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Working at Radio Corporation, 1945/46

Test rooms
Working at Radio Corp
Mica mining
Sale Radio Corp Factory
Site Plan Factory

By Bill Heinz Jnr


Towards the end of the war I was a Wellington Technical College Student.  My father worked at Radio Corporation of New Zealand a company that before the war made domestic radio sets but which was now fulfilling wartime contracts.  I sometimes visited the factory with dad.  It was a extensive factory, a rabbit warren of separate buildings all connected together one way or another.  Upstairs, downstairs, along corridors and covered cake-walks one went.  It fronted on Courtenay Place and went back to Wakefield Street.  

A lane from Wakefield Street shared with Pallo Engineering and shops on Courtenay Place provided access to the ground floor machine shop that contained heavy machinery.  They had one monstrous press that had punched out steel helmets for the military, turret lathes, milling machines and others, all making military equipment.   This machine shop turned out 10,000 sten guns for the army.  They had banks of smaller presses that punched out metal fittings and also the Es and Is for transformer laminations.   Elsewhere were large workrooms devoted to functions such as coil winding.  That department made power and output transformers, intermediate frequency transformers and wound RF coils.  It had a wax impregnation room.  There was the condenser department where paper condensers were wound and mica condensers assembled. 

On the top floor of a building fronting Wakefield Street was the Speaker department now assembling other things.  Access to this was via the covered cake walk above the factory roof and pinned to the wall of an adjacent building.  Elsewhere in the tangle were the assembly lines, Plating shop, Laboratory, test suites, stores, packing, a class room for training, and administration office and suites overlooking Courtenay Place.  A very large number of people were employed.  No wonder they used the grandiose title   ‘RADIO CORPORATION  OF NEW ZEALAND’ (RCNZ)

I spent a Sunday at the factory with my Father.  He and a mechanical engineer installed two bakelite presses as the company was soon to begin the construction of ZC1 transmitter/receiver units for the military.  The presses were hydraulically powered from the City’s high pressure water supply.  The final pressure being quickly supplied by the operator pumping a short lever of a built-in high pressure pump.  Later my Father’s job for the company was to set up and manage the Mica mine in South Westland.

I was a schoolboy and knew my way around the factory.   In 1945 and 1946 I worked in the college  holidays at RCNZ.  I received 32 shillings and 6 pence a week which I thought to be quite good for a fourteen year old schoolboy.  I was in an environment that I liked and I enjoyed working with adults.  I was awake to their tricks when they would ask me to go to the store to get a box of electrons.  I worked in a factory that was fulfilling war contracts and although the work was repetitious I did my share of overtime.  Evening work was enjoyable, music was played and it made, the time go very quickly and my pay packet bigger. 

During the day the fastest periods of time were the morning and afternoon National Radio Programme’s broadcasts of ‘Music While You Work’.   The song — ‘I’m Beginning to see the Light’ — came out then and was played every day on this programme.  Even now when I hear it, it is like a key unlocking my memories of those days working in that factory.  I did the same work for the two or three weeks.  Each holiday it would be in a different department.  Staff entered the factory by the Courtenay place entrance.  It was a long dark corridor empty except for the delivery bicycle.  Up the stairs, or in the lift, exiting in front of the internal windows of the open plan administration office.  It did not pay to be late.

I started in the store as message boy riding that bicycle around the central city.  It was a heavy trade bike with a big steel basket over a small front wheel.  It was built like a battleship and would never wear out.  Sometimes I would have to scour the hardware shops for the last remaining stocks of certain items required in the factory.  On one occasion it was tins of caustic soda, another time it was hearth brushes.  These would be piled high in the basket and I would have to crane my head over the top in  order to see where I was going.  Wartime caused some unusual shortages. 

I would count, weigh or set out components for the production lines and learned all about the different types of nuts and screws with their particular heads that were needed.  I stacked iron laminations into transformer windings.  I called them lamentations and was constantly corrected by the kindly ladies who tended to look after me.  I inserted freshly wound paper condensers into pressed metal sleeves and terminated the pigtails around the solder lugs. I riveted relay parts together for ZC1 transmitter/receiver units This was in the Speaker Department and two young ladies from Teacher’s Training College hand swaged the silver contacts into their mounting springs for the ZC1 antenna change over relay. 

This must have been during the height of the ZC1 production as every time I walked through the Condenser Department they would yell at me “when’s your Father going to send up some more mica”.  On one occasion I spent a week hand dipping condensers (capacitors) into molten cerise wax and resin.  It was summer and wild ‘kami kazi’ minded bees getting the smell of the hot wax would come through the open window and power dive into the molten mixture ending up bubbling like chips in a fish shop frying vat. 

The company still carried on its civilian business.  It must have stock-piled many domestic radios for its retail arm, Radio Centre, to sell during the war.  It maintained a large fleet of small British cars that it fitted with gas bags above their roof.  The bags filled with low pressure household gas powered the engines.  I remember the lattice metal frames being made and the light canvas inner bladders being gas proofed with whale oil.  What a stink, and to ride in them was doubly smelly as the whale oil mingled with the pervading smell of gas. 

Up to 1946 I had been mainly the only school boy hired.  When domestic radio production recommenced they decided to seek school holiday staff and set up a special schoolboy production line for the assembly of a small mantel model valve radio.  For this group of student workers the class room was used to teach some basic radio and how the famous ’Hikers One’, one valve battery radio, worked.

I really enjoyed working in this Company as a school boy and hold it as pleasant and interesting interlude in my life.   No doubt it played a part in my education that fitted me for a lifetime in Radio Communications


Bill also wrote about his fathers involvement with Mica mining when imported supplies of Mica were cut off.

April 2009