Story: Davenport, Arthur Egbert

Page 1 - Biography

Davenport, Arthur Egbert

1901–1973

Electrical engineer, electricity administrator

This biography was written by John E. Martin and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Arthur Egbert Davenport was born in Marton on 17 April 1901, the son of Samuel Johnson Davenport and his wife, Alice Cross. They ran a general store in the town. Arthur attended Marton District High School, winning school prizes and becoming well known for his fascination with science, and, in particular, electricity. He passed engineering intermediate at Victoria University College before undertaking a bachelor of engineering (electrical) at Canterbury College (1920–22), with the degree conferred in 1924. He and his close friend Jack Orbell, the well-known radio pioneer, built radios and broadcast from the university.

Davenport joined the Hydro-electric Branch of the Public Works Department in 1923 as an engineering cadet based in Hamilton, and worked on the extension to the Horahora power station and the construction of substations in Waikato. By 1926 he had been appointed assistant electrical engineer. He married Rebecca Jane Leatham on 6 April 1926 in Otorohanga. They were to have three daughters and a son.

Davenport transferred to head office in Wellington in 1927 for specifications and contract work (purchasing). He became an associate member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, London, in 1928. In 1930 he moved to Christchurch, and in 1936 he was appointed resident electrical engineer on the West Coast to supervise the construction of a 66-kilovolt transmission line across the Southern Alps through Arthur’s Pass, and the reticulation and operation of the West Coast electricity network.

Towards the end of the war he was rapidly promoted, showing a talent for management. In 1944 he was appointed district electrical engineer for Auckland and the following year he became assistant chief electrical engineer in head office, Wellington. In 1946 he was appointed chief electrical engineer in the new State Hydro-electric Department (later the New Zealand Electricity Department) and that year became a member (later fellow) of both the New Zealand Institution of Engineers and the Institution of Electrical Engineers, London. He travelled overseas in 1947, both to secure supplies of generating equipment and to gain experience in preparation for becoming general manager of the department on the retirement of Frederick Kissel. Davenport was duly appointed in 1948. In subsequent years he was also chairman of the Rural Electrical Reticulation Council, the Committee to Review Power Requirements and the Planning Committee on Electric Power Development in New Zealand.

The tasks that lay ahead were substantial. The demand for electricity spiralled upwards as post-war restrictions were lifted and prosperity encouraged a rapid increase in the number of domestic electrical appliances. A chain of hydroelectric stations on the Waikato River had to be built, and in the South Island the construction of the large Roxburgh station on the Clutha River was vital in dealing with chronic power shortages.

Davenport took to the political hurly-burly of power planning with great enthusiasm and developed a good working relationship with W. S. Goosman, minister of works. He was described as a ‘brilliant eager beaver’ who wanted to be informed on all matters, kept people on their toes and would telephone staff at all hours day and night. The use of geothermal resources, the construction of a large thermal power station, and the linkage of the two islands by a cable across Cook Strait were advanced as solutions to the ongoing massive growth in electricity consumption. These plans were in addition to continued hydroelectric development in the central North Island and a further station, Benmore, on the Waitaki River. Davenport from the mid 1950s recognised the need to restructure the bulk-supply tariff so that revenue could contribute to the capital requirements of new stations, and from 1957 this was undertaken.

When Labour’s Hugh Watt became minister of works and of electricity in late 1957, Davenport, the New Zealand Electricity Department and their favoured projects were frustrated and sidelined. Watt and the Ministry of Works favoured more extensive North Island hydroelectric development over the Cook Strait cable. The election of a National government in 1960 restored the place of Davenport and his department in the planning process, and the Cook Strait cable and South Island hydroelectric development duly went ahead.

In honour of his contribution to the practical application of engineering research, the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences invited him to give the third lecture in the prestigious A. A. Johnson series in Sweden in 1962 on the topic of ‘Electric power development in New Zealand’. New Zealand’s locally designed distinctive hydroelectric generating system in two islands, linked by an undersea cable (technology that Sweden had developed) and providing a modern and extensive network, had caught the imagination of Swedish engineers.

Davenport retired in 1963 having given 40 years’ service and was appointed a CMG that year. He had overseen the department’s reorganisation as the New Zealand Electricity Department and the considerable broadening of its activities into thermal and geothermal generation of electricity, while grappling with post-war electricity shortages. In his retirement he worked as a consultant alongside his son in Tolley and Son Limited on the design and manufacture of electrical power equipment and on technical guides for power cables. He died in Wellington on 15 April 1973, survived by his wife and children.