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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Curtis, Harry Arthur (1882–1933)

by H. de V. Gilbert

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Harry Arthur Curtis (1882-1933), engineer, was born on 6 June 1882 at Lyttelton, New Zealand, son of English-born parents Charles Evin Curtis, coal merchant, and his wife Eliza, née Westgate. Educated at Christchurch, Harry was an apprentice with the government railways from 1898, obtaining a certificate of competency as an engineer, 3rd class. He also attended evening classes in the school of engineering and technical science at Canterbury College, University of New Zealand, and passed elementary descriptive geometry in 1899. From 1903 he was a ship's engineer plying to and from England, Europe, Africa and the United States of America. Returning to New Zealand in 1912, he worked for Lyttelton Harbour Board and Christchurch City Council before joining the New Zealand Board of Works on the construction of a hydro-electric scheme at Lake Coleridge. Here he met (Sir) John Butters who visited the site as a consultant. On 20 August 1913 at St Saviour's Church, Lyttelton, Curtis married Agnes Brown.

Butters offered him a position at the Waddamana power station in the centre of Tasmania and, moving there with his wife, Curtis became superintendent on 1 January 1916. In July he was appointed chief operator of the Hydro Electric Department and in 1919, when new machinery needed to be installed to extend the plant capacity, he also became engineer in charge of electrical construction. In 1921 he took responsibility for all plant and construction work at Waddamana, Miena, Liawenee and Arthurs Lake, as well as the transmission line construction, on the completion of which he was appointed engineer for electrical design while retaining his operating duties. Assistant chief engineer from 1924, Curtis was given a five-year contract as general manager of the H.E.D. next year, when Butters departed for Canberra. On 18 January 1930 he became the first commissioner of the new Hydro-Electric Commission Tasmania.

A member of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, in 1927 Curtis had been elected chairman of the Tasmanian division. He was a member of the Hobart Technical College council and the Engineering Board of Management, and sometime chairman of the faculty of engineering at the University of Tasmania. A devotee of tennis, he also belonged to Hobart Rotary and Kingston Golf clubs and was a member of the Tasmanian Amateur Jockey and Tasmanian Racing clubs. 'Tod' Curtis, as he was often called, was short, stocky and rather dour, described as 'a character . . . bald as an egg . . . short in his remarks to junior staff'. Much of his time and energy was spent extending the power grid to the farthest corners of the island to produce a truly State-wide system. In 1929 there was severe flooding in the north and the commissioner gained considerable publicity for standing in a small boat in the middle of the raging South Esk River to make emergency repairs to an overhead power line.

Curtis died on 20 May 1933 following an operation in St John's hospital, Hobart. He was buried in Cornelian Bay cemetery, survived by his wife and son William Robert, who spent his working life, apart from war service in the Royal Australian Navy, with the operations branch of the H.E.C.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Lupton, Lifeblood (Syd, 2000?)
  • Hydro-Electric Commission, Report, 1932-33, p 2
  • Mercury (Hobart), 22 May 1933, p 7
  • HEC personal file, 14/5/11/20, film R9 (Hydro Tasmania, Hobart)
  • private information.

Citation details

H. de V. Gilbert, 'Curtis, Harry Arthur (1882–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 29 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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