Ronaldson & Tippett Equipment Story

| December/January 1995

  • David Ronaldson
    David Ronaldson
  • First Austral

  • The first Austral.

  • H. John Tippett
    H. John Tippett
  • Prototype 1910.
    Prototype 1910.
  • First 18-30 Super Drive.
    First 18-30 Super Drive.
  • Lighting plant shop
    Lighting plant shop.
  • CF Diesels
    Type CF Diesels to W.A
  • Travelling Chaffcutter
    Travelling Chaffcutter. Dave Ronaldson in the saddle, 1907.
    Lyle H. Fall

  • David Ronaldson
  • First Austral
  • The first Austral.
  • H. John Tippett
  • Prototype 1910.
  • First 18-30 Super Drive.
  • Lighting plant shop
  • CF Diesels
  • Travelling Chaffcutter

Ballarat Engine and Machinery Preservation Society Sent to us by Greg McNiece MC Box 7, Eastern Mail Centre Victoria, Australia 3110

Ballarat Engine and Machinery Preservation Society member Neil Wright has been an avid collector and historian of Ronaldson Bros, and Tippett equipment and memorabilia for many years. The following writings compiled by Neil give a brief history of the development of their machines and equipment. Neil is indebted to the following sources of information used in these writings: The late E.J. Tippett, Peter Ronaldson, Hugh Sloane, Graeme R. Quick, Peter Willcock, Jim Morgan, Shulz Bros., Jim Smith and Bob Wright. This article is reprinted with permission from the RonaTip Rally, organized and promoted by the Ballarat Engine & Machinery Preservation Society Inc., in whose souvenir programme it originally appeared in 1994. Mr. Wright is working on a book about Ronaldson and Tippett.

The Early Years, 1903 - 1928

Undoubtedly, Ballarat's heavy industrial base owes its foundation to the post gold rush mining boom. The era of deep lead and quartz mining saw great demand for pumps, engines and specialized machinery and with this numerous foundries emerged to meet this need. Many were destined to rise and fall with the mining boom. The Victoria, Phoenix, Union and Soho were foundries destined to be long remembered as the pioneers of the developing heavy engineering sector. With time comes change and another chapter was about to unfold. The waning fortunes of the mining days were giving way to the increasing prosperity and subsequent expansion of the district's agricultural and pastoral development.

When the last remaining mines closed down in the early years of the 20th century, the incessant hammering of the quartz stampers had been replaced with a new sound, the exhaust pipe 'bark' of the internal combustion engine. Oil engines were fast coming into popularity with the man-on-the-land as were motor cars infringing on the realm of horses.

It was around this time1903 to be precise when a sequence of events would culminate in the establishment of what would become one of Ballarat's premier manufacturing industries that of the Austral works of David and Adam Ronaldson, shortly later to become RONALDSON BROS. & TIPPETT LIMITED.

Around the turn of the century, David Ronaldson commenced engineering studies at Ballarat School of Mines, later entering into an 'apprenticeship' with his uncle James Smith, possibly better known as the Jas. Smith Machine Works, still trading to this day. The Ronaldson Brothers were raised on the family farm at Smeaton, more than likely this rural background may have fostered Dave's interest in agricultural machinery production. The link with Jas. Smith's was to place him in a commanding position for the challenge soon to be faced by the young engineer. Dave's field of expertise extended into machine design, ironically this led to his 'falling out' with Smith's, it is claimed. A dispute developed over increased pay in consideration of his design capabilities, leading to his dismissal from the firm. This was actually to become the turning point of Dave's career.

Dave had entertained the idea of establishing his own business, however the lack of an established market identity with its subsequent lack of established clients were the preventative factors. Some time later in disclosing the idea to a sympathetic Creswick Road fodder merchant, he received the first order for the fledgling company of D. Ronaldson and Company, a 'leviathan' chaff cutting plant for John Stewart (located on the present day site of the Returned Servicemen's Bowling Club), also of the Newlyn chaff milling concern.

