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Evan Parry

Evan Parry

In the first volume of the New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology in 1919 there are nine papers on subjects related to electrical engineering: five of them by one man, a man who contributed a further five to Vol. 2 of the Journal. This was Evan Parry, the first Chief Electrical Engineer of the Public Works Department.  

Parry’s appointment from some 100 applicants was a master stroke; between 1911 and 1919 he laid the foundations for nationwide electricity supply, establishing standards for voltage and frequency which put New Zealand ahead of other countries, and designing a scheme for interconnected supply in the North Island having 1112 miles of main transmission line.

Electrical Engineering – a Science – based Discipline

Mechanical and Civil Engineering are disciplines which to a great degree grew out of the practical experience of their exponents. By contrast, electrical engineering is based on theoretical and experimental work done by scientists and, from the beginning, its practitioners had to have mathematics as a tool. 

Parry was undoubtedly well placed in this respect.  While serving a mechanical engineering apprenticeship with marine engineers in Carnarvon (in Wales), he studied mathematics, physics and chemistry at the University College in Bangor.  He won a Whitworth Scholarship and entered Glasgow University in 1888, progressing to an honours course in engineering, physics, and mathematics, and becoming Thomson Scholar.  While in Glasgow, he  acted as  assistant to the great thermodynamicist, Lord Kelvin.

He became an Associate Member of the Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1894 (the institute had been incorporated in 1883) after serving for as a year as an assistant engineer in the City of London Electric Light Company.

At this time in Britain, what was known as ‘the battle of the systems’ had just been won by those people who advocated low voltage direct current public supply from small local generating stations. A Board of Trade Enquiry in 1889 had ruled that contracts to provide public supply should be awarded on a parochial basis with the local supply companies making agreements with parish vestries.  This was in opposition to S.Z. de Ferranti who was ahead of his time in seeing that the future lay with high voltage distribution from large generating stations.

After a period as an electrical machinery designer with British Thomson Houston, Parry become chief assistant to a consulting engineer, Dr H.F. Parshall, and was engaged in the design and installation of electrical equipment for a number of electric railways and tramways, and in the establishment of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Power Companies.

Chief Electrical Engineer of the Public Works Department

He brought this experience to New Zealand on his appointment as Chief Electrical Engineer in 1911. His versatility as an engineer who explored problems from both practical and mathematical viewpoints is well illustrated by the papers he published in the New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology, and the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute.

Apart from the topics referred to elsewhere on this site, among others he tackled were the possibility of a small community obtaining power from its water main, the failure of high tension insulators, interference of power circuits with telephone circuits, surge chamber motion, surface friction of fluids, and floodwater control.

Parry had a remarkable ability, illustrated in many of his papers, to use mathematics to combine experimental results and theory to obtain practical working formulae. Even after he left New Zealand to become chief engineer of the English Electric Company, his papers continued in use as basic references for electricity supply engineers. 

His farewell in 1919 was addressed by Sidney Jenkinson. He returned to New Zealand in 1923 to celebrate the electrification of the rail line through the Otira Tunnel. His memory is honoured in New Zealand by an award for the best paper presented to the Institution of Engineers on an electrical engineering subject.

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography



Farewell to Evan Parry, Esq.

March 27th, 1919. Wellington. Kelburn Kiosk

(by Sidney Jenkinson).


Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

In expressing, on behalf of the Technological Section, our regrets that Mr. Parry has been induced to forsake us, I have two or three considerations forced upon me.

First, I would maintain, that while our guest took a Platonic interest in all the activities of the Society — he entered mind free and heart whole into the work of our Section alone. The benefit we derived therefrom is not alone displayed in his papers published in our Transactions — his sympathy and enthusiasm carried us over many an obstacle, to the Secretary he was even a tower of strength and refuge, bristling with ideas for the next session and teeming with suggestions for personally bringing our reluctant writers of papers up to the scratch.

