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Lionel Ball (1877–1955)

by John A. Fuerst

Lionel Ball, n.d.

Lionel Ball, n.d.

photo provided by John Fuerst

Lionel Clive Ball was born in Sydney on 12 January, 1877[1]. Following studies at a private school at Mount Victoria (‘The School’, Mount Victoria, NSW in the Blue Mountains) he attended the University of Sydney where, in 1899, he completed a course in Mining and Metallurgical Engineering with special interest in Geology.[2] He had the distinctions of being a Professor David prizeman, and a recipient for 1899 of the Deas-Thomson Geology Scholarship.[3] After spending some time at the Broken Hill Proprietary mine he joined the staff of the Geological Survey of Queensland as Assistant Government Geologist on 16 August, 1900[4], having been nominated by Professor Sir Edgeworth David of the University of Sydney.[5]

Ball’s appointment was at a time of widespread mining activity when new fields were being discovered, and he quickly became engaged in geological investigations on fields ranging from Cape York Peninsula to the New South Wales border.[6] He made up the then Chief Government Geologist Benjamin Dunstan’s ‘devoted band’ of field officers who produced major reports and detailed geological maps of significant Queensland mining fields productive in the first decade of the twentieth century.[7] Among that ‘band’, W. H. Bryan went on to become Professor of Geology and Mineralogy at the University of Queensland, and E. O. Marks remained a life-long friend after having left geology for medicine. During this time Ball became especially interested in the rare metal ores (e.g. tungsten-bearing wolfram) in North Queensland and became an authority on this type of deposit.[8] In 1908 he was selected to be in charge of the Queensland Mineral Court at the Franco-British exhibition in London.[9] His hundreds of published reports include significant contributions on the Cloncurry Mineral Field, Miclere Goldfield, iron ore, manganese and limestone deposits of central and southern Queensland, wolfram and molybdenite mining, the goldfields of Cape York peninsula, Mount Mulligan Coalfield and Queensland oil-shale deposits[10], as well as his extensive expert reports concerning the search for petroleum in Queensland, a major effort initially centred on the Roma area. 

In 1921, Ball was appointed Deputy Chief Government Geologist. During the next decade he became heavily involved in investigating Queensland’s potential for oil production and the search for oil to the point of becoming his main preoccupation. Appointed Chief Government Geologist in 1931,[11] he served in this position until 1946, and guided the Queensland Geological Survey through the difficult years of the Great Depression and World War II, connecting new technologies to mineral exploration geology activities. His policies as director of the Survey were of direct benefit to the situation of prospectors rendered jobless during the Great Depression, since he decentralized guidance for prospectors by stationing Survey officers at centres of prospecting activity, including establishment of district offices at Rockhampton and Charters Towers. 

In 1934 the Aerial, Geological and Geophysical Survey of North Australia was inaugurated with the aim of seeking new mineral resources in the parts of the Australian continent north of 22°S,  and Ball became a member of the executive committee as the Queensland representative. The Survey had been formed under both State and Federal auspices with the aim of searching for new ore deposits in Australia north of the 20th parallel. The AGGSNA pioneered the then advanced techniques of aerial photography, geophysics, and ‘regional mapping’, As L. Dudley Stamp stated in his review of the Survey in the prestigious Nature journal of 1940, this project was the first time that Commonwealth and State (Queensland and Western Australia) governments had pooled their resources for such a scientific investigation. 

In Queensland this initiative resulted in aerial photography of areas to be geologically mapped.[12] Ball took part in the field work, including an extensive flight over Northern Australia for photogrammetry and magnetic survey using the Southern Cross aircraft (a Fokker F.VIIb/3m trimotor monoplane) famously used by Charles Kingsford Smith for his trans-Pacific flight. The flight aimed at a pioneer reconnaissance to determine areas suitable for further investigation by the Survey.[13] Accompanying Ball was the Commonwealth geological Adviser Dr W. G. Woolnough, the Western Australian Government geologist F. G. Forman, and the Tasmanian Government Geologist P. B. Nye. The party planned to fly via Brisbane, Cracow, Mount Morgan, Charters Towers, Atherton, Georgetown, Chillagoe, Croydon, Normanton, Cloncurry, Mt Isa and Tennants Creek, The Granites and Hall’s Creek, followed by a flight to Western Australian sites such as the Pilbara, returning to Sydney via Northern territory sites such as Katherine, Darwin and the Boroloola area.[14]

The trip involved a journey of 12,000 miles,[15] and at least for Ball seems to have ended in Brisbane according to one newspaper report of his return.[16] It was claimed by a later Chief Geologist, A.K. Denmead, that Ball’s direction of and participation in the Survey was ‘perhaps his most important contribution to geology’, but this has to be taken in the context of his huge contributions to mining geology in Queensland from the first decade of the twentieth century onwards, including his contributions to the search for oil as well as rare metals.[17] His contributions to the Queensland Government Mining Journal alone numbered 198 articles. 

As part of his departmental duties, Ball acted as its long-term representative on the Artesian Water Supply Committee and the Great Barrier Reef Committee, and also advised on investigations of the foundations of the Stanley River Dam and the Cairncross Dock.[18] During World War II, he directed the geological supervision of the Queensland Mines Department’s wartime oil shale drilling campaign at The Narrows, Alpha and Duaringa, and advised personnel attached to the Allied forces about Queensland conditions.[19]

Ball was interested in a very wide range of geological and other phenomena going far beyond economic geology. For example, his reports on fossil footprints of probable Jurassic theropod dinosaurs in Ipswich coalmines are still fascinating and prescient regarding later research developments[20] in Queensland dinosaur studies.[21] Concerned with preserving sites of archaeological and cultural importance to the Indigenous people of Queensland, his notes, drawings and correspondence relating to bora and kippa rings have been preserved by the John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.[22] He was also a skilled photographer—his collection of photographs of Queensland landscapes and to some extent the people inhabiting those landscapes, as well as of unusual industrial buildings, such as wharves, in diverse Queensland and NSW locations and of mining-related and other geology and fossil-related scenes, forms a significant contribution to the collections of the John Oxley Library.[23] In 1924 for example he photographed the bones of the Jurassic dinosaur Rhoetosaurus brownie, the first dinosaur from Australia to be formally named, eroding out of the banks of a gully on a station north of Roma, south-western Queensland.[24]

Other resources: 
Lionel Clive Ball—Records (Field notebooks and a collection of geological and miscellaneous notes c1931-46), Geological Survey of Queensland (held in Survey's collection - available for reference).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John A. Fuerst, 'Ball, Lionel (1877–1955)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 June 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012