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

A Belief in Technology

As technological advances took place in the decades following World War I and then following World War II there was an increasing use of energy to replace man’s labour, an increasing scale of enterprise to achieve economies, and the systemization of activities to allow the mass application of scientific discoveries.  The most notable examples of these trends can be found in the dairy industry.

Faith in Technology

Faith in the power of technology to improve living standards was a part of the 1935 Labour Party Manifesto which referred to "A country where the plenty of the machine age shall assure to all, the rich life in goods and leisure that the genius and natural resources of our country make possible."

A symbolic act illustrating this faith took place in February 1937.  Robert Semple, Minister of Works in the first Labour government was turning the first sod at the Christchurch City Airport.  After verbally attacking the old way of doing things, he mounted the driving seat of a large bulldozer and drove it straight over an old wheelbarrow and shovel crushing both completely. 

High Living Standards

With aerial top-dressing and expanded pastoral production, living standards in New Zealand in the late 50’s and early 60’s, measured on the basis of gross domestic product per capita, were among the highest in the world.  But not everybody was satisfied by a situation which involved reliance to such an overwhelming extent on commodities based on the grass crop.

Dr Sutch’s Vision

W B Sutch was permanent head of the Industries and Commerce Department over the period 1958-1965.  He promoted the idea of development of the economy not only through growth but also by industrialization towards maturity.  The concept of ‘maturity’ was based on the ideas of W Rostow (Stages of Economic Growth, Cambridge 1960 p10).

Rostow defined maturity as the stage in which an economy demonstrates the capacity to move beyond the original industries which powered its take-off and to absorb and to apply efficiently over a very wide range of its resources the most advanced fruits of the current modern technology. 

"This is the stage in which an economy demonstrates it has the technological and entrepreneurial skills to produce not everything but anything it chooses to produce.  It may lack (like contemporary Sweden or Switzerland for example) the raw materials or other supply conditions required to produce a given type of output economically; but its dependence is a matter of economic choice or political priority rather than a technological or institutional necessity."

A Colonial Economy

Sutch’s view was that New Zealand was a "colonial" or "dependant" rather than a mature economy.  (Sutch reference is: "Colony or Nation? Economic Crises in New Zealand from the 1860’s to the 1960’s" Addresses and Papers selected and edited by Michael Turnball ). 

Its skills had been directly principally to production of food and fibres in their crudest form and to the transport of these products to the ship’s side.

"The skills required to process our exports are in the main supplied by other countries to the benefit of their level of employment and their standard of living.  New Zealand’s economy can be placed in the same category as those of Sierra Leone, Ghana, Bolivia and Venezuela.  New Zealand, like these countries, depended on one or at most two products". 

Sutch was fond of drawing comparisons with other small countries, which, unlike New Zealand, exported substantial quantities of industrial goods.  In particular he cited Israel, Denmark, Norway, and Switzerland with populations of five millions or less as models to be emulated. (He noted that Denmark, like New Zealand, had been a beneficiary of the cream separator). 

He warned, "There is in New Zealand little awareness of the fact that the world has changed and is changing very rapidly; that nearly all other countries of the world are adjusting their economic systems, even their whole way of life to meet these changes.  In contrast we in New Zealand react only when we are forced to do so.  We are in fact in a condition of inertia". 

The Cotton Mill

The peculiar story of the attempt in 1960 to establish a cotton mill in New Zealand has a certain fascination.  It raises the question as to how much this attempt was due to the cotton industry, even more than iron manufacture or steam-power, being the prime mover in the British Industrial revolution.  The establishment of a cotton mill would have been as much a symbolic as a practical event. 

In retrospect it is not surprising that cotton did not flourish. In contrast to the other technologies discussed here, the industry had no characteristics that suggest it might take root.  The raw material would have been imported; the technology imported; there was no existing industry to which it was complementary or which gave rise to special skills for cotton processing; climate was irrelevant.

The story of the ill-fated cotton mill is essentially a political and economic rather than a technical one and has been told by Austin Mitchell in his book "Politics and People in New Zealand".  

It started because the country, with a Labour administration and Dr W B Sutch as permanent head of the Department of Industries and Commerce, was making a conscious attempt to industrialise.  It ended as a result of substantial pressure group action, a change from a Labour to a National government, and a realisation that the mill would not produce competitive products, this latter factor being at least in part due to a lack of economies of scale.  It left behind the shell of a factory in Nelson, which was later used as a car-assembly plant.

Steel & Aluminium

Apart from the cotton mill, the 1957-60 Labour administration initiated two other significant industrial projects, both of which suffered considerable vicissitudes before finally achieving successful operation.  These were aluminium smelting at Bluff, based on cheap power from Lake Manapouri, and the New Zealand Steel venture.

New Zealand Steel had problems with its technology.  The Aluminium smelter came up against a public acceptance barrier.

Environmental Stirrings

No sooner had an agreement been signed with Comalco in 1960 giving it the right to raise the level of both Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau than it was the subject of a petition to Parliament sponsored by the Forest and Bird Protection Society. This petition was only the opening shot in a battle that went on for a decade and a half.  Construction of the power station was carried out by the Government and it was commissioned in 1969. The Tiwai Point smelter produced its first aluminium in April 1971 but it was not until 1975 that both political parties agreed not to operate the two Lakes outside their natural limits and not until December 1979 that the Government was actually relieved of its obligation to raise the level of Lake Manapouri.

The Manapouri issue was an early manifestation of the increase in concern for the "environment" that came in New Zealand and elsewhere in the world with the prosperity of the sixties.  This concern was multi-faceted; it related to the destruction of forests, the cleanliness of air and water, and to the over-exploitation of finite resources as well as to the growth of technological society and the lifestyle this was seen to impose.

