Newspaper Article 1990 – Engineers honour HB pioneer

Engineers honour HB pioneer

Staff reporter, Hastings

In 1892, Hawke’s Bay settler John Chambers produced electricity from a hydro station he built on his Maraetotara property, Mokopeka Station.

On Saturday, the Institute of Professional Engineers of New Zealand (IPENZ), as its sesquicentennial project, will unveil a commemorative plaque at the still operational power station marking this remarkable achievement.

It is one of 68 engineering sites throughout the country being marked by plaques recognising their special importance in the engineering heritage of New Zealand. Another in Hawke’s Bay is the 95-metre high Mohaka viaduct, the world’s fourth highest. That ceremony will take place on July 7.

Mokopeka and Mohaka were two of six engineering sites from Hawke’s Bay nominated for the 1990 project acknowledgment. The others were the Tuai power station, the Hawke’s Bay Airport beacons, the Hastings sewer outfall and the Heretaunga Plains recharge system into the underground aquifer.

Unveiling plaque

The Minister of Energy and MP for Hastings, David Butcher, will unveil the plaque at Mokopeka.

The chairman of the Hawke’s Bay branch of Ipenz, Clive Squire, says Mr Chambers’ Mokopeka hydro station is the only privately owned work among the 63 sites and honours a man who used three branches of engineering in his feat – civil, mechanical and electrical.

Mr Chambers’ story of Mokopeka began in the mid-1870s, five years after Thomas Edison’s invention of the incandescent lamp.

His ingenuity and his success has intrigued and impressed Hawke’s Bay Power Board assistant chief engineer John Geoghegan, who has researched the building of the station.

During the 1880s Mr Chambers studied practical electrical engineering by correspondence with an American university and on the completion of his course set about the task of building his own generating plant and electrical appliances.

Mr Chambers designed his power plant based on a 14 horse power Victor turbine by Fredrick Well, London, and a second-hand 8kW-110V DC dynamo originally installed in the Midland Railway’s St Pancras Station, London, in 1886, the first railway station in the world to be lit electrically.

While he awaited the delivery of the plant, Mr Chambers built a dam across the Maraetotara stream, constructed a 600ft headrace canal, excavated a tailrace tunnel and turbine enclosure and erected a power house to contain the electric generating plant and associated control equipment.

Designing and installing the plant was only a part of the project. Mr Chambers also erected poles, insulators and overhead lines to the homestead, workshop and shearing shed and installed the internal wiring within these buildings in which he was to use the new “electric power’’.

In September 1892, the plant was completed and the turbine operated for the first time. Farmhands marvelled at the electric lighting and farmers came from all over to wonder.

Many inventions

The introduction of electricity to Mokopeka was just the start of a long series of developments engineered by John Chambers. Not content to merely light Mokopeka with electric power, he is reputed to have built the first electric stove in Hawke’s Bay.

Mr Chambers had the first walk-in refrigeration unit, invented a pop-up toaster, built oil-filled heaters for his homestead and ran an electric powered car using the power station to charge the battery each evening.

Mr Chambers had an extensive electrical workshop in which to develop his extensive range of appliances. He ran electricity to his farm cottages and shearers’ cottages and floodlit the many farm buildings by day and night. Mokopeka also boasted one of the earliest all-electric cowsheds.

In response to his apparent fear of fire, he installed a series of fire hydrants around his house and splendid gardens. If required the turbine at the power station could be connected to drive a large four-cylinder water pump to pump water to the Mokopeka homestead for irrigation or fire control.

By the turn of the century, Mr Chambers used electric motors to power all his farm appliances – his workshop grinder, drill press and lathe as well as his shearing shed and woodshed.

He subsequently invented and developed small independent shearing hand pieces that were driven by electric motors and flexible leads at least 25 years ahead of what has now become normal practice.

The introduction of electricity to Mokopeka in the 1890s was of continuing fascination to the people of Hawke’s Bay and it is this aspect of the project the Ipenz wishes to capture in its tribute to John Chambers – engineer.

