1918 19th Century On the Land Electricity Iron Sands to Steel Think Big

A high proportion
of the technologies
and resources
important to
national development
over the next
sixty years
were addressed
in the first
numbers of
the Journal

Leonard Cockayne

1918 – A Technological Commitment


The publication in 1918 of the New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology marked the beginning of a science related technological era, which ended with the"Think Big" projects.

With what seems remarkable prescience, a high proportion of the technologies and resources important to national development over the next 60 years were addressed in the first numbers of the Journal .

The topics covered included:

  • Pasture improvement as a means of increasing dairy and meat yields
  • A successful method for iron and steel manufacture from indigenous iron sands
  • The favourable economics of large-scale electrification with long-distance transmission (anticipating the Cook Strait cable)
  • Harnessing of geothermal steam for electricity
  • Electrification of the North Island Main Trunk line
  • Electrochemical processing based on cheap electricity generated in Fiordland
  • Use of alcohol as a fuel
  • Nitrogen fertiliser manufacture from cheap energy
  • Pinus radiata as the best tree for forestry; and
  • Research inadequacy in the freezing industry

If one asks which significant New Zealand technologies were not anticipated, the list is not long. It includes aerial topdressing and the important series of innovations (including the electric fence, milking shed design, and mechanisation of the cheese making process), which helped make the dairy industry a world leader. One major resource, natural gas, was as yet unknown and there was no thought of the jet boat, now an important part of our tourist economy.

Who was Interested?

In 1918, the Journal was intended to have a readership among a wider group than the technologists whose papers it published. Before 1918 there had been no systematic publication of scientific reports: some had appeared as pamphlets and some as bulletins, but the majority had appeared in the inaccessible and inconvenient form of parliamentary papers bound up in the Appendices to the Journal of the House of Representatives. (AJHR)

A serious journal, to be called the Dominion Journal of Science, had been mooted but, by the time publication was possible, “the need of a popular journal focusing the more favourable attitude to science created by the war” had “become manifest.” Since a paper shortage existed at the time, it was decided to include the popular articles with the more serious ones in the one publication and to call it the New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology. Volume 1 was published during 1918.

Who were the authors?

The authors were drawn from a new breed of technologists with formal training in science and engineering and a belief in systematic research and development. Three of them, all engineers with a strong mathematical grounding, J. E. L. Cull, S.H.]enkinson, and Evan Parry , are noteworthy as trailblazers who established technologists as central figures in New Zealand’s economic development. Cull and Jenkinson were New Zealand-born and educated at the Canterbury School of Engineering; Parry, a Welsh man, was educated in Wales and as Thompson fellow at Glasgow University. He was assistant to Lord Kelvin.

Role of the State

In view of the current philosophy that risk taking should be left to the private sector it is noteworthy how many of the past technological ventures were started or have been carried through with State support. It is also noteworthy that the ventures that have been economically most important to the country have involved a significant degree of modification of an imported technology or the actual development of the technology in New Zealand, rather than the direct adoption of what has been applied elsewhere.

A number of fascinating case histories result if each of the technologies mentioned is traced through to the ‘adoption’ stage. Here we mention the principal ideas of those early authors and provide a brief description of subsequent developments. Several of the examples illustrate the well-known lag between technological ideas being first mooted and their adoption.

Grasslands technology

Above any other there is one technology that has been essential to New Zealand’s economic prosperity. This is the growing of grass. Over the years a unique technology has been developed which has owed much to the contributions of New Zealand technologists. In ‘The importance of plant ecology with regard to agriculture’, Leonard Cockayne expressed the need for scientific input into grass growing (Cockayne 1918). He pronounced:

“That agriculture, if it is to improve, must take full advantage of the methods and discoveries of those branches of modern botany which affect it hardly needs asserting. The yield of meat or butterfat per acre is primarily a matter of the plant covering of the farm.”

Early contributions to the development of the grasslands technology were made by Cockayne’s son, Alfred, and by E.B. Levy. It was realised that strain and breeding were as important to pasture improvement as ecology. Improved grasses and clovers with perennial characteristics, which responded well to phosphate topdressing, were bred, and a system developed which had inbuilt nitrogen input. Coupled with the discovery of mineral deficiencies and aerial top dressing, this technology provided the basis for major increases in livestock numbers and hence in the principal source of New Zealand’s export income.

