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Wilson, Jack (1905–1972)

by John Lack

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Jack Wilson (1905-1972), engineer and manufacturer, was born on 16 May 1905 at Batley, Yorkshire, England, only child of Dan Wilson, manager of the local co-operative society grocery shop, and his wife Susan Gertrude, née Colbeck. Educated at Purlwell Council and Batley Grammar schools, Jack was apprenticed in 1920 to Ward & Co., electrical and mechanical engineers and contractors; he also attended nearby technical colleges. He became a draftsman in 1924, and later a designer, with the Yorkshire Electric Transformer Co.

Determined to better himself by emigrating, Wilson arrived in Victoria in 1929 and joined the British Electric Transformer Co. (Australia), South Melbourne. He went into business for himself in 1933, manufacturing small transformers in South Melbourne's 'Galvo Country', and moving several times before settling at Port Melbourne in 1938. Expansion was financed by his savings and by loans from friends. Primitive buildings and plant put a premium on improvization and hard labour, but the Wilson Electric Transformer Co. Pty Ltd, formed in 1937 with Jack as managing director, built a reputation for stability and reliability. The 'Chief' commanded the loyalty of his workers by force of personality (he had a fearsome temper and was given to colourful language); they also appreciated his concern for their personal welfare, and his policies of promoting from within, encouraging apprenticeships and providing superannuation.

On 17 June 1939 at All Saints Church of England, St Kilda, Wilson married Dulcie Dorothy Ann Howard, a receptionist; they were childless and divorced in 1946. Commissioned lieutenant, Militia, in December 1940, he transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 7 August 1942 and next month was promoted major, Australian Army Ordnance Corps (later Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers). He served in the Middle East with the (British) 1st Armoured Division (May-December 1943) and performed staff and training duties in Australia before transferring to the Reserve of Officers on 20 June 1945. At the Collins Street Independent Church, Melbourne, on 3 September 1946, he married with Congregational forms 26-year-old Betty Evelyn Webster; they had two sons and a daughter.

Seeking increased capital and larger premises to cope with his obligations to demobilized employees, Wilson extended the firm's British agency work and accepted low profits in order to win large contracts. In 1950 the Wilsons moved to Glen Waverley, where Jack had purchased an 11-acre (4 ha) site to which he transferred the factory and office in 1950-53. For the cramped, inner-city industrial world of second-hand premises, and of close social relations with hard-drinking employees for whom the corner pub was an after-hours annexe, he substituted a purpose-built factory amid market gardens then yielding to raw outer suburbia. Observing his guiding principles—'Specialize, Standardize, Simplify'—the company prospered.

Travelling frequently in the 1950s and 1960s to keep abreast of new technology, Wilson forged strong co-operative relationships with firms in England, New Zealand and Canada. An arrangement with Ferranti Ltd of England enabled Wilson's company to make large-capacity transformers for power utilities and mining and manufacturing enterprises. In 1963 he opened a plant at Clovelly Park, South Australia.

Wilson played a leading role in many peak manufacturing, professional and governmental bodies, including the Australian Electrical Manufacturers' Association; the Standards Association of Australia; the National Association of Testing Authorities, Australia; the Institution of Engineers, Australia; the electrical advisory committee to the minister for supply; the Electrical Research Board; the International Electrotechnical Commission (Australian national committee); and the council of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (Britain). He was also a member of the Australian committee of the Conférence Internationale des Grands Réseaux Électriques.

Locally, Wilson was a councillor (1954-57) and president (1956-57) of Mulgrave Shire and a member of the councils of Jordanville and Syndal technical schools. He was a supporter of the department of electrical engineering at Monash University, for which he supplied equipment and funded prizes, and where he was to be honoured posthumously by the Jack Wilson high voltage laboratory.

Committed to maintaining Australian ownership in the face of global rationalization, mergers and takeovers in the electrical industry, Wilson deplored as a form of financial totalitarianism 'the colonization of good, sound, profitable Australian industries by overseas and particularly U.S.A. interests'. In declining health from 1966 and concerned by the question of his succession (his elder son Robert was only 18 that year), he contemplated selling the business, but resolved instead that the enterprise would continue and remain independent. Survived by his wife and their two sons, Wilson died of a coronary occlusion on 30 March 1972 at Glen Waverley and was cremated with Methodist forms. His flourishing company, then employing three hundred people, has remained (as Wilson Transformer Co. Pty Ltd, under Robert's management from 1979) the largest Australian-owned manufacturer of power and distribution transformers. A 1970 portrait of Jack Wilson by Paul Fitzgerald hangs in the Glen Waverley office.

Select Bibliography

  • R. S. McNaught, Wilson Transformer (Melb, 1983)
  • private information.

Citation details

John Lack, 'Wilson, Jack (1905–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilson-jack-12047/text20177, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 October 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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