Old white man of the day

Although I spent my first 12 years in the same small farming community as today’s old white man, I confess that I was totally unaware of him, his adventures and his work until a visit to Venice in 2003.  As we wandered around Venice we came across the Venice Biennale exhibition and inside there was displayed a MONIAC. Having a fair dash of tech-geek, I was fascinated.

The MONIAC (Monetary National Income Analogue Computer) also known as the Phillips Hydraulic Computer and the Financephalograph, was created in 1949 by the New Zealand economist Bill Phillips (William Phillips) to model the national economic processes of the United Kingdom, while Phillips was a student at the London School of Economics (LSE). The MONIAC was an analogue computer which used fluidic logic to model the workings of an economy.

For more on this great device see Wikipedia or watch this video. Quote:

Alban William Housego Phillips was born on the 18th of November 1914 at Te Rehunga – a small farming community near the town of Dannevirke.

Bill’s dad, Harold, was a pretty resourceful chap who built a flush-toilet, a number of dams and a fairly sophisticated electrical system which was powered by a homemade waterwheel. [This waterwheel is still turning but is now in the sunken garden in Napier.] The latter provided electricity for lighting as well as for the family’s American-made washing machine, the first of its type in the community. These innovations were undertaken at a time when there was no electricity or flush toilets in the region and when travel was still being undertaken by horse and cart. Indeed, the Phillips children travelled to school on the back of a milk cart and then [bike along] a shingle road.

Bill was just fifteen years of age when he began displaying his father’s innovative traits. He moved into a sleep-out and similarly wired it for electrical lighting; an old truck that others said could not be fixed was made roadworthy again; and exhibiting the sort of helpfulness that would become a hallmark of his adult character, he began driving children to school too. […] Bill painstakingly repaired the truck; “learning the mechanics of the engine as he worked.”

The pick-up truck and electrical lighting were not his only childhood innovations. He and his brother developed a keen interest in photography, which led to them setting up their own darkroom and dabbling in a crude form of cinematography. They also became interested in transistor radios at a time when electrical technology was still in its infancy. They built a number of radios and Bill was able to hone his ability as a technician – a skill that he would later make good use of during the war.

Having graduated from Dannevirke High School at age fifteen but too young and impoverished to enter university, Bill made good use of his childhood passions. He took up an electrical apprenticeship at the Tuai hydro-electric station in the Hawkes Bay and subsidised his meagre income by establishing the community’s first cinema. Cinematography almost became his fulltime career. Its popularity spread to other rural communities, resulting in the setting up of two more cinemas which Bill travelled between by motorbike, all the while maintaining his apprenticeship at Tuai.

Bill left Tuai in 1935 [for] the Big O.E or Overseas Experience [starting] in Australia […].  With little more than a knapsack on his back and a few pounds in his pocket, he spent the next two years travelling across Australia doing a variety of jobs including electrical work, cinematography, crocodile hunting and gold mining.  […]

Struck by wanderlust and a desire to work in Russia, Bill left Australia in 1937 on a Japanese vessel bound for China.  His plan was to get a mining job in Russia and gradually work his way to Britain.  But just a few days into the voyage, Japan declared war on China and the vessel he was travelling on was diverted to Tokyo.  Unaware that the Japanese were about to wage war in the Pacific, Bill unwittingly drew attention to himself by snapping photos of Japanese soldiers on parade.  He was subsequently arrested in Horrishma where he was interrogated and accused of being a foreign spy.  How he managed to wriggle out of this dilemma is unknown but according to a friend, “he got off lightly” and eventually made it to Russia via the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Bill’s plan to find a mining job in Russia also proved futile due to what he described as “a plentiful supply of political prisoners”.  So the young New Zealander proceeded to London. […]

Bill had spent little more than a year in London when World War Two broke out and having already acquired a taste for adventure, he wasted no time in volunteering his services to the Royal Air Force.  It was therefore with some irony that they sent him back around the world to Singapore, where he was appointed Flying Officer to 243 Squadron.  However, Bill also worked closely with New Zealand Air Force Squadrons 283 and 488.  It is an understatement to say that these squadrons had been slapped together at the last minute.  They were tasked with defending Singapore against a Japanese invasion but the American-made planes they had inherited were in very poor condition.

