Relief Map of Australia


The lack of adequate mapping of Australia, especially in the north, at the outbreak of World War Two was of great concern. On the advice of the professor of Geology at the University of Melbourne, Edwin Sherbon Hills, a member of the Conlon think-tank which provided advice to Prime Minister Curtin and General Sir Thomas Blamey, the Military decided to have constructed a relief model of the area. Once completed, data from the model was to be used to draw up the required maps.


A project, was commenced in 1942, to construct relief models of northern Australia at a horizontal scale of 1 inch to 8 miles (1: 500,000 approximately) and having a vertical scale of 1 inch to 1,000 feet. The project was funded by the Army but carried out under Hills’ supervision at the University of Melbourne. Hills was released by the university in 1943 and, holding the rank of captain in the Australian Military Forces, was attached to the North Australia Observer Unit by the Directorate of Research. For three months Hills travelled with the Royal Australian Air Force through central and northern Australia, acquiring geological data for the construction of a detailed relief model. The journals of explorers and early settlers provided additional information, and soon construction was underway. More detail on the construction of the model can be found in Joyce (2005).


Edwin Sherbon Hills (1906-1986)

Listen to Hills introduce himself at the start of a 1973 interview (75 seconds) by de Berg (1973).


Hills was so impressed by the possibilities of the relief model that he continued and extended the project after the war. Although the Army had by now lost interest in the project, Hills was determined to complete the model for the whole of Australia and obtained Commonwealth finance to do so from the then National Mapping Section, later the National Mapping Office. National Mapping also provided height data for the model. During its earliest surveys, atmospheric pressure was read from a battery of four Short & Mason 5" aneroid barometers and, in later seasons, altitudes from Kollsman aircraft type altimeters. Corrected and converted these data gave the height at each creek crossing, homestead, bore, airstrip and generally along a track at four mile intervals ie, every one inch on the map. Dave Hocking in his 1985 paper Star Tracking for Mapping, stated : There was no doubt about the interest at the time in these heights, maybe a case of anything is better than nothing, with the heights being used, apart from topographic mapping and ICAO aeronautical charting, for Professor E. Sherborn Hills' model of Australia, sub-artesian water table studies and river gradients.


The final model was prepared in some 26 sections and when finished in 1954 also included Papua New Guinea. The Australian section of the model was approximately 8 metres square with a 42.24 times vertical exaggeration. The model would have thus shown the Australian mainland’s highest peak, Mt Kosciuszko at some 2,200 metres, about 180 millimetres high. The Relief Model of Australia, as it became known, was displayed in 1985 in the basement of the then Commonwealth Archives building in Melbourne. The Commonwealth’s copy of the model is now housed by Museums Victoria at their Moreland store. The model's 26 panels are registered as item ST044000. Access to this material is administered by the Museum's Discovery Centre, and is assessed by the Collection Management staff on a case by case basis.


Edwin Sherbon Hills standing near the New South Wales coastal section his relief model of Australia.

(Photograph courtesy EST O'Driscoll after Twidale and Campbell, 2005)


Relief Model of Australia after Elliott (1993). OD is the location of Olympic Dam, South Australia.


South-east section of the Relief Model of Australia after McAndrew and Hudson (1973).


Hills’ work on the relief map led to his identification of lineaments which proved to be important both in understanding landscape and in mineral exploration. The term morphotectonics was invented by Hills to describe the study of structural geomorphology at the regional scale. After his death Hills’ ashes were scattered on the Cathedral Range, some 50 kilometres northeast of Melbourne, which he had studied years earlier for his MSc thesis. Archbold (2007) contains more biographical detail.


The South-east section of the Relief Model of Australia currently hanging in the University of Melbourne, School of Earth Sciences' Fritz Loewe Theatre (


Compiled by Paul Wise, 2016-2017



Thanks to Ex-Natmappers Laurie McLean and Frank Leahy and Melbourne University Professor EB Bernie Joyce for their assistance with this article.





Archbold, NW (2007), Hills, Edwin Sherbon (1906–1986), accessed at


de Berg, Hazel (1973), Edwin Sherbon Hills interviewed by Hazel de Berg, Hazel de Berg collection [National Library of Australia sound recording], accessed at :


Elliott, Catherine I (1993), A New Investigation of some Australian Continental Scale Gravity Lineaments, Geological Society of Malaysia Bulletin 33, November 1993, pp.357-368.


Hocking, David Roy (1985), Star Tracking for Mapping - An Account of Astrofix Surveys by the Division of National Mapping during 1948-52, Proceedings of the Institution of Surveyors Australia, 27th Survey Congress Alice Springs, Paper 3, pp.13-26.


Hill, Dorothy (1998), Edwin Sherbon Hills 1906-1986, accessed at :


Joyce, EB (2005), Professor E.S. Hills' Great Relief Model of Australia, Australian Map Circle Conference, Melbourne, February 2005, copy generously provided by author.


McAndrew, John and Marsden, Marcus Aldridge Hudson (1973), Regional Guide to Victorian Geology, Geology Department, University of Melbourne, Victoria.


Twidale, Charles Rowland and Campbell, Elizabeth Mary (2005), Australian Landforms : Understanding a Low, Flat, Arid and Old Landscape, Rosenberg Publishing Pty Ltd, NSW, accessed at :,&source=bl&ots=6X4CfkC0YE&sig=OMXrA2BXy7BNowyBTQoTTJnKQgc&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjX4cqIh83WAhWBTbwKHRyuAJ44ChDoAQglMAA#v=onepage&q=Australian%20Landforms%20%3A%20Understanding%20a%20Low%2C&f=false