A small factory of 1200 square feet floor space was built in April, 1903 on Creswick Road near the intersection of Howitt Street, which was then largely open country. From the very beginnings the trademark 'AUSTRAL' was emblazoned on the factory wall, this gesture of Ronaldson patriotism would remain synonymous with the company for almost the next seventy years. Early production was primarily devoted to chaff cutter, agricultural machinery and horse works manufacture. Around this time David's older brother, Adam, joined the company the partnership of Ronaldson Brothers was formed. Adam was a mining engineer locally and overseas.

Ronaldson & Company machinery was designed along similar lines to that of Smith's products, some with superior improvement under the skillful hand of Dave Ronaldson. In some instances conventional practice was discarded, this being the use of agricultural drive chain replacing gear drive; possibly this may have been an economic consideration also. Another improvement also incorporated in their chaff cutters was the 'patent knife holder' which permitted easier and quicker changing of the knives. Some production efforts were aimed at securing a share of the mining machinery market, with the exception of small orders for plunger pumps, this was not realized at that stage.

In the month of June, 1904 the first engine was built. This was in response to increasing numbers of imported oil engines, which had convincingly assured the viability of locally built engines. The main thrust of their marketing strategy was to offer a much simpler engine than that of the imported class, which, in their opinion were much too complicated. (This was not an aspersion of the user's intelligence!) Early engines were of the vertical surface ignition (ignition by blow lamp heated hot 'bulb') with belt driven governor and A Frame open crankcase. Designs varied to the horizontal type and transportable types were offered along with saw bench coupled units and the much larger twin cylinder engines. Generally the power available was from 3.5 horsepower to their largest vertical engine producing nine horsepower. Evidence suggests that Dave's first engine design was based on the English Petter oil engine. The Austral horizontal engine is strikingly characteristic of its Petter counterpart, with the belt driven governor and gravity fed fuel system.

Developments in 1905 saw the introduction of John Tippett to the company. Originating from a family farming background at Scrub Hill near Dean, the Tippetts are reputed to have operated the first Fowler steam traction engine in the district used in their contract harvesting threshing. Jack had sought off season work in the Ronaldson factory shortly later becoming financially committed. April 1st, 1905 saw the evolution of Ronaldson Bros. &. Tippett Pty. Ltd. Prior to their partnership with Tippett, the Ronaldsons were agents for Aveling Porter steam traction engines and steam rollers, John Tippett therefore had not influenced the decision to market this product range.

The simpler type engines were produced in total of 300, although disappointingly hampered by combustion problems. The actual point of ignition was untimed and this led to numerous problems: 'gumming up' in the words of the late E.J. Tippett, being common. Undaunted by this setback, the Austral was earmarked for major redesign. The justification for this was based on recognition of the qualities of 'the more complex English engines,' the over simplification of the Austral could be improved with the inclusion of features found in the more successful engines. The clever adoption of a timing valve a feature of the Blackstone engine overcame the combustion problems: in fact revolutionizing the 'hot bulb' oil engine. Unfortunately this landed the company in litigation proceedings with the Blackstone patentee, the saving grace was in the fashion of which the timing valve had been adapted, horizontally as opposed to vertical in the Blackstone. Similarly the patents, it is claimed, did not exist outside of Europe.

From this point the Austral side shaft oil engine gained increasing popularity and an estimated six thousand were built between 1908 and 1928, the range of engines expanding to include benzene (petrol), crude oil (compression-ignition) engines and the Bosch injection vertical diesel engines.


The first tractor construction originated in 1910. The prototype five ton 'Austral oil tractor' was fundamentally a combination of the accepted (steam) traction vehicle albeit powered by their 20 horsepower single cylinder kerosene fueled engine, offering the convenience of the newly emerging internal combustion engine. Unfortunately this early attempt didn't go into production, possibly owing to its poor power to weight ratio.

Further tractor production was not considered until 1924, consistent with their popular belief that tractors were not economically justified for the man on the land, in a time when horses were still considered an excellent and economical source of farm field power.

Increasing numbers of imported tractors prompted the company to survey farmers in the Mallee Wheat belt as to their opinion of tractors. Overwhelming acceptance of tractors as established by the survey, hastened their move to full scale production. Another fact revealed by the survey was the multiple use of the tractor, in many cases doing belt work normally powered by the company's main stay the stationary engine.

