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Lindgren, Harry (1912–1992)

by Amanda Laugesen

This article was published online in 2017

Harry Lindgren (1912–1992), mathematician, linguist, and public servant, was born at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, on 25 June 1912, son of Harry Lindgren, barman, and his wife Ellen, née Hall. His family migrated to Perth in 1923 but Harry junior, who had been awarded a scholarship to attend the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, remained with his grandparents to complete his education. He was academically talented and after leaving school took up an apprenticeship in electrical engineering drafting. On completing it, however, he was unable to find employment and in 1935 joined his family in Perth. There he enrolled at the University of Western Australia (BSc 1939; DipEd, 1941), supporting himself by teaching English to immigrants (1939–46). On 30 May 1941 in Perth he married Eve Spokone in a civil ceremony; they had met at university. From 13 April 1942 to 10 December 1943 he served full time in the Citizen Military Forces, employed in Australia mainly as a draftsman in ordnance workshops.

In 1946 Lindgren and his wife moved to Canberra where he became a patent examiner at the Australian Patent Office. He remained in that job until his retirement in 1972. His main contributions to scholarship and public life arose from two passions:  mathematics and spelling reform. His first published book, Geometric Dissections, (1964) was favourably reviewed, and revised and republished as Recreational Problems in Geometric Dissections and How to Solve Them (New York, 1972). A member of the Australian Society of Authors, he also published many articles in mathematical journals and was a member of the Australian Mathematical Society, the Mathematical Association (Britain), the Indian Mathematical Society, and Svenska Matematiksamfundet (Sweden).

Lindgren’s interest in spelling reform flowed from his background in mathematics although he was probably aware, too, of the earlier Simplified Spelling Society, established in Britain in 1908. As he argued in his 1969 book, Spelling Reform: A New Approach, the language of mathematics had improved, thereby helping society to progress, so ‘word-language’ could be similarly enhanced. He thought that rationalised spelling would assist communication between people and make it easier for those with learning difficulties to read and write.

In June 1971 Lindgren launched a newsletter that from its September edition was titled Spelling Action. The same year, he established the Spelling Action Society (SAS) that included physicist Sir Mark Oliphant  and Federal Labor politician, Doug Everingham. The SAS advocated implementation of what Lindgren called Spelling Reform Step 1 (SR1). He believed it was best to start with one small modification; when that was achieved, the next reforms (SR2, SR3, and so forth) could be introduced gradually. SR1 consisted of ‘an inconspicuous change: the clear short vowel as in bet to be written e. For example, death becomes deth, friend–frend’ (Lindgren 1993, 23). The fundamental approach was to adopt a system based on phonetics.

Lindgren and the SAS called for the introduction of SR1 by adopting it in print and teaching it in schools. Hence the media and the education system became targets in a campaign that was at its most intense throughout the 1970s. Some interest in the proposal came from teachers and others in the education field, including the Australian Teachers’ Federation. It appealed especially to those in the sector concerned with illiteracy, because it seemed a simple solution to a complex problem. Despite many years of campaigning, however, there was little to show for his attempts to reform spelling. At about the time of his death, the SAS began to wither away.

Tall and slim, Lindgren was thoughtful and unconventional. A humanist with a dry sense of humour, he was a generous benefactor to local, national, and international charities. Having learned to play the violin at university, he became a member of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra during its early years. Survived by his wife, a remedial reading teacher, and daughter, he died on 1 July 1992 in Jindalee Nursing Home, Canberra, and was cremated.


Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Times. ‘We Tu ’Betr Spelin.’ 28 August 1969, 3
  • Lindgren, Harry. ‘The Clerisy.’ Woroni (Canberra), 9 September 1981, 18
  • Lindgren, Harry. Spelling Reform: A New Approach. Sydney: Alpha Books, 1969
  • Lindgren, Judy. ‘Meny Years Trying to Reform Spelling.’ Canberra Times, 8 July 1993, 23
  • Lindgren, Judy. Personal communication

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Citation details

Amanda Laugesen, 'Lindgren, Harry (1912–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 16 January 2019.

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