Looking back I see one dominant personality, and looking forward I see a vacancy hard indeed to fill. One aspect of his assistance lay in the fact of his being a messenger from the outer wider world of Engineering and his personal knowledge of those masters of the profession whose name and fame are our common heritage was an inspiring link with the forces elsewhere, while the congratulations we give ourselves, based on the assurances we have that he found our Section and Society not wholly uninteresting and unworthy after the larger ones of London, are in themselves a factor that will make for the advancement of both.

Secondly, I would point out that the profession of Engineering as a whole is going to suffer from his removal. I am here on delicate ground, since it is unthinkable that any remark savouring of appreciation, or worse still, of compliment, could be made concerning a leader of the profession by a private in the ranks, even if that private does march in another army than that at whose head Mr. Parry rides so conspicuously. Nevertheless I would venture to point out that the added respect and dignity that accrues to our ranks through his far-flung auguries and successful work does not belong to the Electrical Branch alone but that we are all basking in the reflected glory. Let us hope that the lesson to be learnt from the fact that the outside world appraises his worth to such a degree that the bonds we thought cemented so surely are now being burst asunder and will not be altogether lost on New Zealand.

Thirdly, I would offer a few words of cheer to us all, who lament Mr. Parry’s departure. Six years ago, a Welshman, with an English veneer, was imported to set the newly started Electrical Department on its feet; to-day a New Zealander of Welsh extraction is being farewelled on his departure for a foreign country, where he will at least in his spare time, (and no one had so little spare time or did so much with it as Mr. Parry) act as an ambassador for New Zealand. An ambassador, Ladies and Gentlemen, has been defined as a person who lies abroad for the good of his country and when we read in the morning paper that in an interview in London or New York, Mr. Evan Parry expatiated eloquently on the marvels of New Zealand, on its omnipresent scenery, its serene and tranquil climate, its genial and happy inhabitants, free alike from the curse of drink and the blight of teetotalism, on its unequalled possibilities for cheap hydro-electric development, on its frequent, swift, and luxurious railway services, which only need electric traction to make them perfect and a handsome source of revenue to the Consolidated Fund, then we will turn to one another happily and say “Ah!, There is everybody’s old friend, Parry, exercising his ambassadorial functions once more in our behalf.”

So, indeed, the outlook is not all dark as you thought.

I have one more thing to say — Mr. Parry had two special objects of regard in the Technical field in New Zealand — one the establishment of a Technical Library here in Wellington and one the inauguration of the Technical Journal. The first is not yet with us, but the New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology does live, move and have it’s being in our midst. On behalf of the Honorary Editors of this periodical, I have to tender our special appreciation of his work to our departing colleague, and to sincerely thank him for his expressed determination not to let his absence entirely sever him from the work but to continue contributing as frequently as his duties will permit, to its pages.

To Mrs. Parry, the Technological Section offers its assurance that it forgives her for being the unconscious cause of her husband’s departure (because, indeed, we know that he would never leave us if he had only himself to think for), and we can’t say any thing more generous than that.

To both we offer our grateful thanks for their kind offices in the past and our sincere wishes for their future welfare and happiness in the Antipodes, where we hope they will pick up old cherished landmarks and re-visit old friends, all unchanged by the dreadful tempest of War that has raged during their absence. Thank goodness they will not be ashamed of the part their adopted country played therein!



William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) (1824 – 1907)

Lord Kelvin said:

*          “Do not imagine that mathematics is hard and crabbed, and repulsive to common sense. It is merely the etherialization of common sense.”
Quoted in S P Thompson, Life of Lord Kelvin (London 1943)

*          "When you can measure what you are speaking about and can express it in numbers, you know something about it." 

Lord Kelvin also said:

*   "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." 

*  " Large increases in cost with questionable increases in performance can be tolerated only in racehorses and women."

  *   In addition, in 1897 “Radio has no future”.






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