Story: Farr, Clinton Coleridge

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Farr, Clinton Coleridge

1866–1943

Physicist, electrical engineer, university professor

This biography was written by John Campbell and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Clinton Coleridge Farr was born in Adelaide, South Australia, probably on 22 May 1866, the son of George Henry Farr and his wife, Julia Warren Ord. His father, an ordained Anglican priest, was headmaster of St Peter's College and a long-serving council member of the University of Adelaide. His mother was active in social work; an orphanage for girls and a home for incurables were named in her honour.

Coleridge Farr was educated at St Peter's College and at the University of Adelaide. He studied mathematics and physics under William Bragg, graduating BSc with second-class honours in 1888. On winning an Angas Engineering Scholarship he went to England, where he worked as a railway engineer and studied civil engineering at University College, London. However, in less than a year ill health forced his return to Australia.

From 1891 to 1894 he was a tutor in mathematics and physics at the University of Sydney and in 1894 he lectured in electrical engineering at Adelaide. While at Sydney he carried out field work in the distribution of electrical energy and developed a consuming interest in magnetism. In late 1896 he put forward a proposal for a survey of the magnetic fields of New Zealand. The project commenced in 1899 with the Royal Society of London loaning the specialist equipment and the New Zealand government providing financial support. The field work took 10 years and the results were published in 1916. A preliminary report helped gain Farr a DSc, the first awarded by the University of Adelaide.

In 1901 Farr established the magnetic observatory in Hagley Park, Christchurch, for the Department of Lands and Survey. He was magnetic observer until 1904 when he was appointed a part-time lecturer in electricity and surveying at Canterbury College. When the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury initiated a study of the problems associated with Christchurch's artesian water supply, Farr and his colleague, David Florance, measured the amount of the radioactive gas radon present in wells in Christchurch. In one study they concluded that the radon content in the well at the Canterbury Acclimatisation Society's trout hatchery was responsible for the heavy mortality of trout fry being raised near the well. However, as the deaths could also have been caused by a deficiency of oxygen in the water, Farr and Florance's findings were not regarded as conclusive.

Farr was married in Christchurch on 22 April 1903 to Maud Ellen Haydon. From 1911 until his retirement in 1936 he served as inaugural professor of physics at Canterbury College. He was a stimulating and effective teacher and popular with his students and colleagues. Over the years he became well known for actively supporting student sporting events, and for being badly shaven. He had a great interest in motoring and trout fishing.

Farr's most economically important research was a 1919 study into the causes of failure in the porcelain insulators used in the transmission lines from the Lake Coleridge power scheme. By immersing samples of failed insulators in red dye at very high pressures for several days, Farr showed that the problem was caused by porosity in the porcelain. Manufacturers around the world were subsequently able to improve their techniques for producing insulators. Together with Henry Philpott, the testing engineer for the power scheme, Farr also developed tests for insulators prior to their installation. The chief engineer of the English Electric Company described this work as epoch-making. It reputedly saved more money than the government had spent in five years on all scientific and industrial research.

Farr's most scientifically advanced research was the result he and C. J. Banwell obtained, showing that a magnetic field has no measurable effect on the speed of light. This was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series A in 1932 and 1940. Farr was elected a fellow of the New Zealand Institute in 1919. He served as president in 1929–30 and was awarded the institute's Hector Memorial Medal and Prize in 1922. He became a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1928, during Ernest Rutherford's presidency. In the early years of the Second World War he did some emergency teaching at his old school, St Peter's College, where his pupils called him 'Mr Chips'. Coleridge Farr died on 27 January 1943 at Christchurch, survived by his wife and their son.