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From Engineering Heritage New South Wales

Pre 1788: Aboriginal Technology

New South Wales has been occupied by Aboriginal people for at least 45,000 years. Survival in a harsh landscape required a sophisticated understanding of the land and use of appropriate technology. This technology included the use of fire, mining and fish traps. The introduction of European technology led to a loss of Aboriginal technology. This section is a start in understanding that technology.

Post 1788: History of NSW Engineering Development

The rapid acceleration of deliberate modification to the environment began in 1788 with European settlement. The high plateaux which surrounded the Sydney basin limited development. Major expansion occurred when railways commenced in the 1850s and in the early twentieth century the once impossible railway along the northern coast of NSW was built. Sydney Harbour was traversed with a bridge opened in 1932 and the latter half of the twentieth century saw transport development in roads and improvements in building technology, materials, and design. The iconic Sydney Opera house was completed in 1973.

Water Supply

Another great need of the new colony was a reliable water supply. As rainfall patterns in Australia do not create reliable streams conducting water from larger, distant, reliable sources is required. From a small local stream first used in Sydney to a 1880s scheme to derive water from the distant headwaters of the Nepean River, leading in 1960 to the construction of a massive dam at Warragamba and further enlargements in the 1970s to tap the adjacent Shoalhaven river catchment. In early 21st century Sydney saw significant declines in dam storage levels and in 2010 the NSW Government commissioned a Sydney Desalination Plant.

Power Supply

Steam engines were introduced into manufacturing in NSW in the early 1880s and after 1879 local transport in Sydney was provided by steam trams and in 1899 electric trams were substituted energised by localised coal-fired power stations. Introduction of high volage allowed power to be transmitted over state-significant distances. The power stations were relocated close to the coal fields. In the twenty first century these large thermal power stations are being replaced with wind and solar power derived from photo-voltaic cells, backed up by battery storage and pumped storage hydro-electric schemes.

Iron and Steel

Pioneering works to produce iron from its ores began at Mittagong in 1848. A much larger iron and steel works was built at Lithgow, close to supplies of coal iron ore and limestone, in 1875. Until this time all iron and steel had been imported into NSW. In 1915 a large steelworks was built by BHP at Newcastle and in 1927 the Lithgow facility was relocated to Port Kembla. Newcastle works were closed in 1999.


In the days of coastal shipping being the mainstay of transport, engineers were required to create usable ports. Artificial basins were built at exposed places such as Port Kembla, Kiama and Coffs Harbour by means of breakwaters. The port at Botany Bay was much modified by engineering using dredging, reclamation and seawalls. As the volumes of exports grew, the emphasis moved to a few large ports at Newcastle, Botany Bay and Port Kembla. At Newcastle extensive re-arrangement of the river and its banks by dredging and reclamation resulted in the creation of the largest port in the world for the export of coal.

Timeline of Key Events

A table of key engineering events by year and engineering theme.
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