The first 'tractor' went on the drawing board in July 1924 and was designed by Dave Ronaldson.

The 18-30 Super Drive was built along the lines of the American Illinois Super drive and in the early stages of production, was very high on imported component. During the production life of the Super Drive, the use of the imported Wisconsin 4-cylinder water cooled engine persisted until the last machine rolled off the assembly line. Ironically the same engine was used in another company sales line in the light Brockway truck.

Adapting what was primarily an American 'bred' tractor to Australian conditions proved more difficult than expected, early models experienced overheating in our harsh inland heat. A larger and a more distinctive radiator, was fitted to overcome this problem.

The 'Super Drive' Tractor was reputed as having the slowest multi-cylinder engine on the market, developing full rated power at a low one thousand revolutions per minute. An advanced feature of the tractor was its super drive transmission, claimed to be years ahead of the opposition. R&T engineers had suitably modified the engine to permit the operation on the cheaper heavy fuel oils and kerosene, by means of a patent manifold vaporizing arrangement.

An actual total of around 450 tractors were built between 1924 and 1938 when production was discontinued. The depression years saw many of their tractors repossessed, rebuilt, renumbered and resold, as due to the absence of finance companies, they were sold by the firm 'on terms'. This, it is claimed, almost ruined the company financially. The renumbering of such units may offer part explanation as to a production figure anomaly when sales were boosted by 200, or this may have been to enhance sales volume artificially.

A large unrecognized promotional event was launched in 1927 when a field demonstration was conducted to emphasize the tractor's stamina. For three grueling weeks continual day and night, under the light of a carbide lamp, the Super Drive worked virtually nonstop pulling a broad plough over the near entirety of the Ballarat Common. Only stopping to observe the Sabbath/change oil, this feat was equivalent to 1500 miles ploughing and to offer some equitable sizes, the distance ploughed was said to be 'equal to the stretch from the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Great Australian Bight.'

Increasing volumes of imported tractors were dominating the Australian market and in view of this, production was discontinued in late 1938. This lead R&T to fully concentrate on its stationary engine manufacturing, achieving the marque of the largest manufacturer of engines in the southern hemisphere in the 1940s.


Fundamentally, the firm of Ronald-son & Company was established to build agricultural machinery in June 1903, although the advent of engine production was just around the corner.

Dave Ronaldson's vast experience gained at Jas. Smith's permitted him to further improve on these designs. Particularly in chaff cutters were his 'patent knife holders' of great advantage, enabling quicker, simplified changing.

Long after the company had entered into engine manufacture and almost to the very end in the late '60s, agricultural/horticultural machinery was a vital component of their production efforts. From 1903 and as late as 1957, chaff cutters were produced, with an enviable reputation. To illustrate the range and diversity of their agricultural machinery would require volumes, but to give some indication of their product range, the following manifest could offer some depth; chaff cutters, corn crushers, drag saws, horse works, hay elevators, milking plants, pumps, pump jacks, rotary pumps, saw benches, shearing machines, spray plants, sheaf elevators, sheep jetting plants, treadmills, tussock grubbers, tobacco planters, threshers and wool presses.

The Scrub Hill property of the firm's co-partner, the Tippetts, is credited as being the proving ground for some of their machinery, this particularly applied to their tractors and ploughing tests carried out at Scrub Hill. Dave Ronaldson is reputed as having a farm in Invermay and it was here that R&T mining machinery was sometimes tested along with some of their early machinery.


To the reader not familiar with the State Electric grid development, electricity in many instances was not available in rural areas well into the '50s and '60s. Country dwellers and farming communities generally owed their livelihood to their isolation in the vast outback and scattered agricultural areas, i.e. Wimmera/Mallee.

For these folk, the rhythmic beat of the electric lighting plant was a common sound of an evening, many rural families placed their faith in these plants, for the comforts they provided. An advertising slogan used by Ronald-son & Tippett in reference to their plants' As dependable as the sunrise' would emphasize the reliance placed on these lighting plants and typifies their role in rural life.

