Australia speaking only German, with a small suitcase in one hand and a violin in the other”. Now Hugo has left us. He leaves his wife, Renate, to whom he was married for 49 years, two daughters, Karin and Barbara, both of whom have PhD degrees and both of whom have husbands with PhD degrees, one being a Federation Fellow at ANU. Both daughters have two children. Hugo also leaves a legacy of almost 20 years as Head of Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Sydney, and many research papers including three textbooks. He was a man of integrity, scholarship, and dedicated zeal in the pursuit of his research goal of improved efficiency of electric power generation, through the use of magnetohydrodynamics.