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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Callinan, James Clifford (1905–1972)

by C. R. Ampt

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

James Clifford Callinan (1905-1972), by unknown photographer, 1957

James Clifford Callinan (1905-1972), by unknown photographer, 1957

National Archives of Australia, A11016:10725

James Clifford Callinan (1905-1972), electrical engineer, was born on 14 November 1905 at Bairnsdale, Victoria, fourth child of James Callinan, contractor, and his wife Mary Jane, née Johansen, both native-born. Educated at Essendon High and Caulfield Technical schools, on 26 May 1924 Cliff joined the State Electricity Commission of Victoria; he initially worked in the field, building transmission lines. At St Ambrose's Catholic Church, Brunswick, on 23 February 1935 he married a manageress Sarah (Sadie) Alice O'Brien. From that year until 1947 he was assistant-superintendent of the electrical branch at Yallourn power station. After a year at head office in Melbourne, he returned to Yallourn as electrical superintendent, in charge of operational switching, load regulation and power distribution.

In 1951 Callinan moved to Sydney and subsequently to Cooma as chief electrical engineer for the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority. Responsible for the design, procurement, installation, testing and commissioning of generating stations and power-transmission facilities, he headed a multinational staff of professionals: some of them were brilliant, some mediocre, and some 'prima donnas'. He welded together a team which made its mark in a predominantly civil-engineering organization, and which enabled the authority to achieve objectives on time and within budget.

From 1954 the electricity commissions of New South Wales and Victoria took responsibility for the transmission of energy outside the proclaimed 'Snowy Mountains Area' and members of Callinan's staff were transferred accordingly. A re-organization in the S.M.H.E.A. placed mechanical plant—including turbines, hydraulic gates and valves, and station cranes and lifts—under his supervision and his title was changed to chief engineer, electrical and mechanical. In 1955 the Snowy Mountains scheme's first power station entered service at Guthega, New South Wales, and Callinan became involved in its operation—a function outside the authority's terms of reference. Following intense negotiations between the Commonwealth and State governments, the Snowy Mountains Council was established in 1959 'to direct the operation and maintenance' of completed works. The authority nominated an operations engineer to be the council's chief executive: Callinan was chosen to fill the additional post.

Despite his gruff manner and his interrogative style, Callinan was humane in outlook and had a lively sense of humour. As a manager, he was a shrewd tactician and a good judge of people; he extracted maximum effort from his subordinates, whose loyalty he both expected and rewarded. He wrote in a fine hand and made full use of his command of language when preparing large contracts. On visits to manufacturers abroad, he adopted a forthright approach which earned respect and gained results. A lonely man who sought company and craved an audience, he loved meetings, especially those he chaired. After he retired on 10 May 1966, these needs remained unsatisfied and his health, which was never robust, deteriorated.

Accepting the job of sheriff's officer at the Cooma Court House, Callinan also promoted the welfare of prisoners at the local gaol. His decency and integrity were reflected in his efforts to rehabilitate former inmates and place them in the workforce; because of his discretion, this work was little known. A well-trained tenor, he had performed with his wife in an amateur musical society; his love of music was later restricted to listening to records and singing in church. The Callinans moved to Melbourne so that Sadie could be nearer to her sisters. Shortly after their arrival, Cliff died of a ruptured abdominal aneurysm on 13 November 1972 at Box Hill and was buried in Springvale cemetery. His wife and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Sixteenth Annual Report of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority, Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1964-66, 14
  • Snowy Mountains Council, Annual Report,1959, 1960, 1966
  • information from State Electricity Commission of Victoria, Melbourne
  • private information.

Citation details

C. R. Ampt, 'Callinan, James Clifford (1905–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 31 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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