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by Matthew Wright

New Zealand is a rugged country. Engineering played an important role in designing and building roads and railways in colonial times. Engineers have come up with some world-leading innovations, such as the 535-kilometre high-voltage electricity cable between the South and North islands, part of which lies in stormy Cook Strait.


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.

19th-century engineering


Most of New Zealand’s large and spectacular engineering works in the 19th century were needed for the developing rail network.

The first major achievement was the Lyttelton railway tunnel, drilled through volcanic rock between Lyttelton and Ferrymead to connect Canterbury to its port. It took from 1861 to 1867 to complete. Its technical difficulty daunted the English engineers approached by the Canterbury Provincial Council – a Melbourne company finally took on the job.

Night at the end of the tunnel


The end of construction of the Lyttelton Tunnel was celebrated by ‘an Arabian Night Entertainment’. It was attended by Provincial Council dignitaries (including supervising engineer Edward Dobson), the contractors, and two hundred of the labourers who had worked on the project. Tables were laid over the Lyttelton end of the train track, and the whole area was decorated with flags and greenery. Geese, turkey, chicken, lamb, ale, stout and champagne were consumed, and numerous toasts proposed, followed by singing and cheering.


Larger-scale railways followed from 1870 as part of a policy implemented by Colonial Treasurer Julius Vogel to open up the country. The government wanted to integrate the disparate provinces and to push through areas held by Māori tribes in the North Island.

Rail provided some of New Zealand’s large and spectacular Victorian-era engineering. The Denniston incline was constructed in 1879 to bring coal down to Westport from plateau-top mines: wagons weighing at least 12 tonnes descended 518 metres on 1,670 metres of track, a very steep grade.

Main trunk line

Although the 1880s were a period of economic depression, several large state projects pushed ahead. The North Island main trunk railway line, linking Wellington and Auckland, was the most significant. Progress was slow, and the line wasn’t completed until 1908. Cost was a problem, and so was the technical difficulty. A major challenge was the central section through hilly country between Te Kūiti and Hunterville.

Structures built along the way included the 289-metre-high Mangaweka viaduct, and the Raurimu spiral. This extraordinary piece of line, with its sinuous twists and turns, was designed in 1898 by R. W. Holmes to lift the railway 122 metres in just 1.6 kilometres, without the gradient being too steep.

Road bridges

Bridges such as the North Waianakarua bridge of 1874 and the Kawarau Gorge suspension bridge of 1880 spanned cavernous spaces in difficult terrain.

Plans for the Kawarau Gorge bridge were drawn up in just 16 days, though designer Henry Higginson insisted that the work did not suffer from the hurry. The bridge clung to steep rock banks high above the Kawarau River in Central Otago.


Transport by sea and by river was critical in 19th century New Zealand – roading was often inadequate or non-existent – and harbour engineering was important. Some towns such as Wellington had good natural harbours, but wharfs, jetties, reclamation, dredging and lighthouses were still required.

Other towns depended on engineers to create harbours from scratch. Ōamaru was a notable example. The Ōamaru coast had no natural harbour and was buffeted by fierce storms that beached and sometimes completely wrecked ships. The town depended on surfboats to bring people and goods ashore. Work on the first jetty began in 1865, and development of the harbour continued into the 20th century.

Private-sector engineering

From the late 19th century small-scale private mechanical engineering firms were established and manufacturing companies flourished, particularly in Otago. These included woollen mills, sawmills, and early meat freezing works.

Light-engineering businesses making machines and spare parts and repairing machines sprang up. There were large government engineering workshops, but also big and successful private companies.

Alfred and George Price, mechanical and manufacturing engineers, ran a notable North Island engineering firm. The brothers first developed and sold an effective flax-scraping machine, then went on to cash in on the mining and railway booms. The firm made a wide range of heavy machinery, rolling stock, and locomotives.

Public-sector engineering

Engineers were also employed by local authorities and provincial and central governments to construct harbours, roads, dams, waterworks and sewerage systems. They often designed the work and supervised its building.

Gas and electricity

Gas and electrical supply was undertaken by both the private and the public sectors. Engineers oversaw gas plants and transmission systems, worked on telegraph transmission, and later electricity generation and transmission. Engineers were also engaged in the electrification of manufacturing and industrial processes.

Engineering, 1900–1945


Some of New Zealand’s major national engineering projects in the 20th century were undertaken to meet the growing demand for electricity. The use of electricity in manufacturing and industry was well established by the beginning of the century, and electrical engineers became vital.

