Karl Pallo was born at Reinu, Pärnu, Estonia, then part of the Russian empire, on 17 February 1896, the son of Henry Pallo, an engineer, and his wife, Anna Martinson. His father acquired interests in a generator factory in Riga, Latvia, and a horse-drawn carriage firm, as well as an estate with its own mills. Karl was brought up in the Baltic provinces and from 1907 lived in St Petersburg. While studying engineering, he was conscripted around 1915 into the Russian army, attaining the rank of lieutenant during the First World War. He returned to Estonia in 1921 and worked as an importer.
In 1924 Pallo moved to Paris, where he got a drawing-office job in the shipbuilding industry. He observed advanced manufacturing methods and went on trial voyages between Le Havre and New York on the liner Île de France. By 1927 he was in Sydney, working as an engineer for SATAM, a French firm of petrol-pump manufacturers supplying fuel to airports. Sent to open a branch in Wellington, he arrived on the Maunganui on 12 February 1929, and was to live in New Zealand the rest of his life.
The first fuel pump Karl Pallo installed was in 1929 at the Marlborough Aero Club, and he later provided Wellington’s Rongotai aerodrome with portable fuelling equipment. He obtained sole agency for importing the French petrol pumps and by March 1930, under the name Pallo Limited, was testing them at premises in Wakefield Street, Wellington. Soon after, the company began to manufacture British-designed petrol pumps. Its works site was connected by an alley to its Courtenay Place office, on the first floor of the Stewart Building; it eventually took over the whole floor.
The depression years were difficult, and in August 1931 one of his motor garage customers was declared bankrupt; Pallo Limited was a secured creditor. Pallo pumps were first exhibited in September that year, probably at the Wellington Winter Show and Industrial Exhibition, and the firm joined the Wellington Manufacturers’ Association. In August 1932 he filed a patent application (the first of many) for a ‘liquid measuring device’, and the following July he patented a petrol pump.
Tall, blond and broad-shouldered, Karl Pallo was an animated, determined man who spoke with a slight accent. On 11 February 1933, at a Lutheran church in Sydney, he married Latvian-born Felicitas Maria Birnstein, the daughter of a factory director. The couple were to have two daughters and a son.
Pallo decided to manufacture an electric petrol pump of his own design, the ‘Palometer’, which was widely used at bowser stations and country stores. Of great precision and complexity, the pumps had an innovative dial that showed the amount of petrol delivered. They were pictured on some of the Shell Petroleum Company’s New Zealand road maps. In September 1934 he again visited Australia, where he met with oil company representatives. The following January the newly registered Pallo Engineering Limited had 22 employees and by September 1935 there were 98 on the payroll. The first apprentice he took on was Dick Light, who later became a foreman. By 1937 six women were working in cog-making and parts assembly, occupying their own room at the works. That year a sports club for the apprentices and tennis courts were planned.
A strong advocate of technical education, Karl Pallo was a member of Wellington Technical College’s Mechanical Engineers Advisory Committee for more than 20 years and manufacturers’ representative on the Standards Council (1938–60); from 1958 to 1960 he was president of the New Zealand Manufacturing Engineers and Metal Trades’ Federation. During the Second World War the company’s production switched to munitions and the number of female staff greatly increased. In 1946, having established Die Castings Limited, Pallo set up a foundry at Bell Road, Gracefield, in the Hutt Valley industrial zone. This produced parts for his ‘Pallo’ electric washing machine, which featured a pump, safety wringer and agitator. In 1962 Karl Pallo sold his business to Sunbeam New Zealand. About 1970 he and his wife retired to Taupo, where he died on 7 October 1986, aged 90. He was survived by his wife and children.