Page 1: Biography
Blakeley, Philip William
Electrical engineer, engineering administrator
This biography, written by John E. Martin, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Philip William Blakeley was born in Lower Hutt on 3 April 1915, the son of George Philip Wilson Blakeley and his wife, Winifred Mary Overton. His father was an electrician at the meatworks in Petone and (later) in Christchurch and Wanganui. Meatworks were early and important users of electricity. Philip enjoyed observing his father at work and became interested in electrical engineering at an early age.
He attended Christchurch Boys’ High School and Wanganui Technical College and at 15 took up an apprenticeship as an electrical fitter with the Wanganui–Rangitikei Electric Power Board. While serving his time, he studied at night school for the wiremen’s registration examination, which he passed in 1936. He also enrolled in a correspondence course run by the British Institute of Engineering Technology for the graduateship of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. By 1938 he had finished the course and was working as a ‘troubleman’, dealing with faults. He had also played representative rugby for Wanganui in 1937. On 19 March 1938, in Wanganui, he married Ida May Rogers, a typiste, who was a daughter of the mayor, Bill Rogers.
In 1939 Blakeley joined the Public Works Department, which was expanding the country’s generating capacity in the wake of the depression. He initially worked at the Tuai station, near Lake Waikaremoana, as leading hand electrical fitter, installing the generators. The following year he was appointed temporary assistant electrical engineer at the Waitaki station in the South Island, which was having its generating capacity increased. The department successfully appealed against his call-up for military service on ‘essential occupation’ grounds.
In 1941 Blakeley was transferred to head office in Wellington, where he worked on engineering calculations under Bill Latta, whom he greatly admired and who was responsible for all design work. In 1944 he was placed in charge of power station design at the newly formed electrical design office. He worked at the Nelson district office as electrical engineer from early 1948 until September 1949, when he was appointed resident electrical engineer at Mangakino. There he was in charge of the construction of the Maraetai station and the Whakamaru switching station, which included the development of the 220-kilovolt network. He returned to head office in 1953 for design work and from 1957 assisted Latta in the investigations of the path-breaking Cook Strait cable. Blakeley viewed this period of engineering work as the highlight of his career, particularly the construction of Maraetai, in which he had been personally involved from design to final machine tests, and his association with the Cook Strait cable project.
The New Zealand Electricity Department was established as a separate entity in 1958 and Blakeley rapidly moved up the hierarchy. He was appointed district electrical engineer, Hamilton, in 1959; assistant chief engineer (design and construction) in head office in 1961; and chief engineer in 1963. He became assistant general manager in 1968 and general manager of the department in 1972. He was the only head of the organisation who was not a university graduate.
As a general manager, Blakeley strove to maintain a coherent planning perspective in an increasingly complex period. He had to cope with issues such as the oil crises of 1973–74 and 1979, the need to strike a balance between gas, oil and coal, and increasing environmental concerns. He also oversaw the merging of the department into the new Ministry of Energy in 1978.
Blakeley published technical papers on trends in the design of power stations, the Cook Strait cable and direct-current transmission project, and a review of progress made over 50 years in electricity supply. He was elected a member of the New Zealand Institution of Engineers in 1943 and became a fellow in 1955. In the 1960s and 1970s he was active in the institution, serving on its council and as president in 1978–79. He represented New Zealand on the council of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (London) for five years, and sat on the council of the Professional Engineers’ Association of New Zealand and on the Engineers Registration Board.
He retired in 1979, having served 40 years to the day in the public service. His retirement marked the passing of the post-war era in which new power stations were constantly being constructed. He was made a CBE in 1980 in recognition of his contribution to the electrical industry.
For a long time Blakeley had worked on standardisation in the electrotechnical industry and he was a member of the Standards Council from 1968 to 1972. He pushed successfully for New Zealand to become a full member of the International Electrotechnical Commission, and in his retirement he served from 1979 to 1989 as the first president of the New Zealand Electrotechnical Committee. In 1989 he became a fellow of the Standards Association of New Zealand.
Ida Blakeley died in 1978, and on 6 September 1979, in Wellington, Blakeley married Merle Doreen Toop, née Spurdle. In his retirement Blakeley reactivated his early interest in radio, and rejoined the ranks of radio hams. He was also active in the affairs of his local Anglican church. He died in Wellington on 31 May 1994, survived by his wife, and two sons and a daughter of his first marriage. A modest and unassuming man, Blakeley was very thorough and determined in all he did. His children all gained engineering degrees.