National grid

Plans for new power stations to supply electricity to different parts of the country were brought together in the 1920s in an overall scheme for a national grid. Dams and hydroelectric power stations provided significant engineering challenges.

Civil to military engineering


The Dansey brothers of Ngāti Tūwharetoa served with great distinction in the First World War as soldiers and as engineers. Harry Dansey, believed to be the first Māori engineer, was made responsible for railway construction and transport in II Anzac Corps’s sector, including evacuation of the wounded. Roger Dansey was responsible for organising light rail operations, and then spent most of the 1920s assisting with the rebuilding of war-torn Belgium.


The Arapuni power station, built on the lower Waikato River, produced one of the trickiest problems. Engineers disagreed so strongly over the type of dam that should be built that the government formed a committee of engineers to make the decision. The station opened in 1929, but it had to be closed again the following year when a block of land about 600 metres long, 46 metres deep and 122–244 metres wide slumped. The powerhouse tilted and water ran down the face of the excavation. The lake was drained and the bed sealed before the station opened a second time in 1932.

Earthquake engineering

Engineering of a different kind drew New Zealand attention in 1931 when a major earthquake devastated Napier and Hastings. This prompted new building regulations, including guidelines for the use of unreinforced masonry which had caused many deaths in Napier.

Mid-earthquake engineering


When the Hawke’s Bay earthquake struck in 1931 two men were working in the base of the 95-metre-high Mōhaka viaduct. Stuck in a small compartment 18 metres under the riverbed, they were subject to violent rocking, and water rose to shoulder height. The terrified men were winched out by a third man working immediately above. The first to emerge, desperate to escape, lunged for a compressed air valve. The quick-thinking winchman knocked him unconscious, preventing the death from the bends of all three.


New Zealand is located in the Pacific-rim earthquake zone, and like Japan and California developed sophisticated earthquake engineering techniques. Engineering schools at Auckland and Canterbury universities have undertaken full-scale testing and evaluation of structural elements. Base-isolation techniques, which allow buildings to move during earthquakes, were developed by New Zealand engineers and scientists.

Engineering in wartime

The Second World War pushed New Zealand engineering in a military direction. Small shipbuilding work included local assembly of British-designed Fairmile launches for anti-submarine work. Munitions were also assembled.

Yacht design and building

Mechanical engineer Jack Brooke designed more than 250 yachts, and built many himself. From the 1920s, he produced novel – and, at the time, controversial – designs that won national championships.

Brooke went on to design New Zealand’s Spirit of Adventure, and the Ji Fung for Outward Bound in Hong Kong. Brooke was an early exponent of a yacht design and building industry that flourished in West Auckland in the 20th century.

Urban engineering

Urban engineering continued as New Zealand’s towns and cities expanded. In Auckland the Grafton bridge was built in 1910 – a 97.6 metre ferroconcrete structure linking Grafton Road with Symonds Street in the city. Steel-reinforced ferroconcrete was a relatively new material that made it possible to construct the tall buildings that began to appear in New Zealand’s major centres in this period.

Engineering after 1945

Era of public works

New Zealand’s technical and engineering industry expanded in the years after the Second World War, driven by an unprecedented public works programme.

Projects included realigning and sealing roads, building motorways, and constructing a range of hydroelectric schemes. Expertise and equipment was imported or developed in New Zealand and some of the work was pioneering.

Cook Strait cable

One of the most innovative projects was the link from the hydroelectric station at Benmore on the Waitaki River to the Haywards Hill distribution station in the Hutt Valley. The project, proposed in 1950 by the State Hydro-electricity Department, was designed to exploit southern hydroelectric potential and bring power generated to the North Island.

Engineered by the Electricity Department, the underwater cables were the first to be gas-pressurised. At the time, the cables across Cook Strait were the longest, heaviest and had the greatest capacity of any ever made, and at 535 kilometres, the whole high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) cable was the longest of its type in the world.

Environmental awareness

Some engineering works such as hydro schemes were affected by a growing awareness of environmental issues. Plans to build a major power station on Lake Manapōuri in Fiordland, raising the lake level and destroying the original ecosystem, provoked significant protests in the early 1970s. The station was built without the lake being raised.

Developing ports and rail

Other engineering work was more mundane, reflecting the expansion of the population and the economy. An export boom – especially in wool – prompted harbour boards around the country to develop port facilities. A system of all-weather loaders was introduced at Bluff from 1953. Napier Harbour was deepened and wharves added, and the Mt Maunganui deep-water port was developed.