From the early days of engine construction, R&T kerosene engines could be supplied with 'electric dynamo flywheels', this feature ensured steadier operation than would have otherwise resulted owing to the speed fluctuations of 'hit & miss' governing. Early plants were belt driven. With the introduction of their petrol engines in the 1920s direct coupling was prevalent. Company policy favored belt driven plants, as this permitted the engine to be unbelted and used for other purposes, further enhancing the engine's usefulness thus attracting increased sales. Traditionally these home Electric lighting plants were 32 volt and usually battery charging in varying outputs from 300 watt to 2100 watt for use in larger situations. With company progression, their plant range expanded, Diesel engines with automatic start were offered and 240 volt plants underwent construction on the R&T 'lighting plant' shop.

One point reinforcing the quality and reliability of the Ronaldson-Tippett plant was the lighthouse department's preferred use of R&T electric light plants and at other beacons around the coastline, the importance of this responsibility undoubtedly was their best testimonial.

Credit is given for the electrification of many rural towns to Ronaldson-Tippett engineers. Their larger horsepower horizontal Diesel engines were a licensed copy of the English 'Campbell' engines, providing towns such as Avoca, Beaufort and Gallan with a reliable electric power supply. The first large scale plant was installed at Ballan, officially unveiled September 20, 1927 by the Victorian Premier Mr. E.J. Hogan. The following report from the Ballans power station engineer presents an excellent account of the reliability of which directly reflects engineering quality for which these engines were held in high regard.

'Ballan, Victoria  May 1st, 1938.

'Dear Sirs,

This is to certify that the Ronaldson-Tippett Type M 33 HP horizontal Diesel Engine installed here on 20th September, 1927 has now done over FIFTY THOUSAND HOURS work and is still in good running condition.

It averages 13 hours running daily for every day of the year and drives a generator supplying current for 110 houses in the township of Ballan, as well as 32 street lights, Halls, Churches, etc.

The engine is sometimes on a very heavy load and runs all night without any attention. The average daily fuel consumption is 10 gallons and one and one-half pints of lubricating oil.

The engine has given every satisfaction in fulfilling every claim made for it. We have, without doubt, had a wonderful run and the results received speak volumes for the superior design and construction of Ronaldson-Tippett horizontal Diesel engines.

Yours faithfully,

(signed) J.F. Boyce, Engineer, Ballan Electric Supply Company'

The superiority of Ronaldson-Tippett Generating plants was amply confirmed by the multitude of orders from Australia's national services. An outstanding example is recorded in May, 1939. R&T electrical engineers had been awarded a major contract to supply fully self contained Diesel generating plants for overland directional aircraft navigation. These units were installed on a high mountain peak in the ranges near Yea (Victoria). Reliability was paramount as these plants had to operate unattended automatically for monthly intervals.

Consisting of two independently equipped plants, each powered by CV type 8 bhp single cylinder diesels, functioning to automatically start at sunset and to shut down at sunrise on an alternating basis each night. Fail safe, one plant would take up duty should its partner fail, within twenty seconds of failure. The obvious importance of this task demanded unquestionable reliability consistent with the highest standard of quality engineering.

For this aspect, Ronaldson & Tippett was the most respected name in generating plants.


Ronaldson-Tippett's Ballarat plant played a major role during World War II, along with other major manufacturers, Southern Cross and Perry Bros. (Adelaide) also contributing in the engine manufacture department.

R&T at that time were producing predominantly water cooled engines and this was to create problems for the military insistent in their demand for a rugged air cooled petrol engine for tropical conditions. For a while the type. NR engine was produced, this consisted of a radiator cooled N type petrol engine earmarked for use on American Kelvinator Army refrigeration plants. Inevitably the demand for an air cooled still existed. From this was born the type N A. R&T engineers took the proven N type and equipped it with an air cooled cylinder. Other than the two cycle type TY built in the late '20s, R&T had not built air cooled engines up to this stage.

The NA was subjected to arduous testing considered necessary to ensure its reliability on 'active service.' The engine was operated in the foundry core oven, testing its ability under extremes. From all reports the NA type earned an excellent reputation during its war service.

