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Nilsen, Oliver John (1884–1977)

by Geoffrey W. Peel

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

Oliver John Nilsen (1884-1977), radio broadcaster, electrical engineer and lord mayor, was born on 17 August 1884 at Collingwood, Melbourne, posthumous son of Ole Nilsen (d.26 May 1884), a master mariner from Norway, by his Victorian-born wife Christina, née Alexander. Oliver was raised by his Presbyterian grandparents, John Alexander (d.1906), carpenter, and his wife Margaret (d.1903); they had emigrated to Victoria from the Orkney Islands, Scotland.

Educated at Rathdowne Street State School, Carlton, and the Working Men's College, 'O.J.' (as he was known) started work at T. C. Hyde & Co., electrical engineers, in Flinders Street, Melbourne. At the Presbyterian Church, Fitzroy, on 4 September 1907 he married Ethel Margaret Williams. His aptitude for the burgeoning electrical-engineering profession saw him do well, and he gradually bought out the firm in which he was employed. In 1916 he began his own electrical business, Oliver J. Nilsen & Co. (later Oliver J. Nilsen (Australia) Ltd). By 1924 he had moved his operations to 45 Bourke Street. Slim in build and about 5 ft 10 ins (178 cm) tall, he was a hard-driven and successful man whose personality and dedication engendered loyalty from those who worked for him.

Nilsen's professional expertise and interest in the developing broadcasting industry led him to investigate the possibility of establishing a radio station in Melbourne. On 6 February 1925 he was granted the first commercial broadcasting licence in Victoria. Next month he opened radio-station 3UZ in his Bourke Street premises. 3UZ, 'the Voice of Victoria', became a major station, specializing in live performances by musicians, orchestras, comedians, and actors in serials. Nilsen's peers dubbed him the 'Father of Radio' in Melbourne. In 1944 he won the Australian Federation of Commercial Broadcasters' award.

Like many successful radio broadcasters, he was closely involved with the community he served. Nilsen was a keen football follower, fisherman and racegoer. He belonged to numerous organizations, including the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria, Royal Commonwealth Society and Melbourne Cricket Club; his membership of the Danish Club indicated his interest in his Scandinavian heritage. His community spirit found another outlet through the Rotary Club of Melbourne. After joining Rotary in 1932, he remained a member for the rest of his life: he chaired its club service, introduction and fellowship committees, and was a director for three years. In 1964 the club presented him with its inaugural Vocational Service award.

In June 1934, as a candidate for Gipps Ward, Nilsen had been elected to the Melbourne City Council. His professional expertise was immediately put to use with his appointment to the electric-supply committee, on which he served for thirty years. During this period he represented the council on twenty-five other committees or boards, among them that of the Victorian Civil Ambulance Service. In August 1951 he was elected lord mayor. During his year as mayor he campaigned to have the State government partially fund slum clearance in Carlton; he also established a hospitality organization for the 1956 Olympic Games. He contributed enthusiastically to special committees which made arrangements for royal visits in 1954 and 1958. In 1964 he retired from the council.

A long-standing justice of the peace, Nilsen had been appointed C.B.E. in 1956. Oliver J. Nilsen (Australia) Ltd and its vast number of subsidiary companies continued to prosper in broadcasting and manufacturing. The 1960s and early 1970s saw 3UZ heading the Melbourne ratings, with innovative programming, sporting coverage and leading radio personalities. Nilsen's manufactured goods included such diverse products as transformers, bearings, battery chargers, bells, buzzers and gongs, porcelain ware, fuses, insulators and neon signs. As executive-chairman, he gave particular attention to developing markets in South East Asia.

In 1971, at the age of 86, Nilsen stood down as executive-chairman to become president of his company. His son Vic took charge of day-to-day operations. O.J.'s enthusiasm for his broadcasting, industrial and community interests was unabated, although his involvement in them was restricted by ill health. Survived by his son and daughter, he died on 24 October 1977 in East Melbourne and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $1,845,530.

Select Bibliography

  • The Nilsen Story (Melb, no date)
  • Rotary Club of Melbourne, A History of Service 1921-86 (Melb, 1986) and Weekly Bulletin, 2 Sept 1964, 9 Nov 1977 and Annual Report, 1977-78
  • Herald (Melbourne), 21 Jan 1952, 1 July 1953, 1 June, 1 July, 4 Sept 1964, 21 Feb 1967, 29 Nov 1974, 26 Oct 1977
  • Age (Melbourne), 14 Nov 1966, 26 Oct 1977
  • City of Melbourne, Service on Committees Record Book (held by Melbourne City Council) and newsclippings (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • private information.

Citation details

Geoffrey W. Peel, 'Nilsen, Oliver John (1884–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nilsen-oliver-john-11244/text20055, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 December 2014.

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

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