The Cook Strait cable

Engineers, and especially electrical engineers, outnumbered Cockayne, a biological scientist, in the pages of the New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology. In the first volume are nine papers on subjects related to electrical engineering: five of them by one man, a man who contributed a further five to Volume 2 of the journal.

‘This was Evan Parry, the first Chief Electrical Engineer of the Public Works Department. Parry’s appointment from some one hundred applicants was a masterstroke. Between 1911 and 1919 he laid the foundations for nationwide electricity supply. In one of his papers in the first volume of the Journal, ‘The economics of electric power distribution’ (Parry 1918a), he wrote of the “gain to the community as a result of concentrating the power plant, generating the electricity there-from and distributing it over a large area…” In other words, the reduction of power cost that could be achieved by economies of scale more than compensated for the costs of long-distance transmission.

This was the idea that eventually led, after much political wrangling, to the laying of the cable which transmits cheap power generated on the Waitaki River at Benmore across Cook Strait for distribution in the North Island.

Railway Electrification

ln another contribution, Parry (Parry 1918b) wrote:
“As soon as the limits of steam have been reached on some critical sections of the Main Trunk, say between Taumarunui and Taihape- that is to say when no more traffic can be conducted over it in spite of the utmost possible improvements in track and locomotives, strengthening bridges, increasing the number of passing places and so on- and the traffic continues to increase, then the railway management will be faced with the necessity of extensive re-grading and deviating, and later on of duplicating the line.

If at this juncture an adequate supply of electric power were available the same result would follow as in other cases- viz., the Railway Department would adopt the most economical solution of the problem and electrify the section or division in question.”

Parry’s logic was impeccable, but it was not until 62 years later that the Minister of Railways announced government approval for the electrification of the North Island Main Trunk over the difficult central section between Hamilton and Palmerston North.

Iron and Steel

It is well known that New Zealand Steel Limited suffered a period of frustration before it managed to achieve successful operation of its plant to manufacture steel from indigenous iron sands. The company’s frustrations, but not its eventual success, were shared by a large number of individuals and companies who tried to smelt the west coast titanomagnetite iron sands from 1842 on.

What is not so well known is that, in Volume 1 of the New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology, J.E.L. Cull, (Cull 1918), published a description of a successful smelting method he had evolved after several years’ experimentation. This method was essentially the same as that finally adopted for commercial operation by New Zealand Steel in August 1972.

After magnetically separating the iron sands Cull mixed them in a combustion chamber with powdered coal chosen because of its similar form to the iron sands and because of its cheapness and availability. Initially he found that the sponge iron formed re-oxidised very readily, because of its fineness, when transferred to a melting hearth. He therefore developed the idea of transferring the sponge iron to an electric arc furnace in the absence of air. He added lime as a flux, struck the arc, and successfully separated slag and metal.

With this process of magnetic concentration of the sands followed by reduction with coal and then electric smelting, Cull anticipated the process eventually used by New Zealand Steel at Glenbrook. He correctly observed that, although the sands could be totally smelted electrically, pre-reduction with coal led to a considerably reduced electrical energy consumption.

Cull’s work provided what had been largely lacking up to this stage in the ironsands saga: a systematic attack on the problem guided by an appreciation of the physical and chemical factors involved.

He patented his process in 1908 (NZ Patent 24190) under the title ‘Improved electrical process for the manufacture of iron, steel and other metals from their ores’. In this patent he incorporated two features which are part of the expanded New Zealand Steel works at Glenbrook: hot transfer of the pre-reduced ore to the electrical smelting furnace and the production of electricity for the smelting process using heat from the hot gases produced at the pre-reduction stage.

