Story: Engineering

Page 1. Engineers

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Engineering profession

A good deal of engineering work in the 19th century was carried out by locals. Sawmillers surveyed and built rail lines, roads, dams and bridges; farmers reclaimed land, made roads and built dams; and blacksmiths made tools.

Engineers were usually generalists. Mechanical, chemical, telegraph and electrical specialities began to emerge in the late 19th century, but boundaries were often crossed between engineering and related professions such as architecture and surveying.

During the 20th century, earthquake, sound, computer, structural, geotechnical, radio, and aircraft engineers were all at work in New Zealand.

Farm ingenuity


Hawke’s Bay pastoralist John Chambers studied mechanical engineering by correspondence, and became fascinated by electricity. In 1892 he built a hydroelectric station on his farm, Mokopeka, with the help of farm labourers. During the 1890s Chambers and a friend designed and built oil-filled electric heaters, Hawke’s Bay’s first electric stove, and even a pop-up toaster.


Engineering education

Some engineers had no formal training. Schools of engineering were set up at Canterbury University College in 1887 and Auckland University College in 1906. But many engineers learnt their job as apprentices. In 1955 polytechnics began offering engineering trade certificate training. This formalised the use of the term ‘engineer’ for mechanics, and fitters and turners.

Colonial ambition

New Zealand’s rugged landscape demanded large and expensive road, rail and bridge works to build routes across the country. In the mid-1860s a road was built across Arthur`s Pass and through the Ōtira Gorge to connect the province of Canterbury with the goldfields of the West Coast. This was hailed as a great engineering achievement. It was built in rocky, mountainous country and in places it clung to rock walls.

Many settlers wanted New Zealand to become a bigger and better Britain, in an age when great engineering projects – notably railways – were upheld as symbols of British success and ‘progress’. Bold engineering feats showed the colony could hold its own with the ‘Mother Country’.

Towns and cities

Towns and cities were built from scratch and required sewerage, water and, later, telephone and electrical systems. People had to decide whether private enterprise or public services would provide these. Colonial officials wanted to leave infrastructure to business, but private businessmen and pastoralists mostly built structures that were only of direct benefit to themselves. Public engineering lagged.

When private enterprise did supply public services, there was often trouble. The issue was epitomised by Dunedin’s Ross Creek waterworks, involving an earth dam built by a private consortium and opened in December 1867. The company had authority to levy rates from Dunedin citizens and a conflict arose with the local council, which eventually threatened to set up its own competing water supply.

How to cite this page:

Matthew Wright, 'Engineering - Engineers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Matthew Wright, published 11 Mar 2010