Engineering at the University of Sydney initially formed part of the newly created Faculty of Science (1882). At the beginning of March 1883 the first classes in engineering were held in the Main Building. The classes were attended at the opening by three matriculated students and by seven non-matriculated students. The lecturer in engineering was Mr W.H. Warren. When the new engineering curriculum was introduced, the Senate reported that 'great inconvenience [had] been felt during the year, both by the lecturers and the students, through the deficiency in accommodation for lecturing purpose … the room occupied by the Lecturer in Engineering [was] much too small to contain the apparatus required for the illustration of his lectures…' A temporary building was constructed at the rear of the Main Building, and in 1885 classes moved to a fairly spacious building with a verandah facing Parramatta Road.

In 1896 Sir Peter Nicol Russell, ironfounder and benefactor, endowed the Department of Engineering with a gift of £50,000, requiring only that the department should thereafter be called 'The Peter Nicol Russell School of Engineering'. In 1904 he gave another £50,000, stipulating that the Government of New South Wales must hand to the University, within three years, a sum of £25,000 to provide an extension of the buildings of the School of Engineering or to erect new buildings. The Government agreed, and a building was erected from designs prepared by the Government Architect.

In 1909 the new building for the P.N. Russell School of Engineering was sufficiently complete for the classes to be conducted. It was formally opened by the Governor on 20 September 1909. During the course of the next decades extensions were made to the building until, with the expansion in student numbers in the 1950s and early 1960s, new facilities were constructed in the Darlington extension area across City Road. Since the mid-1970s all departments have been accommodated in this extension, although a wind tunnel in the Woolley Building is still in use by Aeronautical Engineering.

The Peter Nicol Russell Building features displays including one of the hardwood lintels from the Darling Harbour foundry, an elaborate Royal Coat of Arms which was cast in the foundry for an exhibition in London in 1851 and one of the many cast iron building columns made in the P.N. Russell & Co.'s foundry.

ir Peter Nicol Russell was born in Scotland on 4 July 1816. He attended Kirkcaldy Grammar School, then worked for his father, who owned the Phoenix Foundry and Engineering Works with his uncle. A severe financial depression in 1830 caused the family to migrate to Van Dieman's Land. They arrived in June 1832, and soon sold their 2000-acre land grant, which was too heavily treed to be cleared. Instead they founded a general engineering and foundry business. The family found business opportunities limited and wound up the business, leaving for Sydney in 1838. Peter and his brothers soon established Russell Bros in Queen's Square, with works on the banks of Tank Stream. In 1842 Peter took some of the family's capital and purchased his own foundry from James Blanche, which he renamed the Sydney Foundry and Engineering Works. He soon had contracts for all the ironwork required by the New South Wales government and The Sydney Municipal Council.

In 1855, after the demise of Russell Bros, Russell formed P.N. Russell & Co. In 1859 he became resident partner in London. The firm flourished as 'Engineers, Founders and Importers'. The Sydney premises were extended and contracts were received for railway bridges, rolling stock, steam dredges, quartz crushers and flour mills. Gunboats were manufactured for the New Zealand government for use in the Maori wars.

In 1859 Russell married Charlotte Lorimer and returned to Sydney with her. They returned to London the following year, where he continued to act as the firm's representative. The business closed after much industrial unrest in 1873-4, much to Russell's distress. He returned to Australia to wind up his affairs, and soon returned to England. In 1885 he sold his extensive property in Brisbane, and in 1886 visited Australia for the last time.

Knighted in June 1904, he died childless on 10 July 1905. He was survived by his wife.

The Peter Nicol Russell Memorial Award was established around 1919 in memory of Sir Peter Nicol Russell. The award is presented annually by the Institution of Engineers Australia to a Fellow of the Institution over 45 years of age who has made a significant contribution to science and/or the practice of engineering in Australia. This particular example of the award medal has not been inscribed.

University of Sydney Faculty of Engineering web site
Australian Dictionary of Biography; Bright Sparcs web site, University of Melbourne,
Australian Academy of Science website

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