First-Hand:The Trials of Engineer Training in New Zealand

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Nigel Stace

For reasons best known to them, my parents early on decided that I should become a civil engineer designing bridges, roads, and perhaps dams. So much so, in fact, that Meccano's "Engineering for Boys ages 7 to 70" advertising slogan caused my parents to buy me a No.1 Meccano set and then annually provided supplementary sets up to No. 6A, the largest one made.

Their scheme worked well except for one aspect. Although my constructional process flourished to the extent that I won a major prize in a national competition, my interests were in mechanical, working models rather than in static, structural ones. For working models, some driving mechanism was needed. Eventually, I acquired a robust Meccano clockwork motor. But its restricted running time and regular rewinding became a bore. When an electric motor was announced by the New Zealand agents, it became my driving ambition to have one. At last I did-but only for one memorable week!

But what a week that was, with almost perpetual motion plus intermittent electric shocks. As I remember it, the motor cord was simply plugged into the nearest lamp socket. (The only plug point was in the kitchen and that was reserved for ironing.) However, the Englishmade motor and its insulation were designed to operate on half the New Zealand's main voltage! An electrician (wireman in those days) came to my house and declared my motor hazardous and it was taken away.

Examinations are no longer regarded as sine qua non in New Zealand. However, fifty years ago, all engineering undergraduates in their final year had to take an examination lasting fifteen days.

This was (hopefully) the last examination. It began after all the other students had left so it was taken in strangely deserted surroundings. The exam was a test of endurance as well as technical knowledge and ability.

Monday to Saturday inclusive, for two and a half weeks, the doors of the Canterbury School of Engineering drawing office and the engineering library were unlocked at nine a.m. and locked at nine p.m. Between those times, the candidates worked unsupervised and were allowed to search for and share information from any source that would enable them to design a specified product, structure, or machine. Then they had to make appropriate drawings of it.

Preparation for this ordeal formed a complete subject in the final year and, in the case of electrical students, it was always for the design and drawing of an industrial motor or generator-since these were usually requested. But the examiners, who resided in England and not necessarily au fait with what was used or taught in New Zealand, sometimes changed the request. This happened in 1936-when five horrified candidates found themselves asked to design a motor for an electric railway locomotive, rare things in New Zealand but common in England.

Such motors involved some unknown design parameters, since the railway track, traction motors had to be so restricted in physical size that few of the normal design criteria applied. In short, they had to be designed way beyond the textbook's electromagnetic limits.

A frantic search of the engineering school library and all local book shops found no books or journals on appropriate design. The search also used up some precious time.

It was then resolved that, working as a group and sharing all information, the candidates would extrapolate from existing design information, make hopefully informed guesses where necessary and come up with one composite design. They would rely upon their differing drawing abilities to differentiate their exam entries.

Fortunately, tradition had it that no one had ever failed the marathon fifteen day test. After one hundred and eighty hours of frantic work and many sleepless nights, the designs' drawings were completed and handed in. Then there was a lapse of over two months while the entries went surface mail to England for marking and the results cabled back.

The composite design had obviously been mediocre; but the quality of the drawings mostly adequate. All marks were disturbingly low, but only the most untidy draftsman failed and had to repeat the entire exercise the following year.

Perhaps more fortunately, electric locomotives for New Zealand continued to be designed and manufactured overseas.