In 1980 the government approved an upgrade of the North Island main trunk railway line which cost $260 million over four years. The line through the rugged central section was electrified, the track realigned, and tunnels ‘daylighted’ (opened up). Some older viaducts were bypassed or replaced. The refurbished line was able to carry 50% heavier trains, and there were potential annual savings of 20 million litres of diesel fuel.

Auckland Harbour Bridge

The Auckland Harbour Bridge spanning the Waitematā harbour was built between 1956 and 1959. The bridge is 1.2 kilometres long and is a significant landmark. In 1968 work began on ‘clip-on’ extensions which added four new lanes. In 2016, 168,500 vehicles crossed the bridge on a typical day.

Late 20th century reforms

The economic restructuring and diversification of the late 20th century closed down some of New Zealand’s more traditional engineering fields. But the range and scope of the local engineering industry was extended.

Railed away


Before Te Papa was built its waterfront site was occupied by a 3,175-tonne, five-storey hotel. Rather than let it be demolished, the hotel’s owners put it on rails and moved it a short way along and across the street. Renamed the Museum Hotel, the building arrived in perfect condition and less than one centimetre out of line.


Te Papa Tongarewa

Perhaps the most challenging building was the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. At 120 x 190 metres, and five storeys high, it is a large structure. It was built on reclaimed land in an earthquake zone.

Development began in 1988. Design specifications required a structure that would last up to 150 years. Special base-isolation systems were developed for the foundations, which are able to move up to 400 millimetres in an earthquake. The building opened in 1998.

Auckland Sky Tower

The top of the mast of Auckland’s Sky Tower, built in the early 1990s, is 328 metres above the ground, making it the tallest free-standing structure in the Southern Hemisphere. Although Auckland is not an earthquake zone, special attention was paid to earthquake-proofing. The tower was designed to resist 1-in-1000 year gusts of 200 kilometres an hour.

Chemical and computer engineering

Chemical engineering

Chemical engineering emerged as a speciality in the late 19th century. Most New Zealand chemical engineers work in agriculture or forestry, for example in the dairy industry or pulp and paper.

Because the focus in chemical engineering is on managing processes, plant and project managers often have a chemical-engineering background. In the giant dairy company Fonterra, chemical engineers are found in management, plant troubleshooting, process improvement, and process design and development.

Petrochemical industry

Biochemical and manufacturing process engineers work at Taranaki’s natural gas extraction and methanol production plants, in oil refining near Whangārei, aluminium smelting at Tīwai Point, and gold mining in Otago and the Coromandel. Chemical engineers also work in cement manufacture, and the generation of electricity from geothermal steam.

Motunui Synfuel gas-to-gasoline

The Motunui Synfuel gas-to-gasoline plant, built in Taranaki between 1981 and 1985, was designed to reduce New Zealand’s dependence on imported oil after the oil price rises in the 1970s. The plant used an innovative zeolite catalyst system to convert methanol to petrol. The zeolite system used alumina, silica, and temperatures of 300–420˚C to convert the methanol. The zeolite process was developed by Mobil Oil. It had not been used on a large scale before.

The plant was designed by Ministry of Works engineers and overseas contractors. Lower petrol prices made petrol production uneconomical, and Motunui was used solely for methanol production from the late 1990s. In 2004 increased natural gas prices led to the plant’s closure. In 2008 when oil prices rose, the possibility of re-opening the plant was raised.

A 21st-century profession


The Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand (IPENZ) interprets ‘engineering profession’ in the broadest possible way. In 2008 IPENZ had 10,000 members from many specialisations and widely varying educational backgrounds. Civil engineers were joined by other engineers such as cutting edge biotechnological, electronic and software engineers. Military engineers – sappers – belong to the Royal New Zealand Engineers and have been deployed in peace-keeping missions around the world.


Computer and software engineering

In the 1970s computer engineers began to design computer hardware, write computer programs, and integrate computer and other systems.

As computer chips developed, computer engineers designed embedded applications – software written for a particular type of hardware. Embedded applications are found in household appliances, security systems and vehicles.

In the early 2000s engineers worked on embedded applications at companies such as Fisher and Paykel Appliances, Navman and Tait Communications – all three were significant exporters.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Matthew Wright, 'Engineering', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Matthew Wright, i tāngia i te 11 o Māehe 2010