Engine manufacture was not the only role of R&T during the war. Shell lathes and gun mountings were also produced.

One notable aspect of the war years was development of the recently introduced multi-cylinder R&T type CK Diesels. Along with Southern Cross, R&T were pushed into marine engine production to the order of Major General Steele. The Ford Motor Company, Geelong, were commissioned to build landing craft. At first Ford Vee Eight petrol engines were used multiple tandem coupled. Rigorous testing on Corio Bay pushed these plants to severe limits. Under these conditions the V8 engines were straining to maintain pace. In some cases the V8s failed.

The recently introduced 4 cylinder inline 50 horse power diesel engine was the proposed alternative. Tandem coupled with Marine Gearbox and in two to three banks, the slower revving Diesels admirably met the challenge. Smaller twin and single cylinder CK marine plants were designed also for army use. The CK Tandem Marine plants were purchased in Ballarat and transported to Ford Motor Company in Geelong for installation into the landing barges, built by Ford.

A popular story claims that the CK diesels were remarkably quiet. Suitably muffled, their stealth made them an excellent craft for use behind enemy lines in the Pacific. Possibly this could be attributed to the R&T practice of building slower speed engines, producing rated power in the low RPM range.

The war effort by Ronaldson-Tippett engines won admiration from the many who served. More than likely, consistent with an advertising claim the men returning to work the land once more would have a first hand knowledge of the reliability, of which the Ronaldson-Tippett engines were renowned.


The war waged in the Pacific not only provided a tough testing ground for Ronaldson-Tippett equipment. The reputation of dependability, although hard earned, had placed the company name in high regard with the men of the armed forcesmen who would return to work the land in peace time once more.

The post war period was one of expansion in nearly all aspects of Ronaldson-Tippett manufacturing. Their multi-cylinder Diesel (CK), primarily developed and built for the war effort, went into full production, in later years in some instances tackling automotive applications in road rollers, along with power generation work.

1949 was the year of crowning achievement with engine number 50,000, a type 'N' petrol engine, rolling off the production line. This period also became the foundation of Ronaldson and Tippett's licensed manufacturing, when the company entered into the manufacture of Wisconsin air cooled petrol engines. Other licensing arrangements followed in the later years with Guldner (German) air cooled diesel engines and Okanagan Turbo Mist orchard spray units (Canadian). Marketing arrangements commenced to promote imported Maruyama high pressure spray units, complementing their already large range of spray units.

The war had created the demand for the air cooled petrol engine and R&T engineers were to capitalize on the success of the type 'NA' petrol engine, with the development of three new lighter high speed engines, some utilizing the weight reducing technology of aluminum alloy castings.

1951 must have been considered a very momentous year in the development of the company with the opening of their new 'state of the art' foundry and plant in Norman Street, Ballarat just a little further along Creswick Road from the birthplace of the Austral Works.

Much research and development had gone into the new foundry, considered to be the most advanced in Australia at that time. A major benefit of this, was the capacity to supply high grade castings to outside companies. One Ballarat company to gain from this was the Villiers Engine Manufacturing Company, who purchased engine cylinder block castings from the new R&T foundry.

In the twilight years of Ronaldson-Tippett manufacturing, the Wisconsin range of engines became their mainstay. The last type 'N' engine is said to have been built around 1965, although its place on the production line had already partly been taken by the Guldner air cooled diesel. These were supplied to the Sunbeam Corporation under a licensing agreement.

The demise of R&T may have been hastened by the increasing numbers of cheaper imported engines entering Australia. It has been pointed out, by Peter Ronaldson, that a well known United States manufacturer was 'dumping' their engines on the Australian market during the quiet season for their own local market, competition being practically impossible. This, along with a steady increase in Japanese engine sales, took its toll. The final blow came in the early 1970s when international events effectively terminated production of the Wisconsin engine outside the USA.

The Ronaldson and Tippett Company was then collapsed on the stock market and sold up seeing the emergence of the Merbank (Merchants Bank) Corporation. The spoils from this were reinvested in the Western Australian mining boom of that time.

Sadly, thus ended almost seventy years of manufacturing by this pioneering company. A sad day for Ballarat and Australia.


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