Geothermal Power

In November 1918, Volume 1 of the New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology carried an abstract by S.H. Jenkinson of an article from the journal, Engineering, describing the Lardarello natural steam power plant in Italy. Experiments had been carried out from 1897 using natural steam in engines- initially in piston engines and then in 1912 in a 330 horsepower (250 kilowatt) turbo generator. In 1916 a turbine power station of 10 000 horsepower (7.5 megawatts) was built. Steam for the generating plant had been obtained by sinking 16 inch (400 mm) bores 200-400 feet (60-120 metres) into the ground and lining them with iron tubes. The natural steam was not used directly but in heat exchangers because of the high concentration of non-condensable gases.

Jenkinson- who was the designer of the Ab locomotive- commented (Jenkinson 1918):

“These experiments are interesting to New Zealanders because of the much more extensive and active thermal regions of Rotorua. The question of adequate power may at once be granted, but the cost compared with waterpower or a large coal power plant at Huntly would need close examination. If natural steam superheated to 400-500 oF could be obtained around Rotorua, directly suitable for turbines, it would probably prove the cheapest source of power for the North Island; but experiments and investigation are needed.”

It was not until after the Second World War that serious geothermal power investigations began. As they progressed, it became evident to the geologists that at Wairakei, unlike Lardarello, there was no major structural trap for the steam which was produced from the bores in company with water. The differences between Wairakei and the Italian fields meant that the New Zealand technologists were on their own. They would have to do original work to cope with the conditions. Following a number of innovations, power from geothermal steam was first generated at Wairakei in November 1958; 40 years after the New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology drew attention to the possibility.

Other innovations have taken as long to come to fruition.

Electrochemical smelting and nitrogenous fertilizer manufacture

Evan Parry had already left New Zealand when in 1920 the journal published his account (Parry 1920) of comprehensive investigations carried out three years previously into making nitrogenous fertilizer from cheap New Zealand energy. A decision to build such a plant would be made 59 years later, though the energy source would not be electricity that had been the basis of Parry’s proposal.

The idea investigated in 1917 was to locate manufacturing plant in one of the West Coast Sounds, which as well as being a place where cheap electricity could be produced, would provide a deep water shipping facility. As seen by Parry, the factors affecting viability were much the same as in the study made in 1975. To provide a product competitive with imports, a plant would have to be large; but since the local market was small it would have to export. Parry concluded that, despite the natural advantages, the smallness of the local market, the distance from the principal markets, and the continued availability of Chile nitrate made the project doubtful.

He went on to speculate as to what sort of industry might be able to take advantage of the “natural facilities” which “exist to an unusual degree on the West Coast Sounds.” He considered: “the process which is most likely to take advantage of these opportunities is the electrometallurgical reduction of zinc ores and of complex ores generally.” He noted the abundance of ores in Australia and that the Amalgamated Zinc Company (an ancestor of Comalco) had contracted with the Tasmanian government for a power supply for zinc ore reduction. Since Australia did not have the natural advantages for power generation that New Zealand had in the Sounds, he thought a transfer of processing to New Zealand “extremely probable” and much more likely than nitrate manufacture.

As it turned out, the Australian ore to be smelted in New Zealand was bauxite. Electricity generated by discharging water from Lake Manapouri into Doubtful Sound first produced aluminium at Tiwai Point in April 1971. Manufacture of nitrogenous fertiliser had to wait until 1982 when the ammonia-urea plant at Kapuni, the first of the ‘Think Big’ projects based on cheap natural gas, began operation.


The overseas expert is a well-known figure on the New Zealand scene. Often he has provided advice that could be better gained from specialists within the country. Volume 1 of the Journal provides an example of this (Schlich 1918).

A Royal Commission on Forestry had been held in 1913. Sir William Schlich, FRS, reviewed its findings; he had never visited the country. The Royal Commission had been established because of concern that future growth of the forests would not keep up with expected demand. Sir William was struck by the fact that in the Commission’s recommendations the natural forests had practically been thrown overboard because of their slow growth; future supplies were to be provided by plantations of exotic trees.

Heading the list of exotics recommended for planting was Monterey pine (Pinus radiata ). This was, in Sir William’s view, a “very bold measure,” and he questioned whether the indigenous species really grew as slowly as was believed in New Zealand, whether exotic species could yield timber of sufficient quality and yet grow faster, and whether it was safe to introduce exotic species on a large scale without risking the development of disease which might in the end lead to disastrous results. He was also sceptical of the yields quoted for Monterey pine.

