Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Nilsen, Nils Emil (1902–1975)

by Jim Howarth

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Nils Emil Nilsen (1902-1975), mining engineer, was born on 5 March 1902 at Pequaming, Michigan, United States of America, son of Norwegian-born parents Brent Nilsen, sailor, and his wife Anne, née Ragnhild. After completing high school at L'Anse, Nils qualified as a mining engineer at the Michigan College of Mines (B.Sc., 1925). He worked as a surveyor of mines for the Montreal Mining Co. in Wisconsin until 1926, then became engineer-in-charge of development for the Castile Mining Co. in Michigan. Deciding to seek a warmer climate, he obtained a post in Queensland in 1929 as engineer-in-charge of development with Mount Isa Mines Ltd. In summer the water in his bath 'was so hot from the pipes that ran on the surface of the ground that it had to be left to cool'.

At St Paul's Anglican Cathedral, Melbourne, on 23 August 1930 Nilsen married Gwenyth Ida, daughter of Albert Thurgood. In 1931 he reportedly told Julius Kruttschnitt, general manager of Mount Isa Mines Ltd, that he was being paid more than he was worth, and resigned on the understanding that, if a position became available where the work equated to the pay, he would return. Following two years as efficiency engineer at the Lake View and Star mine, Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, Nilsen went back to Mount Isa in 1933 as assistant underground superintendent. He helped the company to set new records in 'shaft-sinking, driving and rising'; he also increased mechanization and achieved greater productivity in underground operations.

In 1936 Nilsen was appointed general manager of the Emperor Gold Mining Co. at Vatukoula, Fiji, thus beginning what he regarded as the most important part of his career. Three years later his responsibilities were extended to include management of the nearby Loloma and Dolphin mines. At their peak the three operations yielded some 2.8 tons of gold per year. Production had only begun in 1935. Nilsen's duties therefore entailed building up a skilled workforce and the services needed by a major mining field. The Vatukoula ore contained tellurides from which it was difficult to extract the gold, but many problems in treating the ore were overcome during his years in charge. 'Bruiser' Nilsen fought strenuously against any government impost which reduced profits, his preferred tactic being to threaten to close down the mines.

Before 1935 there had been little knowledge of mining among the peoples of Fiji. Nilsen adopted a policy of employing Euronesians, Rotumans and Fijians; only as a last resort did he engage Indians, who demanded higher wages and seemed less tractable. By 1945 large numbers of Fijian residents had acquired skills as miners, planthands and tradesmen, and the first non-European 'shift bosses' had been appointed. After a further ten years most positions in the production division were filled by locals and there were only a few expatriates in the mining division. Nilsen considered that his 'crowning achievement' was in creating 'an efficient team of miners and mill operators', and in establishing a community at Vatukoula in which he took pride. He proved to his own satisfaction 'that the old gulf between employer and employee can be bridged to the advantage of both'.

Nilsen moved to Melbourne in 1949 as chief general manager of the Emperor group. In 1960 he was made a director. He sat on the boards of several mining companies, including King Island Scheelite Ltd, United Uranium N.L., Western Titanium N.L., and Great Boulder Gold Mines Ltd (chairman from 1968). In 1967 he was naturalized. An active member (from 1948) of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, he was elected to its council in 1958 and awarded its medal for 1970. He died on 17 April 1975 in Perth and was cremated; his wife, son and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Parbo, Down Under (Melb, 1992)
  • A. Emberson-Bain, Labour and Gold in Fiji (Cambridge, 1994)
  • Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, Bulletin, no 344, July 1971, supplement
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 June 1968.

Citation details

Jim Howarth, 'Nilsen, Nils Emil (1902–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nilsen-nils-emil-11243/text20051, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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