Engineer of the Week No.86: Florence Violet McKenzie OBE, ASTC, MWES, FAIN, MRNARS (nee Granville or Wallace) (28 September 1890-23 May 1982)
On her 119th birthday we remember Mrs Violet McKenzie, Australia’s first female electrical engineer, founder of a telegraphy school and initiator of the WRANS.
Violet McKenzie was usually known as Mrs Mac to the thousands of men and women who passed through her telegraphy training school before during and after WW2. Australia’s first female electrical engineer, Mrs Mac’s Wireless Shop in Sydney and Wireless Weekly magazine were also firsts for that country.
Born in Sydney in 1890 Florence Violet Granville mostly used her stepather’s surname, Wallace, until she married in 1924. Always tinkering with electrical things as a child, after she had attended Sydney Girls’ High School, Florence applied to study electrical engineering at Sydney Technical College but they would not admit her unless she ws working in the trade. So she printed some business cards, found herself some electrical work and returned to the college with the proof and then graduated in 1923. By which time her shop and magazine were well established amongst electricians and amateur radio enthusiasts. She was Australia’s first female ‘ham’ radio operator.
The most detailed account of her life and work is at https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/mckenzie_violet which recounts how she established the Australian equivalent of the UK’s Electrical Association for Women in the 1930s. As the Second World War approached she started teaching morse code to members of the Australian Women’s Flying Club. Then, in 1939, she set up the Women's Emergency Signalling Corps (WESC), with the idea to train women in telegraphy so that they could replace men working in civilian communications. By the time war broke out, 120 women had been trained to instructor standard, which was just as well as it soon became obvious that both civilians and military needed morse training, and very quickly. Some 12,000 men and women of all the services were trained at Mrs Mac’s school. When she offered to bring her female instructors into the Royal Australian Navy, the old guard there were horrified, despite the success of the WRNS in the UK. They rapidly backed down when she threatened to take her instructors to the air force and her initiative led to the establishment of the Women’s Royal Australian Navy (WRANS). Postwar she continued to offer her morse code classes until 1954 which, as if they were not already remarkable enough, she never charged any money for, meeting all the costs from her husband’s modest salary. Many merchant navy officers and airline pilots came to her for training and in 1978 a group of them laid on a celebratory party for her on Mother’s day. She died in 1982.