Not for the last time an overseas expert gave poor advice through his willingness to extrapolate from his own experience despite his lack of appreciation of the New Zealand situation.

Transport fuels

“There is undoubtedly a great future for alcohol as a source of power and heat.” So wrote James Scott MacLaurin, the Dominion Analyst (MacLaurin 1918). Like other technologists of his time, MacLaurin looked for inspiration to Germany. There, he pointed out, some 89 million gallons of alcohol had been produced in 1914 from materials such as potatoes, cereals and beets. He doubted, however, whether at that time alcohol could be produced in New Zealand at a price competitive with petrol.

W Donovan, MacLaurin’s successor as director of the Dominion Laboratory, considered the indigenous production of motor fuel (Donovan 1934). He noted that other countries without home-produced petroleum were producing ethanol from vegetable sources and requiring its addition to motor spirit. In Germany and Poland a 6% addition was compulsory and in Australia ‘Shellpol’ with 15% alcohol, was being marketed. He prophesied;

“… provided it becomes possible at any time to ferment milk sugar to ethyl alcohol, alcohol could be produced on a large scale from whey.”

Fulfillment of this prophecy came in 1980 when the New Zealand Dairy Cooperative’s factory at Reporoa began replacing imported industrial alcohol with ethanol produced from the fermentation of lactose in whey.

Donovan also described an experiment carried out in Birmingham in which town gas compressed in cylinders was substituted for petrol. Although town gas had proved a satisfactory fuel he thought methane, with its higher calorific value, would be preferable. Noting that methane was the chief constituent of natural gases he added: “Possibly by boring, larger supplies of gas might be obtained.”

Following the discovery of the off-shore Maui natural gas field in 1969, the 1980s saw major innovations in the transport fuels area with compressed methane (cng) widely in use in the North Island and with a major facility converting alcohol to gasoline in production.

The freezing industry

Despite its existence being due to a notable innovation, the freezing industry remained until comparatively recently a nineteenth century one. Only from the sixties did it begun to take on the characteristics of a modern industry relying on systematic research and development to improve its products and methods and marketing its output rather than selling it as a commodity.

Its backwardness was apparent in 1918. G. L. D. James (James 1918) made a plea then for the application of science and for innovation in the industry, being concerned that it should maintain its competitiveness after the war. He pointed out that designers of new works had great difficulty in introducing even minor improvements because of the conservatism of their employers who were not prepared to risk the losses which might occur if the innovation were unsuccessful. James argued for a government-supported, industry-wide research institution whose findings could he adopted throughout New Zealand and be of benefit to the country as a whole.

Such an institution- the Meat Industry Research Institute of New Zealand- was finally established in 1955. Its work, including that on problems originally cited by James, played a big part in bringing the meat industry into the twentieth century.


The nature of New Zealand’s technological development over the succeeding six decades was established by the end of the first World War. It was spelled out in a remarkable way in the first numbers of the New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology. Furthermore, with the adoption in the ‘Think Big’ programme of a number of the proposed innovations, the era came to an end. The fascinating question arises: what will be the economically important technologies in the new millennium, and can we foretell what they will be.


Cockayne, L. 1918: The importance of plant ecology with regard to agriculture. New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology 1: 70- 74.

Cull, J.E.L. 1918: Experiments on the smelting of New Zealand iron sand. New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology 1: 43-48,

Donovan, W. 1934: Production of motor fuels and lubricants in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology 15: 180 – 181.

James, G.L.D. 1918: The efficiency of the frozen meat industry. New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology 1: 341 – 345.

Jenkinson, S.H. 1918; New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology 1: 378-379.

MacLaurin, ].S. 1918: Industrial alcohol in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology 1: 180-181.

Parry, E. 1918a: The economics of electric power distribution. New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology 1: 49-55.

Parry, E. 1918b: Electrification of railways in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology 1: 323-328

Parry, E. 1920: Nitrogenous manures in New Zealand- the proposed utilisation of the West Coast Sounds for their manufacture. New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology 3: 129 – 138.

Schlich, Sir William 1918: Forestry in the Dominion of New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology 1: 201 -210.