Challenged by board

In 1915, the existence of the plant became known to the newly established Public Works Department. The department challenged Mr Chambers right to use water from the stream and generate or distribute electricity.

Mr Chambers also supplied power, free of charge, to his neighbour across the river. The department said Mr Chambers would have to apply for a water power licence and an electric lines licence in terms of the 1903 and 1911 Acts covering such matters.

‘…a bit late’

His response was: “As my power house and electric lines have been in operation for 23 years, it seems to me rather late in the day to ask for a licence to construct.  I do not see how I can apply for a licence to construct that which is already constructed.”

A ruling from the Crown Law Office later upheld Mr Chambers’ view on the understanding that he discontinue the supply to his neighbour.

This we believe is where the Matter rested but it is interesting to note that Mr Chambers was, by order in council, granted a licence dated February 15, 1916, to erect lines to Mokopeka Homestead and associated buildings and to his neighbour Mr D. Rigger – quoting: “The charge for electrical energy shall not exceed one shilling for lighting and six pence for heating, cooking and motor power.”

50-year wait

Electricity remained a novelty and unavailable to the majority of Hawke’s Bay people until the 1920s when the Hawke’s Bay Power Board was constituted and supply was available from the Government generating stations at Mangahao and later Tuai. Some of Mokopeka’s neighbours did not receive electricity until the 1940s – some 50 years after Mr Chambers had gained the benefit.

Early in the present century the demand for electricity overtaxed the original dynamo. In 1926, Mr Chambers imported and installed a larger turbine and dynamo and converted the original dynamo into a motor to drive the water pump.

The new turbine gave Mokopeka the luxury of an automatic governor which regulated the water supply to provide a near-constant voltage output, thus alleviating some of the previous control difficulties. No other New Zealand generating plant was so advanced at that stage.

Drought brought change

In 1965 after severe droughts the Maraetotara River could no longer provide sufficient water to meet the, by then, considerable demands for power at Mokopeka. It was at this point the Chambers family decided to take supply from the power board after more than 75 years of supplying its own electricity.

The hydro plant was retained to provide heating to the homestead and has run for this purpose to this day.

In 1970, an agreement was concluded with the family that the Hawke’s Bay Electric Power Board would take over the plant maintenance responsibilities.

The board has taken on this task with the intention of ensuring that the equipment will continue to be serviceable for many years to come and that the memory of John Chambers and his endeavours are not forgotten.

Mr Chambers, farmer, pioneer, inventor and engineer is long since dead. Appropriately within the small power house at Mokopeka is the inscription:

“Stranger, if you seek his monument, look about you.”

Photo captions –
The tiny Mokopeka power station, repainted by power board staff in readiness for its Saturday ceremony.
The headrace of the Mokopeka power station.
The Mokopeka power station from across the river. Under the tree at right is the tailrace outlet and to the left is the spillway.
Mohaka viaduct at Raupunga. At 95 metres high it is the fourth highest in the world, and was opened in 1937.
John Chambers, engineer extraordinary.
The Mokopeka hydro electricity station which has an output of 27kW of 110-volt current power.

Patea first town with electric lights

Patea, north of Wanganui, had the first municipally-owned electrical plant and system in New Zealand.

The original 40-43 kVA plant was installed in 1901 by Turnbull and Jones Ltd.

The generator was manufactured by Brown Boveri, Switzerland and the turbine by Escher Wyss.

The plant was housed in a wooden building on a shelf on a cliff facing the sea. The building was washed away in the 1920s when the dam above collapsed.

For the first few years the station was used only for lighting, street and domestic, and ran from early evening until 1am.

Later when electric irons became available the station began generating from 2pm on Mondays and Tuesdays.

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Newspaper article

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  • Marion Morris


  • David Butcher
  • John Chambers
  • John Geohegan
  • D Rigger
  • Clive Squire
  • Fredrick Well

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