At an environmental conference held in 1970, New Zealand’s first Ombudsman, Sir Guy Powles, gave a paper expressing ideas which led to his being sought as patron by two groups established later in the decade with aspirations to hold the government and bureaucrats to account on environmental matters.

The ideas propounded by Sir Guy that gained so much sympathy with the individuals who formed the Environmental Defence Society and the Coalition for Open Government were that the complexity of bureaucratic structures provided little chance for individual citizens to influence decision making affecting the environment, and that little opportunity existed for public bodies charged with protection of the environment to be called to account through the courts. In 1972 a political group, the Values Party, emerged with a philosophy which placed emphasis on small enterprises, with people participating directly in the decisions that affect their lives. 

Central Government Regulation

Like La Trobe in 1918 the party recognised that centralised control was a requirement for a technological society.  In its submission to the 1977 Royal Commission on Nuclear Power, the party said,"… 

as we move towards a high energy society which depends more and more on its technological base to keep it ticking, society in general must become more regulated by Central Government.  The technology-based society requires greater co-ordination of human capital, and energy resources and the only feasible co-coordinator is powerful central government.  A commitment to nuclear power is effectively if not deliberately a step towards this kind of society.

The Values Party believes that is not the kind of society New Zealanders would freely choose"..

The 1970’s also saw the establishment of the Commission for the Environment (1973) with the requirement for environmental impact reporting on new projects.


Fascination with Technology

A strong force towards the progress of technology is the fascination of technologists with their own ventures.  Dr Erich Geiringer noted this in his submission to the Nuclear Power Royal Commission, saying,

"Interestingly, but not strangely, the prospect of an international technocracy which will tell not only individual citizens but even their Governments how, when and where to boil up for tea, is the very feature which attracts many of the experts in this field, to the vision of a nuclear society.  

There is a fascination with increasing complexity and technical finesse which is natural and proper in a technologist."

he added,

"Even as a layman, a few weeks of forced pre-occupation with nuclear technology has made me feel a fascination with such a multi-disciplinary, carefully dovetailed, critically poised, international technological venture. How much stronger the pull must be for those in the trade. "

Control of Technology

This brings up the question, particularly topical today in relation to biotechnology: how should society control technology, bearing in mind the link between technological innovation and economic growth?

While the technologist himself will in many respects have the best understanding of his creation, he is disposed to overlook its imperfections, such as adverse environmental and social effects and to promote its development.

In New Zealand, electricity planning has been an area where decision-making by technologists has been severely questioned, and one of the most trenchant critics has been economist, Professor Robin Court.  He has argued that among other things overestimates of electricity demand have resulted because of the natural empire-building instincts of engineers who have sought increased responsibility and prestige from the building of further power stations.

Until 1980, electricity planning was largely independent of the planning of other energy forms and was carried out by two committees.  One, called the Committee to Review Power Requirements, produced a schedule of expected future electricity demands and the other, the Planning Committee on Electric Power Developments, made recommendations on a programme of power station construction to meet the projected demands. 

Both committees were serviced by the New Zealand Electricity Department, which also in each case provided the chairman.  The electricity supply authorities were represented on the forecasting committee and the Ministry of Works on the power stations planning committee. Together with the Electricity Department representatives the Ministry of Works had a majority over other interests such as the Treasury.  

Estimates of demand made in the early 1970’s were consistently greater than the actual electricity consumption later in the decade, leading to a over- expenditure on power stations construction and extensive over capacity in the electricity supply system. 

As this became appreciated by environmental groups they began to query the forecasting procedures and the fact that the assumptions and the methods by which the forecasts were being obtained were not made public.  Professor Court was one of those doing this questioning.

Self-fulfilling Electricity Demand Projections

In his attacks on the planning procedures (ref) he argued that the Electricity Department was unable to make rational projections of future electrical demands because of its role as both a policy formulator and policy implementer.  He claimed, with some justification considering subsequent events, that the demand "forecasts" were self-fulfilling; that if demand was not as predicted, ways would be found of selling electricity cheaply to increase demand.

The provision of electricity supply has considerable economic importance; it can divert capital and energy from other areas, which might be more productive.  It can also have environmental implications and speed the depletion of non-renewable resources.  It is only necessary to cite the battles over the raising of Lake Manapouri and the damming of the Clutha River to indicate the nature of the former and the fact that feeding the Huntly Power Station will make substantial inroads into the country’s major sub-bituminous coalfield to point to the resource depletion problem. 

Court argued that the planning should be carried out by a much more broadly based group with greater economic strength and environmental representation, and also that full information should be available publicly on the basis of the decision making.

The Nucleus of ThinkBig

These overestimates of demand, which so concerned Professor Court, would provide the justification for bringing Maui gas ashore.   Availability of this gas, no longer needed to generate electricity, would make possible the state sponsored gas-based enterprises which formed the nucleus of "Think Big" in the 1980s.


Court R H – Submission number 122 by the Environmental Defence Society to the Royal Commission on Nuclear Power 1977.

Court R H -"Defective Energy Planning and the Need for More Public Information." N Z Economic papers Vol 13 1979.

Powles Guy – "Environmental Control: The rights of the Individual Citizen", Statement to the Physical Environmental Conference, 1970.

Next Page

Think Big

The Path to Think Big

A Plea for Forestry Research
A Belief in Technology
Think Big Intro
A Path to Think Big I
A Path to Think Big II
A Path to Think Big III
The Ammonia/Urea Plant
A Path to Think Big IV
The Big Decisions

Faith In Technology
High Living Standards
Dr Sutch’s Vision
A Colonial Economy
The Cotton Mill
Steel & Aluminium
Environmental Stirrings
Central Govt Regulation
Previous Page
Sydney University Press 1960