The poor state of these aircrafts was not overlooked by Bill who immediately went about trying to fix the ones that were not yet airworthy.  In particular, he began modifying their guns.  […] Unfortunately, he was still working on them when the Japanese launched their attack.  […] It was not until the last two days before the fall of Singapore that he was able to get these planes operational and ready to fly again – too late.

So on the 11th of February 1942, Bill found himself on the British cargo ship Empire Star as it prepared to leave Singapore for Indonesia with more than 2000 evacuees on board.  Singapore was about to fall and there was now a desperate need to evacuate all military and civilian personnel.  The Empire Star however, had barely left port when it came under fire by more than fifty Japanese aircraft.  The vessel was not fitted with guns but one particularly innovative individual, thought to be an Australian, fixed a large gun to the deck of the ship and began firing at the Japanese.  As it turned out, this individual was Bill Phillips:

“He mounted an un-mounted machine-gun, quickly improvised a successful mounting, and operated the gun from the boat deck with outstanding courage, for the whole period of the attack, which lasted for 3 ½ hours.  Even when a section of the deck from which he was operating was hit by a bomb F/O Phillips continued to set an example of coolness, steadfastness and fearlessness.”

The Empire Star eventually made it to Indonesia but this was not the end of Bill’s South East Asian escapades.  Soon after setting up base on the island of Sumatra, he and his ground crew were on the run again – this time on foot with Japanese paratroopers in pursuit.  Initially they were able to avoid capture by hiding in a makeshift camp but they desperately needed to leave the island and with this in mind, Bill came up with an audacious plan – they would build a raft from an abandoned bus and sail it to Australia!  The Japanese, however, found their camp before they had a chance to attempt the risky feat and Bill was subsequently imprisoned.[…]

Although Bill was a prisoner of war for more than three years he rarely spoke about the ordeal.  He not only had a tendency to minimise the horrors of imprisonment but also his own heroics.  On one rare occasion he told an inquisitive colleague; “She [the POW camp] wasn’t too bad once you got used to her.”  Likewise, it was not until nearly three decades later that “the gifted young New Zealand officer” mentioned in Lauren Van Der Post’s book, “The Night of the New Moon,” was identified as Bill Phillips.  In a letter to a former prisoner who had been imprisoned with him, Van Der Post wrote about a secret radio that a New Zealander by the name of Phillips had made:

“The Phillips you came across is the Phillips who served us so gallantly in prison and who built and operated the only secret radio we had in prison.  Phillips was one of the most singularly contained people I knew; quiet, true and without any trace of exhibitionism.”

It is said that Bill broke into the camp commander’s office and stole parts off an old telegraph machine to make the radio – an act that would have cost him his life had he been caught. He used the radio to receive transmissions from the outside world but this was not his only act of bravery.  He also invented an electric tea maker to help relieve the suffering of his fellow prisoners.  Van Der Post referred to it as a type of “immersion heater” that tapped into the prison-camp’s electrical system, thus making it possible to heat water for hot cuppas prior to bedtime;

“Thanks to Phillips invention, the whole camp could have a secret cup of tea before creeping to bed…  The result was when some 2000 cups were suddenly brewed that the lights of the camp dimmed alarmingly.  The Japanese were mystified by this dimming of the lights every night at about 10.00 pm. End of quote.

We will leave the story there and pick it up again tomorrow to find out more about how the MONIAC came about.


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In solidarity with the those in the world’s most despised demographic, WH has decided to ‘come out’ as an old white male. WH enjoys exercising the white-male privilege that Whaleoil provides for him by writing the occasional post challenging climate change consensus; looking at random tech issues that tweak his interest, as a bit of a tech nerd; or generally poking the borax at anyone in public life who goes on record revealing their stupidity. WH never excelled on the sports field because his coaches never allowed him to play in his preferred position on the right-wing. WH also enjoys his MG.

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