Page 1: Biography
This biography, written by John E. Martin, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Lawrence Birks was born at Adelaide, Australia, on 19 May 1874, the son of Walter Richard Birks, a draper, and his wife, Jemima Scott Crooks. Lawrence attended Prince Alfred College and the University of Adelaide. Graduating with a BSc in 1895, he was awarded an engineering scholarship entitling him to three years' training in Britain. He spent this period at University College, London, and in various engineering workshops. He also acted as a lecturer in electrical engineering at Finsbury Technical College and as an assistant professor of engineering at Heriot–Watt College, Edinburgh. He returned to Australia in 1900 and was appointed assistant engineer to the Sydney electric tramways.
Birks was employed by the Christchurch City Council, New Zealand, in 1903 to install the city's first electrical generating plant, which was steam-powered. In 1905 he became engineer for the New Zealand Electrical Construction Company, formed to construct Christchurch's electric tramways and associated steam-turbine generating plant. The following year he was appointed engineer at the tourist town of Rotorua. His brief there was to extend the capacity of the town's small hydroelectric plant, which supplied power for the thermal baths, sanatorium and lighting displays.
On 29 April 1909, in Wellington, Lawrence Birks married Edith Mabel Luke. He was transferred to Wellington in 1910 to prepare a report for the government on the potential demand for electricity. This key document was a manifesto for the use of electricity in the future. Not everyone shared Birks's vision, but his report resulted in the passing of the 1910 Aid to Water-power Works Act, which gave state hydroelectric development the go-ahead.
The government immediately created positions in the Public Works Department to plan and design the hydroelectric stations and transmission lines. Birks was appointed assistant electrical engineer in March 1911 and was acting engineer until Evan Parry took up the position in July. Birks became Parry's deputy and the two men set about establishing New Zealand's state hydroelectric system. Their first project was constructing the ambitious Lake Coleridge scheme, which would provide power to Christchurch at the highest voltage yet adopted in the country. In 1913 Birks moved to Christchurch to supervise the project and deal with problems involving the tunnelling contractor. He was also particularly successful in selling the station's electricity to consumers in Christchurch and throughout north and mid Canterbury. He argued that electricity had 'almost unrealized possibilities' for use in the home, industry and farming. 'The future is unlimited. Every estimate that is made of the demand is doubled and trebled. A new application is developed, and all previous forecasts are left behind.'
In 1915 Birks became a member of the first council of the New Zealand Society of Civil Engineers. With Parry's resignation in early 1919 Birks took over as chief electrical engineer in Wellington. Local power boards had been set up under the Electric Power-boards Act 1918 and Birks toured the country vigorously advocating the importance of electricity and its extensive reticulation through the new boards. Southland in particular embraced the vision of electric power with great enthusiasm and built its own Monowai scheme. Birks had assisted this development by reporting favourably on the scheme in 1917 and by continuing to support it in following years. He began work on the Mangahao station in the Tararua Range in 1919 and at Arapuni on the Waikato River in 1922. Also on the drawing board was the Tūai station below Lake Waikaremoana. With these additions a North Island network of linked stations would be established.
Edith Birks died in July 1923 and the following year Birks set out on a voyage to study developments in Europe, America and Britain. At the inaugural World Power Conference in England he was to give an important paper demonstrating that New Zealand was at the forefront of hydroelectric development and rural reticulation. However, he fell seriously ill in Adelaide and had to abandon his trip and return to New Zealand. Appropriately, his paper was delivered on his behalf by Evan Parry. Lawrence Birks died in Wellington on 25 July 1924, just as the conference was taking place in London. He left four children, aged between 8 and 14 years. At the time of Birks's death the minister of public works, Gordon Coates, noted that 'The works that have been carried out under his supervision will be a monument to his ability, his energy, and his enthusiasm.'