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Diesendorf, Walter (1906–1975)

by Brad Collis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Walter Diesendorf (1906-1975), electrical engineer, was born on 14 December 1906 in Vienna, son of Eljukim Wolf Diesendorf, travelling salesman, and his wife Henie, née Thau. At the Technische Hochschule (later Technical University of Vienna) Walter qualified in engineering (1929) and obtained a doctorate of technical sciences (1934). Fluent in English, French and German, he worked with a leading electrical manufacturer. When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, he fled his country and emigrated to Australia.

In February 1939 Diesendorf was employed by the Sydney County Council as an assistant-engineer (3rd class). The selection of an 'alien Austrian Jew' over Australian engineers created a public outcry which only ended when the council stated that it had appointed Diesendorf to perform 'abstruse technical calculations for high voltage transmission systems which could not be done by an ordinary engineer in Australia or anywhere else'. On 22 December that year he married a schoolteacher Dr Margaretha Amalia Gisela Máté at the district registrar's office, Paddington; a Viennese Catholic, she had followed him to Australia. Walter and Margaretha were naturalized in 1944. Diesendorf quickly established himself in the local engineering community. In World War II he planned the development of Sydney's 33,000-volt underground-cable network. He subsequently designed transmission works for a major expansion of power output from the New South Wales coalfields. A 'sleeves-up' man, 'he stoked boilers and drove bulldozers at Bunnerong Power Station' to keep city lights burning during postwar strikes.

Disillusioned by changes to the administration of the State's electricity supply, in August 1950 Diesendorf joined the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority as system design engineer. His first task was 'to determine the transmission voltage for the interconnections' to the New South Wales and Victorian 'load centres'. At that time 220,000 volts was the highest level in general use worldwide. Diesendorf's investigations led to the adoption of a 330,000-volt system. His joint-paper, 'The 330kV Transmission System in New South Wales', published in the Journal of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, in 1955, was awarded the institution's electrical engineering prize. He was to win the prize again in 1962. Leaving his family in Sydney, Diesendorf moved to Cooma in 1957. Next year he was appointed senior executive engineer for electrical and mechanical activities: his design work helped to ensure the success of these aspects of the Snowy Mountains power and irrigation project.

A member of the Institution of Engineers, Australia (fellow 1957), the Société des Ingénieurs de France and the Conférence Internationale des Grands Réseaux Electriques à Haut Tension, Diesendorf retired from the authority in 1967 and accepted a senior lectureship in electrical engineering at the University of Sydney. In the 1970-71 winter semester he was visiting professor at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York State, United States of America. His Overvoltages on High Voltage Systems (Troy, 1971) became a standard text. Survived by his wife and two sons, he died of cancer on 29 December 1975 at Camperdown and was buried with Catholic rites in Northern Suburbs cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Bittman (ed), Strauss to Matilda (Syd, 1988)
  • Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority, Cooma, New South Wales, archives.

Citation details

Brad Collis, 'Diesendorf, Walter (1906–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/diesendorf-walter-10017/text17657, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 29 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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